By Suzanne Roberts, ©1964
Julie Dodd was in love with David Stace, the boy next door, ever since she could remember. When he studied to become a doctor, Julie decided that nursing would be her career so that their work would bring them together. And that is exactly what happened. Then Chad, a handsome folk singer, came into her life, and suddenly there was a new song in her heart.
“Julie walked as fast as she dared down the hall, pressed the elevator button, and hoped on the brief ride that she still had a bit of lipstick on.”
“ ‘All right,’ Julie said crisply, asserting her authority as on-duty nurse in Emergency. ‘Let’s get those last two out of the hall. That boy with the harmonica, too.’ ”
“Julie’s hands were shaking as she gathered up her purse and the library book on disturbed children she wanted to renew.”
“Losing a dream can sometimes be as hard as losing someone you love.”
If you are a fan of this genre, you’ve surely been waiting for Hootenanny Nurse. I must confess that I let out a small shriek when I saw this book in Kayo Books, the fabulous vintage book shop in San Francisco. (Florence Stonebraker once lived in the apartment building across the street, for added VNRN thrills!) I promise, you will never find a book in which the word hootenanny is used so frequently, which has its ups and downs. It’s way too much to expect that this book could live up to such an outrageous title, and I’m sorry to report that it doesn’t possess anywhere near the camp factor you’re probably hoping for. But it does offer up a few laughs, so it’s not a complete waste of time.
Nurse Julie Dodd is a student nurse in her final year at a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s nervous about doing a stint in the ED, though the supervisor tells her not to worry: “Some nights we only get a few phony suicides that need a good stomach wash, and then we send them home. Hysterical women, mostly.” Julie’s true calling is up on the child psych ward, because she more than the other nurses realizes that all these psychotic kids need is “love and comfort and soft words and kisses,” and soon they’re all behaving and there are no more incidents like the one where a schizophrenic boy broke into a medicine cabinet and attacked a nurse with a surgical knife.
Her boyfriend—you knew there was one—is David Stace, who grew up barefoot next door, on a ramshackle farm crowded with too many children. At fourteen, she’d been trying to figure out what she wanted from life—“somehow, just falling in love didn’t seem to be enough.” So when David declared a pre-med major, she signed up for nursing school so they could start a clinic in their poor hometown together. But as he nears the end of school, David buys an expensive car on credit and starts taking her to expensive restaurants, and soon he’s talking of setting up shop in Chicago. Well, she doesn’t think much of this at all! So she smoothes down her uniform and her pride and says, “I want whatever you want, of course.” She spends a lot of time seething about it, but “she didn’t want to be a nagging, pushy wife. She wanted to be, as she’d been all these years, deeply in love with him, letting him make the decisions, and glad that he did.”
Then a bus holding a group of folk singers rolls over, and now they’re encamped on the hospital’s fourth floor. She goes up to visit them and strikes up a conversation with the lead folkie, Chad. Soon she’s singing along with them on an impromptu “folk singing whing-ding.” “I think we’ve found ourselves a regular little Hootenanny Nurse!” Chad says. Before long, Chad is kissing her and talking about having kids. Run, Julie, run! But alas, she is another VNRN heroine without an ounce of sense.
Chad makes an appearance under her window with his guitar and asks her to join his group. They’re finally well enough to leave the hospital to go on tour, but he’s calling her every night and pressuring her to tell her she loves him. She hates the weakness inside herself that “made her cling to Chad, and yes—David. David still, and her parents, and yet she felt as if she didn’t belong with any of them.” Fortunately she has those schizophrenic kids to help cheer her up. Little Maryjo is blooming, thanks to a rag doll that Julie sat up all night sewing for her. “Honestly, Julie, without you, I think that kid would still be sitting up in bed, screaming and needing medication every four hours to calm her!” the ward nurse tells her. “All she needed was love and attention.”
She invites Chad and the gang to her parents’ house for Christmas, and when she gets off the plane, Chad is there to meet her: “We’ve got a Christmas Eve hootenanny going full blast!” He proposes to her, and she accepts, for the best of reasons: “If I don’t marry him, someone else will! And I may end up all alone, an unmarried nurse, just like some of them I’ve seen—with no place to go at night when I get off duty except a lonely little apartment and a TV set for company!” But when she goes back to the hospital wearing his tiny diamond and he goes back on tour, he’s peeved that she has to work and can’t talk to him on the phone. He calls constantly when she’s supposed to be studying for her final exams, sometimes after hours when could get in trouble for being on the phone. Then she goes to visit him one weekend in Memphis and one of the singers comes down with appendicitis, and Julie takes her place in the big solo number, “My Butternut Tree.” She’s a smash hit, of course, so now on weekends she’s performing with the group. “And if a small, nagging doubt, a bit of sadness, came to her now and then, she pushed it back firmly.” There’s a big TV performance coming up, after all, and graduation, and then a wedding to plan: “What more could a girl ask?”
So when graduation is all over and Julie is just about to leave the hospital forever, she learns that little Maryjo, who Julie has been too busy to say goodbye to, has gone missing. Julie misses the big performance in Atlanta to help find her, hiding in the locker where she’d left an old uniform. Despite this little setback, she decides that Maryjo is “nearly well! And Julie realized, with a sudden stab of pride, that she was responsible for Maryjo’s complete change.” So she puts on that old uniform again, “and quite suddenly, without any more struggle, worrying, heartbreak, Julie knew she had found her answer. A wonderful, deep meaning had come into her life.” She calls Chad to dump him: “I can’t leave those children!” she tells him, and tomorrow she’ll talk to the superintendent about getting a permanent job on the children’s ward. And then there’s intern Mike Farrell, a “short, homely young man with unruly, sandy-colored hair and steady, mature gray eyes,” who’s been helping in the search. He offers to buy her a cup of coffee, and Julie thinks, “This too, might be a beginning,” and the two of them walk off together into the elevator.
This is the first nurse romance that doesn’t end with the heroine’s love life completely sewn up, and I have to say that was a nice break. But overall I was not won over by Julie’s spinelessness and her constant obsessing about what to do, what to do? Chad was kind of a creepy character, but she can’t see him for the controlling manipulator that he really is, even if she does leave him in the end. The hootenanny shtick can be amusing, but the constant pounding on this one note makes it a bit wearing in the end. You may not come away exactly singing its praises, but if you must read Hootenanny Nurse, it’s not a complete flop.