Cover illustration by Dave Attie
“I’m a nurse, not a woman,” said Kristine. “I’ve resolved never to marry—never to have a child. I’m a good nurse—I’ll stay one. I’m not going to be a woman.” But to Captain Jim Dudley, whose life she had saved, and to Dr. Bowen, Chief of Staff, Kristine was far more than a nurse—she was a beautiful woman—a woman to be loved.
“People with imagination turned around to look at Kristine, in the subway or on a crowded city street.”
“What’s the use of being a good nurse, since I haven’t got eighteen-karat hair and big blue eyes? Nothing else seems to count, with patients or doctors either!”
“Many nurses at Samaritan had learned to make allowances for a physically unattractive girl’s jealousy, rooted in her inferiority complex.”
“You’re like a rock. Why can’t all women be fit and fine and adequate—not just physically but in other ways? Why do they think helplessness attractive?”
“Nothing seemed to hard, no personal peril—hers had not ended—mattered a whit, if this petty, stupid woman could be made whole again.”
“A nurse knew too much of the strength of sex drives to dismiss them as unforgivable sins. A nurse went too far behind the scenes of human nature to be surprised by any revelation of its baseness.”
“Her professional pride disliked being reminded that nurses can display as much stupidity, vulgarity and petty animosity as any other mortal.”
“Love and marriage and motherhood are three reasons why a woman must live.”
Kristine Grant is a 22-year-old New York City nurse who has vowed never to get involved with anyone, because her parents died when she was a girl. “The only way to be emotionally secure is not to form personal ties,” she tells her pneumonia patient, Captain Jim Dudley. “I’ll help people who suffer, but I won’t—I won’t—be hurt again. I shall never love anyone. I shall never marry.” We’ll just see about that!
Jim is not like her other patients. Well, he is in that he immediately tumbles for the long-limbed Norse goddess of a nurse. But his love, unlike the spurious fancy that most male patients soon forget, is real: He worries about her working too hard taking care of him. He sends her gifts with personal significance, asks her about herself—but he never kisses her. Eventually he explains that there’s another woman, and when he leaves the hospital he will go disentangle himself and then come back to her. Kristine is quite smitten with this handsome, intelligent, devoted gentleman—as, indeed, so are we—but is convinced she will soon fade from his mind.
So now it’s back to nursing while she doesn’t wait for Jim to come back. Kristine goes to Quebec—one of author Ms. Marshall’s favorite places (she had a home there)—to nurse a recovering morphine addict, on vacation to Belltown (a stand-in for Kingston, the small New Hampshire town where Marshall grew up, and where we meet characters the author has illustrated previously in her not–nurse novel Salt of the Earth), then back to New York to nurse a case of psittacosis, a bird-borne illness that was at that time almost universally fatal (turns out the right antibiotic will put it to a quick end!). While Kristine is on that job, Chief of Staff Lee Bowen, at 45 more than twice her age, tells her that he’s in love with her and begs her to marry him. She trots out her childhood heartbreak: “You say I’m a good nurse—I’ll stay one! I’m not going to be a woman!”
But Dr. Bowen is not to be dissuaded, and with one sentence turns Kristine completely around: “This obsession of yours—for a girl like yourself it’s defeat, spineless surrender to the victory of the grave. You belong to life!” And now, suddenly, she knows she should get married, after all. But though she dates Dr. Bowen, she cannot bring herself to love him and tells him so. But he’s OK with that, he says; he wants to marry her anyway. She’s still holding out for Jim, however, until a young Italian woman lands on the OB ward, saying that the father of her child is Capt. Jim Dudley!!! That bastard! The man, I mean, not the baby. Kristine writes Jim a letter telling him that she cannot marry a man who would leave his child—and the mother of same—so cruelly, and that she is going to marry Dr. Bowen. He responds that she has condemned him without hearing his side of the story, denies ever having met the young woman, and says he will never see her again. She’s beside herself in misery over what she recognizes is the accuracy of his charges—made all the worse because her betrothed, Dr. Bowen, has committed suicide over a scandal that was about to be made public.
Now what is she to do? “A man wishing to make amends for a wrong could take the initiative and go to a woman; reverse the case and she could not run about town after him.” I’m not sure why, but double standards apparently abounded 70 years ago. So Kristine books a passage to Bermuda on the ship he is captaining. Now it’s just a question of catching him alone so that all can be set to right. You know exactly what is going to happen, but the writing is so exquisite that you experience Kristine’s tension and misery for pages before the crucial scene comes to pass—not to mention your own misery with the realization that another Marguerite Mooers Marshall book is nearing its end.
Marshall is a truly talented writer, easily one of the best VNRN authors out there. Her writing is smart, sophisticated, and picturesque, and her description of the vacation Kristine spends in New Hampshire has me packing my bags—if only I could get to that fictional place and time (though I am definitely going to shop for Salt of the Earth). Marshall only wrote four nurse novels that I’m aware of, much to my chagrin, three of which we’ve already enjoyed. But these four are certainly books one could read more than once, not something I would say about many vintage nurse novels.