(pseud. Jeanne Judson), ©1956
As simply as that, Nurse Marian Rutledge prescribed for the people of Bridgetown. There was Marian’s brother Clive, who frequently thought that something—or someone—was missing from his life. And Alberta Thwaits, who withdrew into one small corner of a dusty, rundown mansion. Or Olive Cressett, a timid spinster, whose domineering mother constantly “protected” her from unhappiness—and men. For these, Nurse Marian could make quick diagnoses—and find just the right cures. But for herself, she was as helpless as any other woman in love.
“Science ought to be the tool of the doctor. Instead, many modern doctors are the slaves of science. They depend too much on gadgetry and the discoveries of the research chemists. We laugh at the doctors who two hundred years ago and less used to bleed everyone, no matter what their ailment. I dare say bleeding was good for a man suffering from too much roast beef and port wine, but it killed the people with tuberculosis. Just yesterday almost every doctor was giving penicillin to everyone with anything from a head cold to double pneumonia. Anyone with average intelligence can get though medical school. It’s how you apply your knowledge afterward that counts.”
This book snuck up on me. Part of the disguise was the similarity between its cover and that of Nurse against the Town, which was pretty bad. Also I didn’t recognize the author’s name, which is actually a pen name of one of my favorite VNRN authors, Jeanne Judson (do not miss the delightful Visiting Nurse and City Nurse). So I was gently pulled into its spell, and I got possibly even as far as chapter five before I realized with a start that Small Town Nurse is a true gem.
Nurse Marian Rutledge has returned home to visit her brother Clive, 11 years older than she, who is a widower and GP in—guess—a small town, Bridgetown, Pennsylvania. He’s been a widower for five years, so he has a battle axe of a housekeeper, Mrs. Doughty, who has no first name and feels that every item of furniture should be pushed against a wall, and that every table must have a doily on it. Soon after arriving, Marian is enlisted to help with an auction that will raise funds for the town’s first hospital. And before long, she’s convinced to quit her job—she works in a tuberculosis sanitarium—and sign on as nurse for the other town doc, Thomas Labadie. He’s a no-nonsense sort, nice to children, “but that was probably just professional geniality,” Marian thinks. “As a human being, he left much to be desired—unimaginative and utterly without a saving sense of humor.” For Clive’s part, he thinks Tom “would expect the woman he married to carry her own weight. He ought to marry a girl who would stand up to him, fight for her rights and maybe make him a little ashamed of himself now and then. It would do Tom Labadie good to meet a woman like that.” Now, just who could that woman be? Hmmm.
Tom’s secretary, Alberta Thwaits, is in love with her boss, but he “was no more impressed with her than he was with the files she kept so neatly.” Marian, fearing Alberta will dislike her as a potential rival for the doctor, works hard to win Alberta over by encouraging her to come over and redecorate Clive’s house, much to Mrs. Doughty’s horror. The two quickly become fast friends, and their decorating efforts are fun to watch, as is their work on the auction. There’s a big dance at the auction’s end, when Marian becomes deliriously ill with pneumonia, and the scene is written with such subtle brilliance that it calls to my mind the time David Copperfield gets drunk (the passage is quoted here).
This is the best sort of VNRN, in which the story focuses on the heroine and her life with her friends, her battles and her victories. The characters here are delightful—I haven’t even mentioned the horsey next-door neighbor, Norma Thomas, and her invalid father, Judge Thomas, who dispense humor and wisdom with both hands—and Mrs. Doughty’s replacement, an enormous black woman named Abby Cameron, a genius in the kitchen who is recognized as such and highly respected for her talents. (She does tend to talk in the heavily stylized vernacular of black VNRN domestics, unfortunately, which does make me cringe.) The writing and the story are gentle, with an easy humor that doesn’t really translate to the Best Quotes section well, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. The only drawback to the book is that Marian essentially collapses in a lovesick swoon into the arms of a man she has not much liked up until the last few pages, but I will overlook that one quibble since we foresaw this ending long ago, and Ms. Judson gets it over quick and concludes the book with an amusing little joke. All in all, Small Town Nurse emphatically cements Jeanne Judson’s reputation as one of the very best VNRN authors on my shelf.