Sunday, June 4, 2023

Prison Nurse

By William Neubauer, ©1962
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

Young Nurse Vivian’s heart went out to the inmates at Clairmount County Correctional Facility. She knew that a good nurse had to be unemotional, but she also knew that behind those forbidding walls young girls were being treated like animals! In the hospital recuperating from a near fatal clubbing she had received at the hands of some would-be-escapees, Vivian found herself the center of city-wide attention. Newspaper editorials lauded her heroism; the Mayor himself came to her bedside to bestow civic awards. But when Vivian argued that the Facility ought to rehabilitate its inmates instead of brutalizing them, the young nurse made a powerful enemy of the Mayor whose plans called for closing the Facility and shipping the girls off to adult prisons. It would take every bit of Vivian’s courage and determination and the dedicated help of her fiancé—a young lawyer who represented a group in opposition to the Mayor’s program—to save, and help the inmates who knew Vivian Hartwell as their Prison Nurse.


“A degree or a badge simply announces to the world that you have received a certain measure of education and training.” 

“Too bad you have a heart. It does get you into trouble.”

“The best years of almost any woman’s life are those between fifteen and twenty-one. It’s the time for dates, for conquests at dances.”

“I’m strictly cornball. Daddy, you’ll have to let me buy some shorts. All the kids are wearing them. I won’t be embarrassed like this!”

“Does it matter if a rattlesnake bites you because he’s bored or because he’s mean or because he don’t know better?”

“We must examine this brain. We eliminate the consciousness, the resistance. We address ourselves to the subconscious mind. We record. We study. We untangle the tangled. Then into the world one day there walks the finest of creations, a sane woman.”

“I read somewhere that a successful man always has a woman behind him. I’ve simply got to get me some woman behind me.”

As part of her regular hospital duty, Nurse Vivian Hartwell spends two days a week at the Clairmount County Correctional Facility for Girls in Washington state. It’s a harsh place, complete with solitary confinement, ugly gray uniforms and lockstep marching to chow, “grinding discipline for those who have not grown accustomed to the disciplines of study and work.” Vivian, however, has other ideas, that the kids should have “punishment, yes; discipline, yes; but as a mother punishes her child—with understanding, not vindictiveness. They are at the Facility to be rehabilitated, not to pay grim penalties for heinous crimes.” When Vivian is assaulted while stopping a prison break long enough for the escapees to be caught, she doesn’t decide that maybe the bitches deserve what they get; rather, the fame of her heroism gives her a platform to express her unchanged philosophy. “When you treat children like criminals you convince them they’re criminals. And when you demonstrate to children that society is harsh, even brutal, you don’t create women who will love society,” she explains. “I just hate to see anyone denied a fair chance to become an average woman. Very emotional, I know, but there it is.” Unfortunately her opinions are not well-supported by the town mayor, who blackmails the hospital chief by threatening to veto the city’s funding for the hospital if Vivian isn’t fired for speaking out. 

When told of the chief’s awkward position, Vivian nobly quits her job. Hospital staff who will be assigned to the Facility now that she is no longer there to do it become concerned about their own safety at the Facility and refuse to work there, so Vivian is hired as full-time nurse at the prison. There she interacts a lot with 15-year-old Alicia Malone, who is in for assault and who appears to be constantly plotting her escape, which pretty much everyone should realize.

The mayor, meanwhile, is plotting to close the Facility because he believes that having a prison in town stunts business interest and community growth; he wants to sell the facility’s land to an electronics corporation for a factory that would create new jobs. He’s thwarted at every turn, though, by Vivian’s crusading, which results in, among other things, the mayor’s daughter Hazel being elected president of the Friendly Sisters club, which collects dresses for the prisoners so they can look nice—the first step toward better living through fashion—as well as funds to send the inmates to professional school upon their release. “The world is tough enough even for a well-dressed gal,” notes the mayor’s own secretary, who goes on to deliver a lovely speech to him about how Vivian, who has heart and the courage of her convictions, will triumph in the end because she has ideals and he does not. You kind of have to feel sorry for the poor guy.

Alicia Malone continues to bide her time, meanwhile, watching the relaxing guard. Vivian knows this, but is unable to convince Alicia that an escape attempt would just buy her more time in confinement. “But they had to break it up. The Friendly Sisters came to the infirmary, the last stop on their protracted tour. Candy for the patients! Cologne for the patients! And Alicia smiling sweetly upon one and all saying, ‘Honest to God, I sincerely mean this is just the nicest afternoon of my life.’ Meanwhile the mind of Alicia was going clank, clank, clank in a never-ending, relentless sort of way.” And Alicia does escape, in an ingenious way—but Vivian is just as ingenious, and saves the day—and the kid, which you knew would happen. She even plays her war with the mayor, brilliantly tidying up the mess. Then it’s “back to the jute mill! Walk the million miles, soothe the uncomfortable, close the eyes of the dead. Wonderful life.”

The most bizarre thing about Vivian as a character is that throughout the book she keeps insisting that she’s really not that interested in nursing. “I’m not the dedicated type, I’m afraid,” she lies. “I enjoy being a nurse. I enjoy being useful. I enjoy the prestige of being in a profession. But I want more than a glorious life of service. I long to have a husband, children, a middle-class home, a nice car, fine clothes, even a jewel or two.” And of course she scores a diamond from her lawyer beau, Bill, at the end, when he graciously agrees, “you won’t have to quit until you want to.” Thanks!

The book also includes a paragraph that I have to wonder is autobiographical: “She bummed a ride from a crippled man who’d come to the clinic to be measured for a new leg brace. The man had obviously contracted polio when just a child. His torso was abnormally burly, but he had an abdominal sag and looked pathetically shrunken from the waist down. He lived at peace with his handicap, however. ‘Always glad to give a little nurse a helping hand. Makes up for the bad times I used to give them when I was a kid. In this boys’ ward I was in, we were always playing tricks on the nurses. Like once for a nurse’s birthday, we packed a white rat in a box and wrapped the box real pretty.’” (Remember that author William Neubauer contracted polio as a child and walked with braces and crutches his whole life; read more about this fascinating man here.)

This is a truly fun book. The characters are well-drawn, compelling and complex. The nursing supervisor—author Neubauer has a real soft spot for nursing supervisors—is a crisp but lovable woman who is always delivering maxims with a twinge of humor such as, “Hartwell, do you know why I constantly remind you a nurse is never emotional? Emotionalism is a lack of discipline. An undisciplined mind rarely copes effectively with emergencies of any type. Tears in your eyes? Tell me, Hartwell, could you assist at surgery right now? Of course not.” The plot has a few twists at the end that you actually could not have predicted, but it’s not too confusing—which admittedly can happen in a Neubauer book—to follow. I am a big fan of William Neubauer, who was a truly interesting individual and a great writer, and in Prison Nurse he has completely lived up to my confidence in his abilities.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

New Orleans Nurse

By Diana Douglas 
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1974
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

When beautiful Melinda Fontane Excepted a new assignment during Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, she found her patient to be a charming, if enigmatic, man. She could not understand the veil of secrecy which surrounded his case. But when the doctor in attendance turned out to be handsome Garth Woodward, an old friend of Melinda’s, she was warned that her patient was a target for murder, and that she, too, could be in danger. That was all Garth would tell her, but he kept a close watch on his lovely young assistant—close enough to rekindle Melinda’s deep feeling for him. Then, suddenly, midst the swelling frenzy of the Mardi Gras, all disguise is dropped, and Melinda learned to the real identity of her mysterious patient—and discovered to the true face of love …





“First time I have ever had an attractive nurse to sit up with me, and I’m put to sleep.”


“I’m used to wounds. Remind me to show you my scars sometime.”



I am generally not a fan of nurse novels written in the 1970s, nor am I fan of author Richard Wilkes-Hunter. So this novel, which falls into both categories, was not likely to impress. It lived up to my expectations. Melinda Fontane is a nurse from New Orleans who once had a crush on Dr. Garth Woodward. They had dated briefly, but then he had gone off to start his private practice, and she had quit the hospital in favor of private nursing, leaving no forwarding address. They meet completely by accident when she is hired to care for the same patient he is watching over, a mysterious Mr. Wallace who has multiple sclerosis. Garth immediately tells her that he had tried to track her down but had been unable to find her—and she is strangely angry when he says that he thought she might work for him in his office. “So that was the only way he thought of her—as a nurse. Wasn’t that typical!” So she is particularly chilly to him every time they meet, which is guaranteed to win him back.


She—and also the readers—are given little information about the patient, apart from the fact that he has MS and therefore should not be driving and apparently needs constant vigilance lest he actually try to do something for himself, which will apparently set off a relapse. This is another one of those instances of VNRN “medicine” where the treatment may be worse than the disease. We also find out that Mr. Wallace has quite the coterie of government agents guarding him from an assassination attempt. But Mr. Wallace is a terrible patient—and an even worse person to try to guard—as he is constantly ducking out for adventures like lunch in New Orleans with his nurse in tow. On the luncheon escapade, Melinda drops by Garth’s office only to meet his very pretty office nurse Lisa, and immediately becomes enraged by the fact that Garth has been known to lunch at the intimate little bistro nearby. “His receptionist had been with him, Melinda decided jealously. She was sure of it.” That bastard!


So she subjects him to more unjustified needling, but the man bravely takes her aside and asks her what he has done to annoy her. She makes a number of snippy remarks that paint a clear picture of her jealousy, and he explains that though he has been out with Lisa, he does not care for her the way he does for Melinda. Unfortunately, she still cannot bring herself to be anything but horrible, and he is on the verge of giving up and walking off when at the very last minute she pulls herself together and begs him to come on the deep-sea fishing trip that Mr. Wallace is planning—though it is sure to cause a relapse!—and he accepts.

This is actually one of the more enjoyable parts of the book, as it appears that from author Wilkes-Hunter’s descriptions that he actually knew something about and greatly enjoyed the sport. Melinda herself is quite the expert and teaches Garth to fish, and he lands a 250-pound marlin. But he still doesn’t have much in the way of sea legs and nearly falls overboard, snagged at the last minute by Melinda. “But she finished up in his arms against the cabin wall. There did not seem to be anywhere either of them wanted to go from there, and someone had to take the initiative, so she did,” we are told in a cute turn of phrase. She gives him a “victor’s kiss” that quickly threatens to get out of hand until a speedboat sweeps in from out of nowhere and begins shooting at the party, wounding one of Mr. Wallace’s security guards.

Then it’s back to the mansion, where Melinda is attending Mr. Wallace, who swears this time, “I would not endanger you or any of the others again,” as he folds away the day’s newspaper headlined “1973 Mardi Gras Best Ever.” No one in this entire organization has the brains of a gnat, including Mr. Wallace, who continually falls for the stupidest ploys by the bad guys to capture him. Off to Mardi Gras he sneaks, with the car of security guards and Melinda in hot pursuit. Naturally she is the one who finds him—and he is easily lured into a trap and captured by the evil villains. Honestly, they could have pulled up in a white van and asked him if he wanted to see a phone booth full of candy around the corner and he would have climbed right in.


Everything turns out exactly as you know it will, with little excitement, clever writing, humor, or intelligence. Melinda has the unfortunate tendency to get pissy about inconsequential incidents, and is barely redeemed by her real strength of character—she always stands up for herself and her patient, and her extreme competence at boating and deep-sea fishing is the cherry on top. The “secret” of the ending is telegraphed on the first page, and it’s a long 157 pages to finally wind it up. Only four of the 14 VNRNs by Richard Wilkes-Hunter that I’ve reviewed have earned better grades than this one, but with a C+, it’s still, unfortunately, not a book you’ll likely want to bother with—and not even the Best Ever Mardi Gras is going to change that.



Saturday, May 20, 2023

Nurse Craig

By Marcia Ford
(pseud. Ruby L. Radford), ©1953
Also published as Dixie Nurse

When Nancy Craig set her heart on becoming a nurse, she had no idea of the petty intrigues that surround a large hospital, nor did she realize that a pretty young nurse is often at the mercy of a tyrannical and frustrated supervisor. Unjustly fired from the hospital, Nancy returned to her hometown, leaving behind all her dreams—and the man she loved. But a new life opened up for Nancy when she became the private nurse to a wealthy elderly woman who, because of her generosity, enabled Nancy to build a children’s hospital and to make her biggest dream come true.


“You could make a dying man get well with that smile.” 

“Nancy’s heart always ached for a man at a time like this. There was so little that they could do to help, and their emotions were generally so inhibited by a fear of seeming weak that she knew they must suffer even more than a woman.”

Nancy Craig wants to be a pediatrics nurse, but no positions ever seem to open up. She spent her first year after graduating doing private duty nursing, then accepted a job at Downer Hospital, where she did her training, in the hope of improving her chances if a pediatrics job becomes available. Unfortunately, there she must suffer at the bony hands of Miss Phillips, the bitter spinster head nurse whose unrequited love for Dr. Barrow has transformed her into a crabapple. She especially hates Nancy because Dr. Barrow has taken an avuncular interest in Nancy’s career for years, and when a patient of Nancy’s vomits one morning, Miss Phillips whisks the vomitus off to the lab for analysis (it was not the salmon mousse)—and when the results are in, she declares that Nancy has given the patient the wrong medicine and fires her on the spot!

Nancy believes that she did not make a mistake—which means that Dr. Barrow, who had changed the patient’s medication order that morning—must have goofed his orders, but that “might ruin his reputation as a physician if it became known,” because no doctor has ever made a mistake before. Curiously, Nancy decides that rather than clear her name, or even have a conversation with Dr. Barrow to alert him to his possible error—which, left unaddressed, will only be repeated—she will take the blame for him, and decides to pack her bags and head back to her home town.

That means she is leaving Dr. Terry Fenton, the hard-working but dirt-poor pediatrician she has fallen for. He is one of those dopes who decides, “I can’t even look at a girl, or think of having a home of my own till I’m free of debt.” At least Nancy has the gumption to snap, “No girl would be worth having if she wasn’t willing to take you as you are!” and when he answers that his wife shouldn’t have to work, she bats that away with equal aplomb: “Oh, be your age, Terry! Suppose the girl doesn’t want to give up her career any more than you do? All women want to work and be independent these days.” You do have to admire Nurse Nancy Craig.

Except that she also has some annoying tendencies, such as to be a bit, well, uptight. When Terry comes to dinner at Nancy’s house, she—and her entire family, it must be confessed—is horrified when the maid brings a dishpan to the dinner table to clear the dishes. She also has a tendency to get very snappish at poor Terry at the least provocation, such as when he asks about other young men in her orbit—which she should, of course, take as driven by jealousy and seek to reassure the poor boy, but instead, “she was seething too much inside to trust herself to speak.”

Not long after she’s home, her father drops of a heart attack, and then she and the doctor conspire to finish him off by not allowing him to even sit up in bed for a month—even playing with his stamp collection is deemed too strenuous, and if the man doesn’t throw a major pulmonary embolism, it won’t be her fault. So she stays on for weeks, spoon-feeding Dad and reading him the newspaper. Nursing is hard work! But finally Dr. Barrow steps in to offer her a job nursing wealthy Mrs. Marshall (the poor dear has no first name) back in Summerton, so she can go home to her apartment—and Dr. Terry. There she gives vitamin B-12 shots and makes the woman take naps twice a day. And she dates Mrs. Marshall’s grandson Bert, who is a nice young man but something of an adventurer, and so has no appeal to Nancy—but he’s rich and handsome, and soon insecure Dr. Terry is convinced that Nancy is going to marry Bert, or Dr. Barrow. Nancy, of course, doesn’t help the man at all when he voices his concerns, snapping, “Why should I miss a good dinner or a show, to sit home waiting for the telephone to ring?” before gathering her “seething emotions” around her like a fox fur stole and flouncing out.

It’s not hard to figure out how the book is going to end—even if it weren’t telegraphed on the back cover blurb—and though that’s not a fatal flaw, the final scene lands pretty flat. Nancy herself is an admirable character, but the situations in the book often seem so flimsily contrived, with over-the-top reactions to a mild situation (such as Nancy’s horror that her sister Ellen wrote to Dr. Terry! The slut!). The story unrolls with few details of interest outside of the litigious way they practice medicine (Nancy saves a woman from strychnine poisoning by giving her morphine), and there’s just not much here to keep one’s interest. You could do worse, but if that’s not a great reason to read this book, I don’t have much else to offer you.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Nurse and the Star

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963

Star Disappears after Romantic Fiasco Exposed: Hollywood – The Eve Stacy-Rix Blake romance fell apart “live” on coast-to-coast TV last night. In an unexpected bit of audience participation, Blake’s wife rushed on stage and claimed her man. Miss Stacy left quickly and her mysterious whereabouts are still unknown … Where was Eve Stacy? There were fantastic stories, lies, rumors. Everybody guessed, but nobody knew for sure—nobody except Kay Harrell, R.N. Deep in the tropics, Kay thought she was rid of “Eve Stacy” forever. But how long could she hide her glamorous past when the handsome, cynical Dr. Fleming was more than just curious?


“How’d we ever luck onto anybody that looks like you to work in this Back o’ Beyond?” 

“What a perfectly loathsome get-up! You should go on strike against wearing such hideous garb. It’s revolting!”

“The big shots who are so important, swaying vast companies, throwing their weight around, shattering empires with their lightest word. But strip ’em down to a hospital gown and tuck ’em into bed, and they are sniveling babies, as any nurse knows.”

“Being in love is not a gloriously happy experience.”

Nurse Kay Harrell is one of numerous VNRN heroines who’d had the accursed luck of being noticed by a Hollywood director and become, briefly, a rising starlet. This detour is not one that readers will understand, because it doesn’t sound like anything Kay had especially wanted or enjoyed: “She had been like a creature molded of wax, pulled and pushed and twisted this way and that. Often, after the wardrobe department had finished with her, she looked in the mirror and felt quite sure that the seductive, alluring creature that looked back at her couldn’t possibly be Kay Harrell. And of course she wasn’t.” But she hadn’t been alone; the publicity department had fabricated a romance for her with also-rising Rix Blake, and we are given no hint of Kay’s feelings toward him except that when his heretofore unknown wife turns up, Kay had fled Hollywood and taken a job at Mercy Hospital on an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly the Dominican Republic).

Here she instantly develops a deep, boundless hatred for Dr. Anson Fleming, who absolutely deserves it. Aware of her past (despite the lying cover lines), he is convinced that she has come to the island with no other purpose in mind except to seduce Dr. Richard Marston, the wealthy hospital chief who happens to be married. It might help that Valerie Marston is an unbelievably horrible person half his age, one who despises the hospital and the island, and appears to have a severe untreated personality disorder, screeching during her introduction to Kay, “I hate it here! I hate it!s And I’m beginning to hate you!” before falling tear-stained into her husband’s arms and whimpering, “I didn’t mean that, Lover! I adore you! I couldn’t live without you, even if you do keep me locked up in this horrible place with all these horrible natives.”

Kay could never interest Dr. Marston, we are told, because the man is hopelessly devoted to his wife: He “just worships the ground she walks on” even if everyone admits she is “a child,” mentally about 16, who “lives in a dream world she created herself and is very cross if anyone tries to slip in a faint hint of reality.” Valerie is also the most frighteningly racist character I have ever encountered in a VNRN (I cannot reprint the truly despicable lines she utters in this book) who has somehow managed to convince her “Mammy,” who is a native of this country, to come with her and suffer her patronizing insults and serve as housekeeper and cook, finally proving satisfactory after months of training: “Now she does what she is told,” Valerie triumphantly reports. Another success for the patriarchy.

Dr. Fleming—who casually lets drop early on that he was in prison for a year for malpractice, a startling detail that is immediately dropped, never to be seen again—takes every opportunity to all but call Kay a slut every time she passes Dr. Marston a kelly clamp or goes for a walk alone at night, even threatening her “unless you’d like to have your neck broken, stay away from the chief!” Pretty much everyone at Mercy Hospital is insane—as is Kay for continuing to work there.

Dr. Fleming concocts a weird idea that he and Kay should pretend they are in love so that Dr. Marston won’t leave his wife; somehow it seems he believes that Dr. Marston would not trespass on another man’s woman even if he has no qualms about straying from his own wife. It only takes Kay 40 pages to let everyone know this is not true. Then there are vague mentions of voodoo, about the only explanation of which we are given is that it is “a very real and very filthy evil” and somehow the hospital is battling voodoo with modern medicine. Then a woman shows up with her husband, who has been cursed by Old Nick, the local witch doctor, who tied a rope around the man’s leg that no one bothered to remove so now gangrene has set in and the man dies. Old Nick starts hanging around the hospital in a mask at night, apparently after the man’s wife, and now half the staff has fled in fright. Valerie’s “mammy” Maria departs as well, but not before delivering a sound telling off to Kay: “You come here, you treat us like dirt. This is our country. You come here and want to make slaves of us again. Did we ask for your help? Did we send for you? Did we ask you to treat us like we are not humans? You come, you force your ways on us. You tell us all that we do, all that came before you were here, the way we live, is wrong. No, we did not send for you. Go away and leave us to our own ways.” Maria is the smartest, most honest, and most clear-eyed character in the book.

But everyone Kay tells this to only sneers or laughs that probably most of the natives are glad for the help. They wouldn’t know because they never asked—nor are they likely to start inquiring now—but what a shocking thing for the outrageous old biddy to say! “Why the blazes don’t we get out and let them wallow in their poverty and disease and superstition?” snaps one doctor’s wife—and then she decides to train the wife of Old Nick’s deceased victim to become Dr. Marston’s new maid. “She’s so eager to learn and grateful to all of us. So why don’t we give her Maria’s job? She’d take loving care of the chief.” Another problem with ungrateful staff solved!

Kay eventually breaks down and tells the unbalanced Dr. Fleming that she loves him, so at best she wins points for assertiveness, but there’s absolutely no reason why she should love such a dangerously unstable person, any more than she had for loving Rix, or abandoning Hollywood in such an extreme fashion just because a fake romance was publicly revealed as exactly that. The only thing that could possibly make any sense of Kay’s flight and Dr. Fleming’s horrible treatment of her is if, in an earlier draft of the book, Kay had actually had an affair with Rix and was fleeing the scandal when she ran off to the ends of the earth, and if Dr. Fleming had known of it, in which case his concern for Kay’s interference in Dr. Marston’s marriage would be legitimate. But who knows?

But the truly horrifying racism that a number of characters—including Dr. Fleming, who snarls that the locals “breed like flies”—exhibit is even more unacceptable when the other characters vainly try to knock it down (one local doctor points out to Dr. Fleming in the “shocked silence” that follows his remark, that they also “die like flies” and that “it is our job here to cut down on the death rate rather than the birth rage,” but his wife immediately apologizes for her husband’s “impertinent” remark. Why would author Peggy Gaddis have Maria and the local doctor make such excellent points against racism only to have the main characters dismiss them so cavalierly, and without any acknowledgement of their complicity and participation in a racist system, and continue on unrepentant with their own racist attitudes? It’s utterly bewildering—but not unexpected from Ms. Gaddis, who enjoys a large sprinkling of racism in her novels, and who also likes to play both sides of every argument without choosing one side or the other. And so as I urge you to give this very bizarre and disturbing book a solid chuck into the trash, another donation from the White Doctor Foundation goes into the mail.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Highway Nurse

By Florence Stuart
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1965

Nurse Jan Lowell loved her fiancé and looked forward to her life with the brilliant young surgeon. Then why was she daydreaming about the young highway patrol officer? And what was there about his blue-eyed, unfriendly face that haunted her nights?


“Lucky you! Not every girl stopped for a traffic violation grabs such a gorgeous hunk of man to read her the riot act.”

“You carry a gun, don’t you? Couldn’t you arrange to have it go off sort of by accident, you know?” 

“It’s some distance between the hospital and the altar.”

It’s so hard being the responsible older sister. There’s just no end of crap you have to take for your little sister, like accept the blame for a hit-and-run when it was madcap Vicki behind the wheel of the light blue convertible roadster when they’d hit five-year-old Davey Barbour, knocking him into a ditch, and Vicki had driven on another few miles down the road. Finally Jan Lowell had convinced Vicki, now hysterical with a not-unreasonable fear that she’d do jail time given her already poor driving record, to turn the car around, but not before Vicki in full hysterics convinces Jan to take the rap: “If you won’t do a simple little favor like that for me, you’re just plain mean,” she pouts, and Jan ultimately agrees, her nursing license and ethics be damned.

But highway cop Bob Creasy, who arrives on the scene to investigate, does not believe Jan’s story that she was in shock after hitting the boy, then blacked out, and this was why she was so long in returning to the scene of the crime. He also doesn’t believe that Jan, who immediately strikes him as an honest, solid character, was driving, particularly since Vicki blabs a bit more than she should. Bob offers to drive Jan to the hospital, but detours past a coffee shop, where he tells her he’s quitting his job because he can’t stand feeling so helpless at car crashes and is planning on becoming a lawyer, as he has just passed the bar exam. He apologizes for snapping at her—and says that there will be no repercussions at all for the accident “even if I don’t accept every single thing you tell me as gospel.” He even asks her for a date, but she declines, since she’s engaged to Dr. Neal Darwin, a brilliant pediatrician. 

The problem with her engagement is that she refuses to name a date because Neal will not allow Vicki to live with them, and Jan doesn’t believe Vicki, at 20, is responsible enough to manage on her own—and given the whole car accident we’ve just witnessed, she has a valid concern. Neal, however, insists that Jan start putting him first: “Dump Vicki and marry me, or else,” he tells her. For her part, Vicki is in love with orderly Jimmy Lester, who is extremely good at his job—could even become a doctor, in Jan’s opinion—but Jimmy was born a ramblin’ man. “The birds have got the right idea: Fly away when you feel like it,” he says. He’s entertaining the idea of moving to Alaska, so Jan asks him to stop seeing Vicki, because she does not think Vicki could handle life there: “You’d have to wear a heavy fur-hooded parka and learn to ski if you wanted to get around any. You may not believe this, honey, but severe weather conditions can have a terrific effect on one’s life. They can even effect the metabolism. Ask any doctor.”

Meanwhile, Davey is recovering in the hospital and bonding strongly with the staff there, as the aunt who had been raising the orphan has split for Texas. All except Dr. Neal, however, because despite his choice of pediatrics as a specialty, he does not care for children much. Jan “couldn’t help wishing at times that Neal could display a little more warmth of heart toward his little patients,” instead of acting “like a man going in to examine a broken typewriter or a cash register that isn’t working.” Davey loves Bob, though, and decides he wants Jan and Bob to be his parents!

The best thing about this book is Bob, who is a kind, easygoing, thoughtful, honest person who never once grabs Jan or orders her around. Instead, he admires her strength, her capability. “The smooth satiny blackness of her hair was lovely to look at. So was the proud lift of her head, and the grace of her movements. She looked tired now. Faint lines of weariness showed in her face, which was without makeup. Her uniform was crumpled. She was certainly no glamour girl at the moment. And yet everything about her looked truly beautiful to him.” He doesn’t believe Jan was driving at the time of the accident and tells her so, but he never badgers her about it, just waits for her to eventually acknowledge the truth. He has a relaxed, warm, sardonic character that is genuinely attractive. The problem is Jan’s bizarre devotion to Dr. Neal that just won’t quit, no matter how awful he gets—even at his absolute worst, when he shoves Davey to the ground and completely loses his cool, even though Jan is “deeply shocked” by his behavior, “she still wanted to hold on to him”—chiefly, it seems, because she cannot tolerate being alone: "What would she do about the emptiness it would leave in her life? She felt like a little boat which had lost its anchor. She felt so lost.”

It's a relief that Florence Stonebraker hasn’t relied too heavily on her usual tricks: Dr. Neal never becomes a certifiable lunatic, no one waves a gun around or attempts murder, no character is named Kitty. And while the relationship between Jan and Bob is one of the nicest I’ve seen in a VNRN, overall the book doesn’t have a great enough zest that would put it into an A category. You can’t go wrong reading this book, but it probably won’t be one you remember in a month, either.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Doctor Lucy

By Barbara Allen (pseud. Violet Finlay Stuart), ©1956
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik 

A woman doctor, Lucy found, is still suspect to her male colleagues. “We teach you and train you,” they argue, “and then what happens? You marry!” Well, Lucy announced, she wouldn’t. She had finished with love and marriage since Johnny Eglington had let her down so badly, and now she could come back without fear of any complications, to the district where Johnny and his wife still lived. She explained this to Johnny himself, to Michael Dare, her old friend, and to her chief at the Melfield Hospital, that clever surgeon Paul Brandon. Extraordinary that none of them seemed to be quite convinced!


“We’ve got science at our fingertips, we do a good job, but we lack—I don’t know, I think it’s humanity.” 

“For the Lord’s sake don’t go and marry the first young numbskull that asks you. It would be the most appalling waste.”

“Medicine’s no job for a good-looking young woman, and the Lord alone knows why you want to want to become a surgeon. It’s the devil of a life; women haven’t the temperament for it. If you must specialize, you ought to take up obstetrics. Plenty of scope there.”

Dr. Lucy Grey is a surgeon, just returning to her hometown in England to embark on a five-year residency, and on the basis of one day in the OR with her, esteemed Dr. Marcus Anstruther is offering her a partnership. But it’s a long road to get there, and in the interim there’s the constant condescension and doubt of pretty much every doctor she meets. “It would be a pity, a waste of all life could give you as a woman,” Dr. Paul Brandon, her chief, tells her. “For a woman marriage isn’t possible if she’s making the sort of career you visualize. Even for a man that sort of compromise isn’t easy, but at least it’s possible. A man can put his whole heart into his job and yet make a happy and successful marriage.” This is hypocrisy of the highest order, impossible in this day and age to see how it works for one gender and not the other, unless you consider the lack of birth control as a limiting factor for women—but then women surgeons have been known to have children and continue to work. There’s a lot of that sort of talk in this book, and it does get a bit monotonous at times, and disheartening to hear it from Lucy’s love interest. But Lucy meets it all with quiet determination and sincerity and faith in her abilities, skill she has learned from her father, a local general practitioner, who is much beloved by the community, able to be more successful as a physician because his patients trust him implicitly.

The cast of characters in the book includes Julia Eglington, who had stolen Lucy’s fiancé Johnny Eglington from her two years ago—but now, the marriage is in ruins. Julia has been in a serious car crash, possibly a suicide attempt, and Johnny has become a dissipated loser who unsuccessfully tries to win Lucy back. Then there’s Lucy’s childhood friend Michael Dare, 12 years her senior and never previously more than an older brother type, who proposes to Lucy. Dr. Paul Brandon, the very talented, handsome but ridiculously cool surgeon who built his career from literally nothing, slowly grows in Lucy’s esteem as she grows in his. All have their secrets, and author Violet Finlay Stuart (here writing as Barbara Allen) really brilliantly manages to keep the mysteries under wraps in an organic way without drawing them out so painfully that the reader becomes bored or indifferent, or telegraphing the answers so glaringly that they are not mysteries at all.

As Lucy works to pull all the frayed ends together, her growing attraction to Paul is painted very compellingly, such as when she experiences “a magnetic current” when they touch: “It was by no means the first time that she had been aware of his masculine attraction and his good looks, but at that moment both seemed magnified, and the strange intentness of his gaze set her pulses racing.” But Paul is guarding some secret of Julia’s—could it be their feeling for each other?

Ultimately the answers to the puzzle of the relationships and interactions are revealed rather satisfactorily—I even managed to be surprised at a few. The only problems with the ending are the medically implausible damage to the senior Dr. Grey’s heart caused by an embolism in the femoral artery, which is located in the thigh, rendering him incapable of ever working again, and the sudden readjustments of Lucy’s career that result, after all her many protestations about her dedication to her career up until then, making her previous arguments as completely hollow and meaningless as the mansplanations from all those misogynist doctors. But all in all, Doctor Lucy is an enjoyable, well-written story that gives us interesting, complex characters and a plot skillfully revealed. If the lead character turns out to be something of a paper tiger, well, it’s a rare book that has it all, and we don’t need to chuck the whole thing out because of one weakness. As Lucy herself notes, “It was all too easy for lesser beings to criticize perfection, for inferiors to be jealous of it.”

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Senior Nurse

By Josephine James, ©1960
Cover illustration by Stan Klimley 

As a student nurse, Kathy Martin knew her senior year would be hard—with new responsibilities and longer hours. But she also knew there were beautiful, happy days ahead … there were her friends at the hospital, and, above all, there was Steve. But suddenly Kathy’s world clouded over … a missing locket … a hospital crisis … and a handsome new patient whose gentle sensitivity drew Kathy toward his own shadowy world … Suddenly Kathy’s heart had to choose: duty—or love?


“Nurses can’t give out any information. That—and a few other little things—is what doctors are for.” 

Oh, boy! Kathy Martin is so excited to be starting her senior year as a nursing student in San Tomás, California (a suburb of San Jose)! She’s rooming in a house with her five besties, and you’ll never guess the hijinks they will get into! Kelley Jones has the house in a crunchy uproar with her new hobby of making mosaics out of beans and rice—and that stuff goes absolutely everywhere! Gail spends most of her days in a dreamworld all because of Berkeley premed Jim Telford, and then Jenny Ramirez takes a job at a supermarket as the demo chef Miss Instant Hotcakes to help a nurse’s aide with a tragic past—she was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp—pay for nursing school. When all her housemates troop out to watch her at work, hilarity ensues! 

Kathy has a young man from home, firefighter Steve Kovak. Their relationship is fairly casual—no thudding hearts or grieving tears when Kathy is deposited at school for a long year of almost complete separation. So when Kathy meets a blind young man named Gordon McKinley, who happens to have a heart condition that makes him prone to heart attacks and which is likely to prove fatal in the near future, it is not hard for her to get caught up in what is clearly a relationship driven more by her Florence Nightingale impulses than any actual romantic feeling. Gordon is an intelligent man who frequently quotes poetry—“courage, a sense of humor, talented—he was a remarkable person.” But nothing in the descriptions of her interactions with him make us think that she views him as other than a shiny new toy or at best a lap dog who needs extra care. Then when Gordon has a serious heart attack and lands in Kathy’s hospital, that does seem to seal the deal for her in a most artificial way: “Gordon did want her and need her! She saw a life ahead dedicated to his service.” Doesn’t that sound like fun?

She breaks an important weekend trip with Steve to watch Gordon graduate from college, and Steve is smart enough to realize that her deep pity is going to beat out her apparently tepid affection for him, and he breaks up with her. Now she’s free to be Gordon’s permanent full-time nursemaid—the only question remaining whether Gordon thinks this is a good idea, because Gordon’s mother, an otherwise kindly woman, clearly doesn’t think it is, even if she did initially encourage the relationship.

In the crevices of this plotline are multiple other mini-stories—an explosion at the cannery that leaves many people gravely injured, including the nurse’s aide who’d survived the Holocaust; a missing locket that is presumed stolen, and the senior nurse gang’s so-called Do-It-Yourself Detective Agency that tracks down the guilty party; various senior activities that require skits and songs; Kathy’s concussion that makes a patient of her for more than a week. Kathy’s senior year eventually comes to a close, and Kathy, lacking any real drive to do anything in particular with her career, enlists for a year of service in Alaska, though this effectively puts her out of reach of her two uninspiring beaux.

Overall the book is not unpleasant, just even more simple and superficial than most VNRNs. Only at one point does the book—which admirably includes characters who are not white—briefly touch on the racism encountered by some members of the class: “If you’re a Negro, like Miss Johnson, or even a little darker than the average, like my people, with mixed-up Indian and Spanish ancestors, or Oriental-looking, like Yo—well, the way things are, you have to work harder to make your performance better than other people’s. To be accepted,” explains Jenny Ramirez. Kathy’s response is to nod slowly, “hating to admit the unpleasant truth,” then quickly change the subject, which is never brought up again (though the scholarship to continue studies is given to Jenny Ramirez, and the Asian character is planning, bizarrely, now to pursue an MD).

At the book’s conclusion, the question of whether someone spark any whisper of passion in Kathy’s cardboard heart is only partially answered, and not in any satisfying way. If this book is intended for a teen audience, as it seems it is, then it works a little better, since we do feel a little uncomfortable about young girls marrying off before they’re old enough to order a cosmo (unless they live in West Virginia)—though they regularly do in other VNRNs more clearly intended for an adult audience. Kathy’s rapprochement with one of her young men occurs with remarkable sangfroid, and though Kathy encourages the fellow to kiss her—“it’s the proper thing at graduation,” she tells him—the act occurs offstage, and is no doubt as decorous as the graduation proceedings were. Senior Nurse would probably seem like a better book if you’re thirteen, and if it’s not especially enticing for those who are decades older, at least it reminds you that life once was a lot more simple than it is today.

NOTE: After writing this review, I realized that this book is Number 3 in a 13-book series featuring Nurse Kathy Martin that includes Peace Corps Nurse (book 12), which I have already reviewed. I am not a fan of series, because they tend to be pretty awful (looking hard at you, Jill Nolan, and Dr. Jane—only Marilyn Morgan is worth reading), but also because they necessarily are not really romance novels—how many men can you end up with without seeming like an unstable serial dater? I will, therefore, not be racing out to finish up the series.