Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nurse at the Castle

By Joanne Holden (pseud. Jane Corby), ©1965

It was surprising how much courage it took to walk into the bedroom of someone who has tried to choke you, Nancy thought. But she need not have worried. Lavinia Barclay was her usual friendly self and greeted Nancy cheerily. “Good morning. And to what do I owe the pleasure of this early morning visit from the doctor?” Nancy answered evasively. “I think he was invited to sleep over. That’s all.” She changed the subject. “Did you sleep well?” “Beautifully,” her patient answered. Evidentally [sic] Lavinia Barclay had no notion of what had happened the night before. And, to Nancy, this was the most frightening thing of all…


“She practically pushed him away when his closeness interfered with her breathing.”

I had some hope for this book, with cover lines that seemed to promise both Gothic and nurse novel in one. And the book does make an effort to give us a mystery of sorts, though you would have to be a complete moron—or the heroine of a VNRN—not to see exactly what is going on as early as page 22. So while this book isn’t out-and-out bad, it was hard not to feel disappointed by it.

The “castle” in question is a grandiose mansion in Tarrytown, New York, home of widowed millionaire Lavinia Barclay, who in her early sixties is too old and weak to leave her room or even get out of bed for long. Mrs. Barclay is being managed by her second cousin, John Ferguson, and Dr. Orville Lacey, who have brought in Nurse Nancy Bronson to do the actual work of caring for Mrs. Barclay. Although the doctor has said that Mrs. Barclay is “suffering from hallucinations … rapidly deteriorating, and … it was only a question of time before she would require institutional care,” Nancy quickly comes to the conclusion that all Mrs. Barclay really suffers from is too many tranquilizers and not enough nutritious food or fresh air. And it’s not just because, as Kent Milliard, Mrs. Barclay’s young and handsome lawyer, tells Nancy, “You distrust Dr. Lacey because he didn’t fall for you.”

No, she doesn’t trust the doctor because he is condescending, telling Nancy that he can’t possibly explain what is wrong with Mrs. Barclay because she just wouldn’t understand—“a nurse not being a doctor, of course.” Not only that, but he calls her “dear,” and “Nancy hated to be called ‘dear.’ ” When he catches Nancy taking Mrs. Barclay for a walk in the garden, he calls her “bungling” and refuses to explain why he thinks Nancy’s efforts to give Mrs. Barclay some minimal exercise are unacceptable. So when Nancy realizes that Mrs. Barclay is palming her medications and faking the tantrums and lethargy she displays only in front of the doctor, she keeps her mouth shut and decides to pursue her course of feeding and exercising Mrs. Barclay in secret.

In her leisure hours, Nancy is fending off advances from Cousin John and Greg Mansfield, an antiques expert hanging around the house to create an inventory of the estate’s assets. She also flirts with Kent, walks barefoot on the lawn in the rain with him, the floozy, and aks him to investigate the doctor. She also manages to completely miss the blatant hints about what’s really going on. She overhears a conversation in which John says, “As soon as Lavinia is committed and I get power of attorney, I’ll have control of the money, and Dr. Lacey will get paid off and leave town.” Instead of putting her on high alert, these words serve only to confuse Nancy, and she “stopped listening.” Not long after that, Kent tells her Dr. Lacey is an expert, having been practicing for more than 40 years. She responds by pointing out, “He would have had to be a child prodigy! Dr. Lacey is only 40 years old—or less—today.” Yet still she doesn’t seem to quite connect the dots. After Mrs. Barclay gets an injection from Dr. Lacey and shortly afterward loses her mind, attempting to strangle her, Nancy can only believe that she was wrong and Dr. Lacey correct in his diagnosis of Mrs. Barclay’s mental incapacity. It’s not only in her work that Nancy is dense; when Kent tells her, “I’ve already decided on the girl I want,” she assumes he’s talking about someone else and changes the subject. I don’t mind a small amount of suspension of disbelief, but this is taking things way too far.

I did find myself racing through the last few pages, when Nancy is packing up Mrs. Barclay for her permanent installation in the loony bin, to find out if help would arrive in time (it did!). And the last sentence—“I’ll convince you that a wife may like to work,”—scored points with me. On the whole, the book is a reasonably enjoyable read, without an overdose of saccharine. But it wasn’t really a mystery, it wasn’t really Gothic, it wasn’t really suspenseful. It wasn’t really great.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sunshine Nurse

By Sharon Heath
(pseud. Norah Mary Bradley), ©1969

Terry Chisholm made her prime concern the health of the delicate children she took care of at Sunshine House. Young and lovely, she considered no future for herself outside of her career as nurse. Even her best friend’s concern could not make Terry slacken her pace—until romance unexpectedly intervened. For when a youthful doctor and a handicapped sculptor misunderstood each others’ intentions, it was left to Terry to smooth out the emotional tangle. And once she had intervened, it was her own heart that became inextricably involved …


“Perhaps he would discover that a blonde could be every bit as attractive as a redhead!”

“You mean that your pleasure at seeing me was not simply for my sake? Disillusioned and hurt, I maintain my usual exquisite courtesy.”

Sunshine House, set down in the English countryside, is “a convalescent home for children whose parents can’t afford to take them away after a severe illness or operation.” The idea is, the parents meet Terry at the train station in London and hand over their sick children (including one boy diagnosed with “nervous deviltry and maladjustment”), who will be taken back to Sunshine House for weeks or months until they are deemed well enough to return home again, with apparently not one visit from their parents in the meantime. I cannot believe anyone ever thought this was a good idea.

A large cast of characters populates this book. Linda is a good friend of Terry’s who got sick and requires a place to go while she recuperates, and later while her boss is off honeymooning. Adrian Brooke is the indolent nephew of Lady Eskerton, who is a patron of Sunshine House. Adrian is a sculptor, but he injured his hand and now can’t work, so he spends his days flirting with Verity Gale, who is betrothed to Linda’s boss. Jonathan Hensley is a physician and the son of old Dr. Hensley, who cares for Sunshine House’s prepubescent occupants. Benjy is a four-year-old boy that Terry and her mother are raising after his parents died and his only living relatives didn’t want him. Bessie Hargreaves is a scullery maid with a sordid past—she married a man who she discovered, when she was about to give birth to their first child, was already married to someone else, and she lost the baby. Now she moons over three-year-old Maida, whose wretched, poverty-stricken mother dies while Maida is at Sunshine House, leaving her an orphan. Bessie wants to adopt Maida, but first she needs a husband and a home. Wait, there’s Ted Larkin, the gardener!

The two eligible bachelors (neither Terry nor Linda is a Lady Chatterley type, going for the gardener) are clearly destined for the two ladies. Of course, it’s a circuitous route to get them safely to the altar. Terry wants to help Adrian with his hand, and the two are always getting caught together by Jonathan Hensley, who incomprehensibly turns cold toward Terry. Linda insults Adrian, who incomprehensibly becomes infatuated with her. In the end, we have three engagements to celebrate, what with Bessie and Ted also hooking up. (Yes, this makes them eligible to adopt Maida.) Curiously, however, Jonathan doesn’t put the moves on Terry until after Benjy’s aunt and uncle from Australia turn up to claim him after all, when it turns out they can’t have kids of their own. “As long as you had Benjy to think of and love, I was afraid I wouldn’t stand a chance,” he tells her. “When I heard he was leaving you, I began to hope again.” A tad bit Oedipal to be jealous of a four-year-old boy; what’s he going to do when he and Terry have children of their own?

I suppose the re-telling can be a bit confusing, but the book itself is easy to follow and a decent enough read. You’ll occasionally come across some snappy dialogue, such as when Linda tells Adrian that she suspects that his girlfriends are “legion.” He replies, “Like the wedding presents in the newspaper reports. Both numerous and costly.” If you’re snowed in over Christmas break, it’s a pleasant afternoon on the couch.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Orphanage Nurse

By Arlene Hale, ©1970

Young, attractive Christine Morgan became a nurse with one end in view—to work at Maple Crest, where she had been raised as an orphan after her parents’ tragic death. There were delightful youngsters in need of loving care at Maple Crest. There was also handsome Dr. Aaron Hoffman, to whom Christine lost her heart, and irrepressible “Fuzz” Kraus, who wanted her to marry him. There was a dire threat to Maple Crest from crusty old Matthew Chancellor, who owned the luxurious estate next door, and dark mystery in his beautiful granddaughter’s strange behavior. All these vivid human threads interwove in a challenge Christine had to meet—to save the place she held dear, and her chance for happiness with the man she loved.


“She wore a white uniform like most women wore a Givenchy gown.”

“Sickness of the body, she could do something about. But hunger of the heart—that was another story entirely.”

“He’d met several interesting women since coming to Bardwell. There was a cute secretary, that one nurse with the red hair and a society dish that had a cute little way of walking and talking.”

Somehow, between the title and the cover, I had a feeling this book was going to be a little nauseating. Sometimes my premonitions are wrong (see
Surf Safari Nurse and Hospital in Kashmir), but sometimes I am right on the money.

Without further ado, I give you Christine Morgan, the eponymous orphanage nurse. She was an orphan herself, a former resident of Maple Crest Home for Children, after her parents were killed in a car crash when she was 14. She dedicated her life to becoming a nurse and has returned to Maple Crest to assist the vintage caretaker, Sarah, in bringing up 25 fresh-faced young orphans.

The orphanage doctor, Aaron Hoffman, is a quiet, sneering guy. Naturally, Christine is in love with him. We have to be told this repeatedly early on, because the doctor has no redeeming qualities that I could see, and without all the signposts you’d never believe it.

The crotchety old millionaire next door, Matthew Chancellor, hates kids, and has a tempestuous relationship with his only relative, granddaughter Sherrill, who has quit college and just returned home to the mansion. In a shocking coincidence, at the same time a newborn baby turns up in the orphanage bushes. The label has been cut off the blanket the baby is wrapped in, yet enterprising reporter/asshole Pete Jennings tells Christine that the blanket is sold by “only five stores in the entire state.” Boy, with skills like that, Pete is going to have no trouble finding his “big story” to make his name. He’s convinced that his big break is this baby story, and he’s going to track down the mother and spill her humiliation in the papers. But since the publicity about the baby is good for the orphanage, Christine and the doctor keep inviting him in despite their dislike of him and his recurrent rudeness. (Curiously, at the end of the book when Pete finally has the facts nailed, he makes a surprising about-face for no apparent reason and opts not to publish the story after all.)

In the meantime, Sherrill offers to help out at the orphanage. Once in the door she has a tendency, sometimes during a crisis about a sick or runaway child, of throwing herself into Christine’s arms and sobbing about her grandfather, who quashed her relationship with local kid Billy White, who was later killed in Vietnam. Christine responds by confronting old Mr. Chancellor about his hatred for the orphanage, telling him—prepare yourself—“You’re afraid to come to Maple Crest. Afraid you might discover you’ve got a heart after all.”

Sherrill is becoming increasingly attached to the baby, now unfortunately named Dawn. Christine quickly comes to depend on Sherrill, and within two days of Sherrill’s arrival on the scene, Christine has no qualms at all about leaving a college dropout who can’t be more than 20 years old in charge of 25 kids and an infant while she runs off on dates with Dr. Aaron and Donald “Fuzz” Kraus, who is desperately in love with Christine. Aaron is also falling for Christine, and we are treated to endless insecurities on both sides of the relationship, which gets old mighty fast. The only thing more cloying is the syrupy language of their blossoming love: “For a moment, their eyes met and held, and when he reached out to take her hand, she reached halfway. … The pressure of Aaron’s fingers around her own was a sweet, sharp pleasure.” It gets worse, but I’ll spare you.

As the book moves to its ending, Christine declines dinner with the doctor because Fuzz has asked her out, and at the end of their date he “pulled her into his arms and kissed her soundly.” You will be as surprised as I was when he tells Christine just a few hours later that he’s in love with Sherrill and wants to marry her. His fickleness is capped only by Sherrill’s, as we learn that she was actually married to Billy White not much more than nine months previously. In a way, it’s a sad indictment of commitment and responsibility, but somehow I doubt that the author had such heavy themes in mind when she penned this throwaway.

In the event that you haven’t foreseen where this review is going (which should be about as hard to fathom as the “surprise” ending of this book), let me spell it out: Orphanage Nurse is treacly, insulting to the intelligence, and amazingly improbable. Don’t waste your time.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Hospital in Kashmir

By Belinda Dell, ©1959

“Andrews the adding-machine—is that how you think of me? Put the right instrument in his hand and he’ll perform an operation: save his patient from choking and he’ll take it for granted. All coolness and efficiency but without human qualities!” Doctor Gil Andrews said to Nurse Clare Edmonds, soon after her arrival at Kahldi Hospital in Kashmir. Nurse Clare’s feelings for Doctor Gil were, in fact, very different from her feelings for an adding-machine—but how could she tell him so?


“This little town is absolutely dominated by these medical types, and unless you put your foot down you’ll get cold compresses with your lunch, and vaccination statistics with your dinner.”

“Any man has moments in his life that won’t bear looking into.”

I have to say that when I pick up a VNRN with more than 120 pages—and this one has 191—a certain feeling of dread comes over me. Almost 200 pages for a nurse romance novel? Does the author really have that much that needs to be said, or does she just think she does? Yes, I have been burned in the past. And so the page count, in addition to the cover, which must be acknowledged as not one of the genre’s finest, made me less that confident when I picked up Hospital in Kashmir.

And how wrong I was. This is a very cute book, with a pretty ending (an extremely rare find in the VNRN) and picturesque scenes, absolutely worth reading.

Clare Edmonds is following her best friend from nursing school when she takes a job in Kashmir. She’s desperately needed, as they have 300 patients but only six nurses and two doctors. There’s a snafu with her transportation, however; the car and driver who will take her the last leg of the trip have fallen through. Walton Parker, an engineer who does a lot of work near her hospital, takes her on the 12-hour drive, and en route, they strike up a relationship—not long after her arrival in the village of Srinagar, everyone is convinced they are to be engaged. But Dr. Gil Andrews, Walton’s best friend, warns Clare that Walton’s fancies are fleeting. Sure enough, after a month-long trip to London, Walton returns with a cooler heart. The village is disgusted with Walton, and pities Clare. For her part, Clare resents the community’s investment in her love life. “Why must everyone without exception assign her to Walton? Why mightn’t she be allowed to have opinions and feelings of her own on the subject?”

In the hospital, she quickly establishes herself as a dream nurse. During a surgery early on, she proves her worth when she saves a patient who stops breathing. Later, Dr. Gil tells her breathlessly that he now has “the feeling of having somebody at my side who would know what to put into my hand without a word from me.” They get to chatting, and it turns out that the reason Gil is so dispassionate is that he was in love once, long ago … with a woman who let him down, utterly and completely … Alma was a rich woman, but she couldn’t bring herself to marry a poor man. That’s why Gil now feels that cowardice, “to be afraid and not overcome your fear,” is “moral degradation,” the worst possible human failing.

Not long after that, Gil and Clare take a day off and go skiing, and on their walk back to their car, he takes her to a bridge made of a single untrimmed pine tree trunk, 40 feet above a ravine, with just a single rope for a handrail. Clare distinguishes herself by screaming, throwing herself to the ground, and absolutely refusing to cross. That does cool things somewhat between the two. Then, who should show up on the step of the nurse’s bungalow, but Alma herself! She’s strong, beautiful, tall, rich, a mountain climber, an excellent horsewoman, pretty much everything you could want to be. Except that she’s not very nice. She toys with Gil, who does not want his past with her known. And she works hard to win over Walton, even though she is clearly out of his league, and besides, he bores her. So to better do both at the same time, she convinces Walton to bring her with him and Gil on their planned three-week trip to climb the 14,000-foot Mt. Keung. They require a chaperone, so Clare, who clearly cannot tolerate heights and has never climbed anything more than the stairs to the next floor, is enlisted to go along. To give her credit, she is aware how ludicrous the whole situation is. But she’s a good sport, though she is buffeted emotionally, watching Alma heartlessly cast Walton aside and make passes at Gil, who despite their past seems to be taking her back, hand over fist.

A very nice couple of chapters detail the trip up the mountain, with base camps, Sherpas, and altitude sickness. It brought back memories of
Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer, ©1997), down to the calamity that leaves several members of their party injured. You won’t be surprised to hear that Clare is called on to save the day, but she does so in a way that is true: She is still quivering with fear and too dizzy to move at the prospect of the ridge dropping away next to her, and her trek up the mountain is only a partial success, but it’s enough to get the job done. (A helicopter neatly gets her back down the mountain, which was just not going to happen under her own steam.)

Back in Srinagar, there are the usual tangled relationships and misunderstandings to clear away, but this is nicely managed, without inducing dry heaves in the reader. I do enjoy the bit of armchair travel these books sometimes provide, and though the general feeling of life in Clare’s hospital community, though mostly Caucasian, was well-drawn, I didn’t get as good a view of the Kashmiri countryside as I had hoped for. There is really not one racist remark in the entire book, and even the sexism was pretty low-key. While Alma, who is in almost all ways superlative, is not a woman anyone ends up marrying, the more subdued Clare is not exactly a mouse, either; she tosses off her share of snappy remarks, and her nursing skills are obviously outstanding. And when one man threatens to beat his wife “within an inch of her life” if she wears a red sari to please Dr. Gil, the wife—an MD on the hospital staff—sarcastically responds, “Isn’t he wonderful?” So all in all, this book (hideous as its cover may be) deserves a spot on the bookshelf.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Beauty Contest Nurse

By Diana Douglas, ©1973
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

When tawny-eyed nurse Maria MacKenzie sought to escape the routine and regimentation of the Veterans’ Hospital, she never expected anything like her job at a luxurious resort hotel in Acapulco. Assigned to the girls in the Miss All-America Beauty Contest, Maria soon discovered that her feminine attributes as a lovely young woman were more important than her nursing skill—especially with Dick Trevor, the attractive newspaperman covering the contest. Dr. Mitch Gilbert, her handsome, informal boss, was another surprise; as was Andrew Fisher, the powerful, red-headed doctor who was so mysteriously involved behind the scenes. One of these men would change the course of Maria’s life. Caught up in the heady excitement of her glamorous surroundings, could she trust her heart to make a wise choice…?


“She proved to be too fertile, and the husband, though proud of his efficiency, could not keep up with the needs of his growing family, so he left her one night. She has found others since, but they leave when she becomes pregnant.”

“She had never really trusted blondes with ingenuous, baby-blue eyes.”

“Maybe you could marry the guy and keep a firm hand on the skillet.”

Maria MacKenzie is the official nurse at the Miss All-America Beauty Contest in Acapulco, but naturally as she steps from her limo at the hotel where the contest is being staged, all the reporters think she is one of the contestants, seeing as how she is just so gosh-darned beautiful! Dick Trevor, a reporter from the New York Evening Star is smitten before she reaches the door. Once inside, she meets Dr. Mitchell Gilbert and Bill Bryant, pageant organizer, who doesn’t remember who she is but knows what hotel room she’s staying in. The job doesn’t seem to be demanding; as Dr. Gilbert tells her, “I expect we’ll need to prescribe and administer an occasional tranquilizer for tantrums, aspirin for the cyclical troubles, or an antibiotic for a chill or something. That would be about the extent of it.”

That afternoon, tanning on the beach with her bikini top untied so as to erase the white lines across her back (remember when we actually did this?), she is approached by a red-haired surfer who tells her that the two guys out there riding the waves are risking their lives, because the surf is dangerous. Sure enough, one of them falls off his board and is dragged under. The red-haired man instantly leaps to the rescue, and when he snags the stricken surfer and promptly loses his own board, Maria swims out to help them both. As she assesses the injured surfer and suggests a “ring pad” for the man’s head injury, the red-haired man naturally reveals himself to be a doctor and orders her to get his bag from his beat-up jalopy, which is parked in the beach lot. His name is stamped in gold letters on the bag—Andrew Fisher, M.D.

Dr. Fisher has been fired from his job at the hotel because he spends too much time at a local clinic giving free medical care to the natives. This intrigues Maria, and soon she and the reporter are wending their way through the slums of Acapulco, looking for him. But he’s not there—he’s gone to a small village, where the natives grow excellent corn, eat too much of it, and come down with pellagra, or niacin deficiency, which gives its victims a beefy red tongue and the three D’s: diarrhea, dementia, and dermatitis. I tell you, if I read enough of these books, I won’t have to study when it’s time to re-take the boards.

Dick Trevor is taken with the idea of publicizing Dr. Fisher’s work in his newspaper, and Maria is taken with the doctor. She rounds with him through the village, treating the natives in their adobe houses where “traces of the vomitus and excreta which were symptoms of the disease still lingered in the small, airless room.” Back at the hotel, Maria puts in an appearance at the hotel clinic and the pageant, where she drinks too much champagne with Dr. Fisher and then goes parking with him, the tramp. The next day she’s back in the village—I can’t believe she doesn’t get fired from her pageant job—but Dr. Fisher falls down a cliff, and the big climax of the book is his rescue. Has he been killed in the fall? How will he find the money he needs to care for the natives? You won’t need three guesses to figure out the answers.

This book reminded me a lot of Nurse in Acapulco, and not because they share the same setting. Both are mostly phoned in, with jaunts into a country village and a lot of time spent lecturing on one particular disease. It’s not quite as annoying as Nurse in Acapulco, though. No one is terribly irritating, and Acapulco and the Mexican countryside are well-drawn, so you can do a little vicarious touring. It’s a book to reach for if you are looking for an airy little fling that won’t trouble your intellect or your sense of humor at all.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Courtroom Nurse

By Fern Shepard
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1968

Vicky Blair, R.N., knew her mother would never ask her to give up her job in San Francisco and come home if she didn’t need her desperately. But it was difficult to convince young Dr. Fred Harlan, who wanted her all to himself. It was especially difficult since the trouble at home concerned Vicky’s kid sister, Jean, and the boy she loved, Johnny Rushton. A descendant of one of Rushton City’s oldest and richest families, Johnny had also inherited the family’s streak of mental instability—or so his sister, Cora, wanted everyone believe. She had a lot of people convinced—including, to Vicky’s disappointment, Fred Harlan. Most important, she had finally convinced Johnny, who had told Jean he could not—would not—see her again. Vicky knew Johnny was not a victim of hereditary madness. She could prove it—in court, if necessary. But she hoped it would not come to that, because the revelation that would “clear” Johnny would dishonor the memory of the finest man she had ever known: her father…


“Was she turning into one of those romance-starved females who could not enjoy a nice view with a man without getting quivery all through?”

“A truly feminine woman … never comes straight to the point.”

I’m not certain if Courtroom Nurse actually intends to be funny or if it’s just an accident. A fair amount of the humor does come from the groovy datedness of it, what with the references to love-ins and long-haired hippies and the “teen-agers today behaving as if they’d gone ape.” But then there are sentences like, “She was considering killing herself just as the door opened into the pretty bedroom with gay yellow curtains at the old-fashioned casement windows.” In the opening paragraph, heroine Vicky Blair has decided to quit her job in San Francisco and move back to her hometown an hour away: “Several of the doctors insisted they could never get along without her. She was efficient, she never griped about working two shifts when necessary, and moreover, she was a beautiful blonde.” So what do you think? Is it intentional or is it just bad writing?

Vicky is moving home because her 19-year-old sister, Jean, is at an age when she needs some guidance. The girls’ father, Dr. Sam Blair, died some years ago, so it’s just Vicky and her mother Stella to steer Jean down the straight and narrow. Jean is scheming to marry her beau, Johnny Rushton, but unfortunately, Johnny “has a crackpot older sister who has made him believe he will go insane.” Cora Rushton has devoted her entire life to raising Johnny, and “she would rather see him behind bars in a mental institution than imagine him in the arms of another woman.”

En route to a tryst with Jean, Johnny drives off a cliff and his hospitalized for months; Vicky is naturally enlisted to care for him. Meanwhile, Jean attempts to convince her older photographer friend, Tom Gordon, to help her get to Las Vegas, where she is planning to win big at roulette so as to be able to whisk Johnny off to some remote location, make an honest man out of him, and support him until he can get his feet on the ground. Vicky and Tom tangle over his relationship with Jean, and since he just can’t betray Jean’s trust and tell Vicky what her plan is, Vicky is suspicious; naturally they end up kissing in the rain.

As Cora spirals deeper and deeper out of control—and it is a bit fun, if unsurprising, to witness her insane tantrums—it’s up to Vicky to save the day. You see, she has this letter that her father to her before he died, which he says will save Johnny if the lad ever needs saving. It will also impeach the pristine character of Dr. Sam, but she has a duty to the living. So what’s the big secret? Hints are scattered thickly like petals before a blushing bride, leaving you wondering with every new insinuation—did Sam have an affair with Johnny’s mother? Well, nothing that juicy.

It’s not too hard to see where this book is going—the trip to Vegas, the relationship between Tom Gordon and Vicky, Cora’s tenuous grasp on reality. But between the far-out vocabulary and the wild scenes of Cora shrieking in the courtroom and Jean swooning at the gambling tables, it’s a pleasant enough trip.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Nurse in Crisis

By Jane Converse
(pseud. Adela Maritano), ©1966

Cover illustration by Marilyn Conover

Sherry Allen’s roommate, Nurse Melinda Collins, spent her nights sobbing and her days drinking—pursued by a shameful secret, by the inescapable consequences of a moment of heedless passion. It was only when the unhappy girl attempted a desperate way out of her trouble that Sherry learned the cause of her friend’s anguish was a man. It was then that Sherry realized that she, too, must face up to a crisis of the heart. Before it was too late, the young nurse had to choose: settle for security … or, like Melinda, take a reckless gamble on love.


“Maybe it would be a breach of ethics if hospital food was palatable.” 

“I’m trying to become habit-forming, darling. A drug instead of a drag.”

Sherry is 23 and single, and, therefore, getting pretty desperate to find a husband. She’s been going out with Brent Driscoll, who is 39 and has everything you could ask for in a guy: gracious manners, good breeding, wealth, numerous wide-ranging interests. Naturally she has no interest in him.

Her roommate, Melinda Collins, is the perfect nurse, and very cute, too. But something is bothering her, and she won’t say what. Melinda spends a lot of time holed up in her room sobbing, and resists Sherry’s efforts to get her to say what’s wrong. Soon Sherry starts finding empty whisky bottles in the bottom of the trash and bottles of Benzedrine on the bathroom sink.

The head nurse on her floor, Lois Lawford, is the typical single older nurse. An unattractive, graceless widow with severely combed sandy-red hair, Lois looks older than her 46 years, “perhaps because her usually ice-tinged green eyes were focused only in one direction; her job, her income, her plans for her son.” That would be three directions, but who’s counting? Through sheer hard work and determination, she has gotten her son Neil through medical school, and has plotted and planned a brilliant career for him—nothing less than brain surgery for her boy. Neil, however, has other plans. He spills them to Sherry one day at the cafeteria, shortly after he starts working at Ridgeworth Hospital: He wants to be a general practitioner working in a poor, rural neighborhood. Not exactly the stuff of his mother’s dreams. Sherry is instantly smitten, however, and though Neil pretty much ignores her, she pines for the next time they’ll pass in the halls or he’ll ask her to give the lady in room 306 a pill.

Poor Brent; unaware of her pangs for Neil, he asks Sherry to marry him. One night, when Melinda doesn’t come home after Neil chews her out for making a bad mistake that could have killed her patient, Brent is supremely kind and helpful when Sherry is sick with worry. In the heat of the crisis, Sherry agrees to be his wife. Melinda comes home all right, but when she tosses back some pills with a shot of gin the next morning, Sherry forces her to call in sick. Melinda attempts suicide, but is found at the last minute by Sherry and Brent, who again comes through in a pinch. She’s admitted to the hospital—and found to be two months pregnant!!!

Jane Converse is in high form with Nurse in Crisis. The writing is better than you usually find in a VNRN, and a pregnant near-heroine is quite a surprise—the eponymous nurse applies more to Melinda than to our heroine. The response to Melinda’s suicide attempt is a little dated—Sherry crumples up the note, as “no one needed to know that she had tried to take her own life,” and though everyone suspects the overdose was not accidental, it’s not discussed. However, when Melinda is clearly beginning to spiral out of control, Sherry attempts to talk Melinda into seeking counseling (Melinda refuses, saying, “It isn’t going to change matters one iota if I sob it out on some doctor’s couch at twenty dollars an hour.” My, how times and hourly rates have changed!) Most VNRNs have the star-crossed couple hook up in the final pages without a flutter of the heart until that point, but Jane does the best job I have seen so far in describing a severe crush: “The tight sensation in her throat when Neil came into view; her breathlessness when his arm had accidentally brushed hers that afternoon in the coffee shop!” Though the ending includes one slightly creepy angle, with Brent winding up with a 19-year-old girl who is less than half his age—and I can’t believe that’s any spoiler—on the whole Nurse in Crisis is a pretty good book.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ring for the Nurse

By Renée Shann, ©1959

Sue Woodford seemed to have everything a girl could desire. She was unofficially engaged to handsome Dr. Don Langton—unofficially only because romances between the doctors and the nurses were not encouraged at Rosemead Hospital. When rumors began to circulate that Dr. Langton was paying considerable attention to lovely Vanda Corrin, Sue could do nothing about it. But then Don, in an unguarded moment, called Vanda “Meg,” and Sue slowly began to be aware that there was a closeness in Don and Vanda’s relationship that she could not penetrate. It took an emergency operation aboard a ship to make Sue realize whom she really loved.


“He’s just my type. Rugged and rather boorish and often so rude that one almost hates him.”

“ ‘I think,’ he said, ‘I’ll emigrate to the colonies.’ ”

The cover of this book certainly gets your hopes up. With that title, and its fantastic type, you expect this is going to be some sort of horror story. It’s not, and doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the cover. But it’s a nice enough little book, and besides, it’s British!

Sue Woodford is 20 or 21 (both ages are given to her), a nurse working in a small village hospital. She’s engaged to Don Langton, a moody doctor more than 10 years her senior who tells her, interestingly, that he has a “black monkey” on his back that he’s had all his life. “It made him moody and difficult, and sometimes it would perch there for days at a time.” She’s young and insecure, and always waiting around for him to show up on dates and hoping for a little reassurance from him that he cares for her. It’s a May-December romance that doesn’t seem to make either party happy.

There’s a new secretary at the hospital, Vanda Corrin, who displays unexpected medical knowledge at bus crashes. She and Don go way back, as it turns out; they were in med school together, and she is repeatedly described as one of the best medical minds of her generation—more brilliant even than Don—though a poor outcome with a pediatric patients has prompted her to give up her license, even though she was exonerated by the medical board. Don spends a lot of time with her, begging her to return to medicine, which naturally disconcerts his fiancée. Though he reassures nervous Sue that there is nothing between him and Vanda, when the two attend a medical conference in Paris, they have too many brandies, and before you know it they are smooching in a taxi.

However, young Sue has other options, as well. The young doctor Bill Stevens tells her repeatedly that he’s in love with her, is always asking her what’s wrong when she’s looking glum, makes himself available to her, and doesn’t pressure her very often to marry him instead of Don. So naturally she doesn’t think of him as anything more than a good friend. He’s concerned she’ll never respect him because, during a crisis when a significant portion of the medical staff has sampled the cafeteria’s canned meat for lunch and is carried off with food poisoning, Bill is called to perform a tracheotomy on a patient who neglected to put on her glasses and so swallowed a wasp, which has caused her throat to swell up like a balloon. He loses his nerve, and Vanda, who happens to be passing by at just the right moment, seizes the scalpel and saves the day and the patient.

Sue is unique among the VNRN heroines I’ve met to date in that she’s not a very good nurse. On one of his dates with her, Bill decides to himself that Sue is “competent and reliable, but she lacked that little extra ‘something’ that a girl needed to be really outstanding in her handling of patients. No, she’d be far better off to marry and have a family.” At the end of the book, when Sue finally does quit to get married (I won’t tell you to whom), her supervisor says, “Usually when I hear one of my younger nurses proposes to leave to be married, I’m extremely sorry. … But, in the case of Nurse Woodford, I must confess I don’t mind very much. I never thought nursing was for her a vocation and no girl makes a good nurse unless it is.”

That one of the main characters is a woman doctor is also something of a novelty. And while virtually every other VNRN insists on examining its male doctor’s hands, here it’s Vanda who is described as having hands that are “long and slender, with an odd strength about them. Capable hands. Perhaps a surgeon’s hands.”

Ring for the Nurse is a pleasant little book. Sue Woodford is, as far as heroines go, a bit of an annoying dishrag, but she does pull herself together for the final crisis, which involves dropping onto a ship from a helicopter and assisting with an emergency appendectomy. And we do have the brilliant Vanda as a counterpoint—even if she, too, is a bit spineless, chucking medicine at the first sign of trouble. (In fairness, our male heroes aren’t without fault, either, between Don’s undiagnosed depression and Bill’s losing his nerve over a fairly simple procedure.) The book on the whole is an enjoyable read, even if there isn’t a whole lot there to make it truly great. It’s not as good as its cover, but it’s worth the hour or two it will take you to buzz through it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The New Nurse

By Florence Stuart
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1947

“Kitty, will you marry me?” For the four years since he had jilted her, Kitty Foster dreamed of hearing those words. And now Dick Dunning was saying them. Of course, he was still married to Rose. But Dick said they had already planned on a divorce when she had her terrible accident. ‘Yes, I married her. I’ve no one to blame by myself. I wasn’t in love with her. I never was. And it isn’t her fault. It’s you I love, Kitty. I’ve always loved you. Kitty, will you be my wife?’ Kitty knew that she should be shocked. But Dick’s eyes brushed hers and it was as if his hand had touched her. She felt herself tremble with the surge of longing that poured through her. She knew it was wrong and yet she couldn’t help herself …”


“She simply couldn’t understand why any woman should chose to spend her life ‘going to business’ as long as there were nice, attractive men to be married, and cute, cozy, chintz-draped little homes to be made for them.”

“I don’t want your Dick, honey.”

Let me say right off that this book is a sham. Despite the cover, which gives us a woman in a nurse’s uniform and the cover lines, “Could her dedication as a nurse conquer the passion of her woman’s heart?”—our heroine, Kitty Foster, is not, and never will be, a registered nurse. Rather, she is pressed into service to care for Rose Dunning, after Rose’s husband Dick—who dumped Kitty virtually at the altar four years earlier—drank too much one evening and got into a car accident, leaving her with a back injury and near paralysis.

The closest Kitty gets to being an actual nurse is when, “Two or three years before, she had even played with the idea of training to be a nurse. But of course, during that period she had considered practically every career that was open to women, and one or two that weren’t.” This quote is worth pausing over, more to reflect on the fact that at one point in time there were jobs that women were not allowed to hold. Kind of shocking, isn’t it? We may bemoan the lack of women in Congress or in the CEO’s office, but at least we understand that those ambitions are reasonable, and possible, for women. What must it have been like to know that your only career options were secretary, teacher, or nurse? (I’m also reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins, a really great book that has me thinking a bit more about these issues.)

Anyhoo, Kitty is fast becoming a bitter old maid, in the process of opening a dress shop—that repository for dried-up spinsters—when Dick’s wife is thrust upon her by Carter Paige, her longtime chum who is desperately in love with her but whom she considers no more than a good friend. So in nursing the cheap tramp, Kitty again encounters the man who ruined her life and turned her into a hard, selfish shrew. He tells her the story about how he, in New York about to be shipped off to war, runs into Rose, and, believing he is going to be killed in battle, marries her on the spur of the moment. But he doesn’t love Rose, he tells Kitty, and he wants her back. Though she is momentarily flattered by his attention, she quickly discovers that Rose really loves Dick, and that Dick is a spoiled, self-centered ass.

And that’s really all there is to say about this book. While not an unpleasant read, it’s really a short story stretched out into 126 pages, with lots of soul-searching and rehashing all of Dick’s flaws, and then a slow warming to Carter, who really is an attractive character. The wrench in the works of her budding feelings for Carter is the blonde knockout Dorothy. Will Kitty snag Carter in the end? Hmmm, I wonder.

Really, the most interesting thing about this book was a paragraph describing her encounter with the real estate agent when she backs out of the dress shop deal: “Mr. Bampton was surprised, but not too greatly surprised. He was an elderly man who leaned toward the view that the average woman never knew what she wanted from one minute to the next. He never took it amiss when a woman with whom he had had business dealings changed her mind at the last minute. He felt that the poor little dears couldn’t help themselves, nature having made them as they were. … The only thing that ever really surprised Mr. Bampton was when a woman did exactly what she said she was going to.” Again, can you even imagine living in a time when attitudes like this were commonplace? But other than these can-you-believe-that moments, there is no reason to read this book—and I would say this even if I weren’t holding a grudge because it tricked me into believing that it’s a nurse novel.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

New Nurse at Crest View

By Arlene Hale, ©1966

Nurse Selena Smith held back the tears as she handed in her resignation to Doctors’ Hospital. There was an opening at Crest View Hospital, and the change might help her forget her broken romance with Dr. Evan Newton. Selena’s new job at Crest View proved unexpectedly pleasing. She’d met a man named David Bancroft—handsome architect and part-owner of Crest View. And, soon, they were dating. But one night—unexpectedly, terrifyingly—fire broke out at Crest View. All were called up to volunteer—including a visitor, Evan Newton. And when the danger was over, Selena, gasping, begrimed, stretched out her arms—to the man she loved.


“He couldn’t kiss Paula without feeling he’d taken half a cosmetic counter away with him.”

Selena Smith is, in a word, a dish. This is a big chore for her because, gosh darn it, “I’ve had wolf whistles up to here!” Even though she is a good nurse who on the opening page has just substantially contributed to saving a patient’s life, Dr. Evan Newton “didn’t see her as a person of worth and ability.” Instead, he considers her to be “someone to have fun with—a good time—a pretty woman on his arm to lift his ego! He never considered that she had a brain in her head ….” Men are such pigs.

Selena is, of course, in love with Evan, but shortly after the book opens she breaks it off with him because he just wants to have fun, while “I’m not interested in just a good time. I want more, Evan. Something deeper. … I’m not just a little plaything for you to toy with in your free time,” she tells him. “You’re too intense. Too serious,” he answers, and stomps off. She’s broken-hearted, so she quits Doctor’s Hospital and goes to work at the Crest View convalescent hospital, so she won’t have to run into Evan any more.

There she meets wealthy architect David Bancroft, who is the son of one of the patients. He asks her about herself, never forces himself on her, and seems a generally good guy. Naturally, she has no interest in him. But she keeps going out with him, and tries to convince herself that she should marry him—he proposes on their second date—because he’s nice. But for not working together, she and Evan do keep running into each other a lot, and when they do, they just bicker some more. Will Selena compromise her values and just be the accessory on Evan’s arm? Will she accept David? Will Evan ever see her as more than just a pretty face? The suspense is killing me!

The book seems to want to have things two ways with Selena’s interest in a serious relationship with Evan—though she resists it from David, it seems she wants to be talking about marriage on the second date. Evan tells her she’s moving too quickly: “We aren’t getting married tomorrow or anything, you know.” She replies, “How did marriage get into this?” But then just a half-page later, she’s thinking the argument is futile: “Evan wanted a playmate, not a wife.” Must every relationship begin with a sizing up of its prospects of ending in marriage? I guess this is still a question being pondered by singles today.

This book is another one of those tossed-off books that seems more like a drawn-out short story. The plot is fairly nonexistent, and there aren’t any other interesting aspects to this book to think over, either. Once you’ve read the back cover, you really know all you need to about this book—so don’t bother to open it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Debutante Nurse

By Margaret Howe, ©1958

As Dana Gordon put on her new mink coat, she remembered the quizzical eyes of the young intern. To him she was nothing but an ornament—beautiful but useless. At that moment she made her decision to show him that she had the courage and will to win a place in his hard, dedicated world of medicine—even if it meant giving up her soft, glittering social world.


“The respect of those student nurses would mean more to me than ten mink coats, Kate.”

Dana Gordon is an Ohio girl attending college in New York, which is a bit of a controversy at home. Her mother thinks “it’s foolish for a girl to spend the best years of her life going to school.” Dana insists, however, because she felt the “desire to take a college course which would fit her for something more than the social future her mother anticipated for her.” Mom has been planning, since Dana was a toddler, that her daughter marry Jeff Forrester. Dana and Jeff are the products of business partners, both made wealthy by their venture, and this has doomed the couple to a fairly miserable existence—him as “still handsome, with a little added weight. Still stubborn and yes—lazy. Indifferent to everything but his golf score and the possession of the latest-model car.” Her as someone who will “acquiesce in anything they plan for me,” someone whose only future is as a wife. “Are you real, Dana Gordon?” she asks herself.

But she’s beginning to think that she would rather do something useful with her life, and that she would rather not marry the indolent Jeff. What has made her “talk like a Communist,” in her mother’s words, is that back in New York, she took a college chum with a broken ankle to the hospital, and there she saw “all those girls who wore their white caps so proudly.” She admires the nurses’ “serious occupation,” the fact that they don’t waste time shopping, and that “a uniform did not disguise a girl’s beauty. Instead, it enhanced even the plainest girl’s looks.” And, of course, she also meets “a man quite unlike Jeff, a man who did not accept life as one long holiday.” That would be Dr. Martin Emory, an intern orthopedic doctor, a man with “square and strong” hands.

She tells him she wants to become a nurse, and he all but laughs in her face. “I suppose you think I haven’t enough character to do anything more exhausting than dance the samba,” she snaps at him. She next tries the idea on the nursing superintendent, who also looks down her nose at Dana: “I have no reason to believe that a debutante would make a good nurse.” But Dana perseveres. Her father strikes a deal with her: If she keeps going with Jeff, he’ll let her go to nursing school here in town. The reason he’s keen to see her with Jeff is more than parental concern for her future. He agrees that Jeff is weak and lazy, but “business was rotten,” he tells her, and “our financial future depends too much on what Kent Forrester”—Jeff’s father and the owner of the business that employs Dana’s father as its president—“thinks to allow Dana to rush into a situation which will upset Jeff.” So she pretends she cares for Jeff, which is easy once he leaves to go back to school in New York—and more difficult after he flunks out of school and returns to Ohio.

When nursing school starts, the other girls shun her—they’re a little jealous of her cashmere and two mink coats. But she takes her roommate for an attractive haircut, and then they begin to warm to her: “Kate’s appearance brought requests from other girls about hairdos and clothes.” Apart from learning about makeup, there are other subjects to master—and it turns out that nursing school is hard! “ ‘Now we have to study,’ said Dana, with a frown. ‘I didn’t realize that. And most of the study is boring to me. I always hated physiology when I went to grade school. I avoided everything like science. Now I have no choice.’” It does strike me as odd that someone who hates science could really make a go of nursing as a career—or would even want to—but there it is.

If it’s not a love of science or medicine, what does she see in nursing? It seems to me she is looking more to gain control of her own life, and become more than just a puppet. “You’re a person too, Dana, with a right to plan your own future,” her roommate tells her. When she tells Dr. Emory that she is enrolling in nursing school, “She could read surprise in his face. Surprise and something else she had never seen on a man’s face before. Respect.”

Even though nursing schools is difficult, and she does flunk a few tests, she pulls it off. She even snags Dr. Emory—the catch is that she has to keep pretending to go with Jeff, and he gets drunk and marries a tarty showgirl and makes Dana promise not to tell anyone, and everyone thinks it is she who has eloped with Jeff, and what will Dr. Emory think when he hears this? It’s a little contrived, and frankly, I just didn’t really give a damn what Dr. Emory thought of it, because even if he were to become upset, it wouldn’t take much to put the situation to rights.

Debutante Nurse is really a much lesser version of Nurse Landon’s Challenge. It was mildly interesting to watch Dana find herself, but her choice of nursing, and her success in that field despite any apparent interest, was a bit unbelievable. I have to say that one of my favorite things about this book is the cover, which I see as a sly pun on the portraiture of wealthy Americans at the turn of the century; think John Singer Sargent painting a red-headed nurse. Which really isn’t enough to make this book worth reading.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Once a Nurse ... But Always a Woman

By Willo Davis Roberts, ©1966

San Francisco was to be a bridge to a new life for Noel Emery, R.N., when the pretty nurse put a tragic past behind her. As the jet carrying Noel circled San Francisco, her eyes met the blue gaze of a handsome stranger ... a mysterious man she would come to know only as Collie, even though he would call her by the pet name of “Christmas” and open her heart. When the elusively romantic Collie disappeared, Noel tried to ease her heartache by turning to a glamorous fashion career—a career that kept her involved in a dangerous game between ruthless people. But a curious twist of fate was to lead her again back to Collie—and to nursing.


“Are you one of those confounded women who are always right?”

There’s nothing like being in a near-miss airplane disaster to bond two total strangers. Noel Emery is a 26-year-old nurse in a jet circling San Francisco when the co-pilot actually enters the cabin to tell the passengers that there’s a problem with the landing gear, and they have enough fuel to keep circling for another hour. What happens after that, if they can’t fix the problem, he won’t say. A woman faints, and she and the big man with wide shoulders across the aisle from her dash out of their seats to revive her. Somehow—did they just fiddle all the switches in the cockpit until something worked?—the landing gear fixes itself and they land safely, once everyone has put out their cigarettes.

Collie—that is the only name he gives her—then helps her find a hotel and takes her all over San Francisco, to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Top of the Mark, the hungry i (once a storied nightclub, but when I lived in San Francisco, it was a seedy topless joint). He takes her to his house on Marina Boulevard, but when he vanishes from her life, she can never find it again—all those stucco houses with iron grillwork all look the same.

She, like many a VNRN heroine, is on the run from her past life, in which she fell in love with a patient with end-stage renal disease who, despite a kidney transplant, succumbs to the disease. (For more about kidney disease and transplants, see Nurse in Acapulco, a definitive source on the subject.) She’s giving up her nursing career and takes a job working for Katherine Rossi, an up-and-coming fashion designer, who is by turns overly generous and ruthlessly slapping the help around. Katherine needs money to stage a fashion show in New York (her money is all tied up in a show in Los Angeles), so she drags Noel with her back to the family hacienda in the valley to demand more money from her brother, to whom her dead husband willed his millions instead of her. Well, just take one guess who her brother turns out to be!

It also won’t take you long to figure out what Collie does for a living—he’s running the Rossi Hospital and pioneering new treatments for burn patients, and we get a tour of that facility and a rather unflinching introduction to its patients, adults and children alike, who are recovering (or not) from severe accidents. There’s an accident with an autoclave at the hospital one weekend, when all the staff nurses are out of town, so Noel is pressed into service, and into closer interaction with Collie.

Back at the ranch (really), Katherine is attempting to coerce Collie to cough up the cash by threatening to take her 12-year-old daughter, Martha, away from Collie, who has raised her from the age of three. Collie is standing firm—and then some very suspicious accidents begin to happen. Katherine’s car drives into a tree with the housekeeper behind the wheel, and then a carafe of cocoa on Katherine’s nightstand turns out to have been poisoned with arsenic after another assistant of hers becomes ill after tasting it. “In another hour or so I’d have drunk the rest of it myself. Do you think there was something in the cocoa?” Katherine innocently asks her brother. The question of who is behind these stunts is debated, but mercifully not for long, as it’s pretty clear who’s behind it all.

This book is a good read, with enjoyable locations and picturesque descriptions of everything from Katherine’s elegant fashions to the ranch house to San Francisco itself. Furthermore, it is rare that we see such a realistic picture of what nursing can be. Burns are a particularly horrifying injury, in the amount of pain they cause and their appearance, even after they have healed. That Once a Nurse shows them to us—from weeping open wounds to the black scabs (eschars) that form to the sloughing tissue to the mesh pattern of healing skin grafts—is both surprising and admirable. So this book earns my respect on several fronts. Though there’s not much more to it than decent writing and a realistic look at a difficult subject, it’s easily worth a few hours of your day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Surgeon's Nurse

By Ann Gilmer
(pseud. William E. Daniel Ross), ©1969
Cover illustration by George Wilson

Working with Dr. Clay Burke was a supreme challenge for any nurse—but for lovely young Jill Rowley, the job meant much more. She was head over heels in love with the brilliant and handsome surgeon, and Clay responded in kind. But he was a widower, with a bitterly jealous teen-aged daughter, and the marriage kept being put off. Jill felt trapped in a dead-end love, and the attentions of dashing Dr. Greg Bonnel grew hard to resist. Then one wintery night a car accident placed a famous Senator and his young secretary on the operating table—and amid tragedy, scandal and intrigue, Jill painfully discovered where a nurse’s highest loyalty lay, and what were the true needs of her own beleaguered heart.


“I don’t want lovely, young nurses. I prefer the ugly type like you.”

Jill Rowley is a 23-year-old nurse working for—that’s right—a surgeon, Clay Burke. They hail from Milford, NH, which is an actual out-of-the-way town southwest of Manchester, if you are interested in these geographical niceties (I, a former resident of the Granite State, am). We are told early on that the pair is in love—and we do need to be told this, because it certainly isn’t shown. The hitch is that the widower Clay has a 17-year-old daughter, Ruth, who is not keen on daddy remarrying. So Jill has decided to wait until Ruth changes her mind or moves out before she marries Clay. And five years later she’s still waiting. Good luck with that, I say.

There’s another doctor competing for Jill’s affections, and Clay starts getting jealous of Jill’s time and demanding that she inform him of her location at all times in the event that he needs her in surgery after hours. In the meantime, he is standing her up for the Christmas ball and New Year’s Eve parties, leaving her—in a gold lamé dress with a low-cut back of a smart style and a suitable length—with nowhere to go. And no girl is going to sit still for that.

Then one night, Clay and Jill are working away under the hot lights of the OR, attempting to save a state senator and his young secretary, who have been in a car accident on the slippery winter roads. (There are a lot of slippery roads in this book; apparently New Hampshire is just one constantly frozen tundra.) They’re stitching the patient closed and congratulating themselves on two more lives saved when the woman crashes—she’s been given the wrong blood type due to a mix-up in the lab, and the blunder kills her. The woman’s father, known as Clarence A. Smith throughout the book—I did ask myself on several occasions why the author felt the middle initial was so essential—is a former mental patient who doesn’t take his daughter’s death well, and he starts behaving erratically and making threats against the doctor. So already, by page 33, you know exactly where this book is going, and it drives you straight there on an interstate highway, without any detours or interesting scenery to divert you on the way.

Beyond this, there is not much more to comment on in this book. There is a Nurse Bentley, who is the stereotypical “veteran at the hospital, a maiden lady with an uncertain temper and few friends. And she much disliked her routine upset.” She is repeatedly described in unflattering terms: “A heavy-bodied nurse with a frowning face and horn-rimmed glasses,” “bustling around the room like an angry hippo,” “looking large and enraged.” It’s a type we’ve met before, and seems to be a warning to young nurses not to let their doctor boyfriends get away so they won’t have to “go on as the docile old-maid nurse faithfully serving the man she loved but had not been able to marry.” It’s odd that these seem to be the only two choices for single women, but there it is.

This book is like instant potatoes: It might get the job done, but it just makes you think of the real thing and wish you were having that instead. I’m sorry to say that the best thing about it is that it is a quick read. But then, so is the back of the cereal box—and at least that has something enjoyable inside it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wilderness Nurse

By Marguerite Mooers Marshall, ©1949 
Cover illustration by Isabel Dawson 

Denise Burke was gay and youthful and a very good nurse in a big city hospital. She loved her career, and she loved Larry Randall, who wanted to marry her and have her give up that career to be his wife. Troubled and uncertain, Denise went north for a vacation and a chance to make her decision away from the pressures of either work or love. Then … she had a serious accident and it took the skill of a master surgeon to heal both her body and her heart.


“All nurses are supposed to be in love with a doctor at least once.”

“I got this cold last night because I like to wear my decollete black lace nightie instead of the hospital Mother Hubbard.”

“I’ve got several murders on my conscience, but they don’t count. All of them were doctors!”

Again I feel compelled to say that the VNRNs written in the 1940s have, for the most part, a special spark about them. They seem to be written, as opposed to churned out. And with that I give you Wilderness Nurse, a snappy, vivacious little book with intellectual pretensions and some really lovely descriptions of rural Quebec. And the cover!!! How fantastic is that?!? 

Denise Burke is a girl from New Hampshire of Huguenot ancestry, which explains her fluency in French. She’s dating her twin brother’s colleague, Larry Randall, an advertising executive who takes her to the Yale-Army football game when she has time for him. But he’s a mixed bag: He is constantly pressing Denise to marry him (“You can’t hold me off forever with notions you starch like your uniforms”) and to quit nursing (“‘Cut out this nursing!’ he exploded”). She doesn’t take it from him, however: “Quit running down my profession, the work I like to do best in the world, the work I’ll never give up. You’ll have to take me on my own terms as a nurse and a—a companion, or not at all.” You see this attitude from time to time in VNRNs, but seldom is it as sincere as it is in Denise, and I admire her for it. 

She works at Holland Hospital in New York. Chief surgeon Dr. Curtis Steele is made of, well, steel. He barrels around the hospital snapping, “You do as I say!” to everyone he encounters, from patients to the chairman of the board of trustees. She admires him, however, and not just for his inevitable “strong, sure hands”; she loves his “dedication of body and brain and heart to the never-ending war against pain and death.” But after a string of patients wears her out with their rudeness and demands and suicidal behavior (one patient has postpartum depression, before the condition had a name), Denise up and quits her job. “A nurse has to take too much, from doctor and patient alike,” she tells her brother. To Dr. Steele, she says, “What I can’t stick, not any longer, is not being able to help, seeing them want to kill themselves, seeing them die with hate for us as their torturers! I won’t nurse any more. I can’t! I’ve had enough!”—to which he responds, “Don’t be a chump! You do as I say!” Needless to say, that doesn’t really change her mind. 

What she does do is agree to go with Larry and a group of other young folks to the Quebec home of Maurice Tremblay, who owns a Canadian company that does business with Larry, for a month-long fishing trip. Larry, however, does not take the opportunity to win over Denise. When she takes a short trip to Mr. Tremblay’s home village, Larry asks her, “Why do you have to go poking off to visit a bunch of dirty, ignorant Canucks?” Then he tells her to butter up Mr. Tremblay so the businessman will give Larry more work, which does not impress her much. “His predatory self-absorption was so naïve, so honest, so colossal that she had no answer.”

As the trip is coming to a close, one of the guides gets appendicitis, and she accompanies him to the area’s only hospital and assists with the surgery. The doctor there, Ned Eliot, wastes no time in begging her to sign on for a six-month term as a nurse at the hospital, and in falling for her like a ton of bricks. But try as she might, she can’t bring herself to care for him. He doesn’t order sulfa antibiotics because they’re expensive even though they decrease the death rate from pneumonia by almost 20 percent, and this shocks Denise. When she asks him about it, he says, “I hate to make a nuisance of myself” by fighting his board to get the medication. “Her chief sometimes seemed timid, unsure and uninformed in his procedures of treatment,” and she compares him unfavorably to the “martinet” Dr. Steele, who would never let a little money or a hospital trustee stand between his patients and a good outcome.

One day while walking out to assist the local midwife in a delivery, she jumps down a rock and breaks her ankle so severely that “bone pushed out flesh at a sickening angle just inside the instep.” Now that she’s on the receiving end of Dr. Eliot’s tentative medicine, she is not pleased. She gets ether instead of pentothal, which has fewer side effects, because “he hates to argue with our fund-raising committee about buying these new drugs.” He tells her after the surgery, “I hope I’ve done the right thing”—not exactly words to inspire confidence in your patient. “Was his best good enough?” she wonders, and the answer soon turns out to be no, as infection sets in due to a screw he has left in her ankle, and he tells her he is going to have to amputate her foot.

She doesn’t take this lying down, and fights for better medical care. She cables Dr. Steele to consult on the case, and soon he has touched down in the tundra to tell off Dr. Eliot. “Doctors, like thieves, are supposed to stick together and call the operation a success even when the patient dies. But I say this girl is suffering from almost unbelievable neglect,” he says. “I’m going to fight to save her foot. And no medical-ethics-conspiracy-of-silence will stop me!” So he packs her into his plane and takes her to Quebec City. The foot is saved, of course. Whether she will ever be able to work again with a feeble ankle is another question. But her nursing talents won’t be wasted, Dr. Steele tells her: “Don’t you realize you can use your nursing heart and passion for service as a real wife and a real mother? … You’ll nurse your husband, not just physically, but nurse him through the fatigue and discouragement and despair that come to all men. You’ll nurse your children, their hearts and minds as well as their bodies, for you’ll be the mother who works at her job instead of shirking it.” Small comfort, perhaps, but she does land on her feet, as it were, with a consulting job that can fulfill her professionally. And even Dr. Steele’s constant command to do as he tells her is turned on its ear in a pleasing conclusion.

It’s a welcome change to find a VNRN that has a brain. This book is sprinkled with quotations from J.M. Barrie, Tennyson, Kipling, Thomas Morton, Seneca, and the Bible, to name a few. It also mentions in passing, like you’ll get the reference, to the Belvedere Apollo (an ancient Greek sculpture) and Grover Whalen, who ran the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. One of Denise’s patients is the “keenly intelligent private secretary of a noted economist.” And, of course, Denise is bilingual and regularly chats with the Quebecois in their native tongue. The book is also well-written, with passages like, “ ‘I am very strong,’ she informed him with dignity and oral italics.”

The descriptions of the Canadian countryside and wildlife are quite vivid: Beside the cairn, Denise caught her breath in admiration of the dazzling purple-blue miles of St. Lawrence Gulf. She stood in the center of an archipelago of islands, or rather of gray-green rocky islets, carved into cliffs and coves by the hammer and chisel of wind-driven surf. Even on a midsummer morning such as this, the waves tore and lashed, sending up cascades and spires of tormented white foam. Rockledge itself was not an island but a peninsula, with lush green mossy valleys stretching behind the hospital as far as she could look. The time and places of the book are easily imagined by the reader, and the story is a real pleasure to read. At the end of the day, it’s still just entertainment—certainly not literature—but it’s easily a top-notch VNRN. I am looking forward to more of Ms. Marshall’s nurse novels (I count at least four more)—they may not be easy to track down, but I am certain they will be more than worth the effort.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Campus Nurse

By Suzanne Roberts, ©1962

Nurse Candy Foster loved her work at the huge medical center of Conrad University. But when Shep Harris, football star, was brought in from the field with his life and his sight threatened, Candy’s contentment burst like a fragile soap bubble. For this boy, once self-confident and assured, was now reduced to a life of fear and dread. Shep reached out to Candy, the one person he felt understood his feelings. And she responded with warmth. How could she know his feelings would turn to love and that love was the one thing she was unable to give her patient?


“I’m so glad I managed to fall in love with a guy who loves to eat as much as I do. It makes things so nice and uncomplicated.”

Campus Nurse opens when young nurse Candy Foster (was there really a time when people were named Candy?) is strolling across the campus of Conrad University on her way to work at the hospital there and is nearly run down by football star Shep Harris in his roadster. After he apologizes for almost killing her, he says, “I’ll bet without that dopey uniform on, you’d be a knockout.” In response, she thinks, “There was something about this boy that somehow made her feel angry. It was a kind of prolonged adolescence, a kind of little-boy fever which she found unattractive in a man his age.” So you can bet that it won’t be long before they’re engaged.

Sure enough, their paths meet shortly afterward when Shep collapses on the field during the big game that afternoon. When he is brought in, Candy tells young intern Mark Connor that Shep’s eyes had been “unusually dilated” that afternoon (when in fact they had been “terribly contracted, as if the bright sunlight bothered them”—so much for her observational skills). Turns out Shep has a brain tumor, and a couple days after he checks in to the hospital, he goes blind. She goes to visit him, and he becomes instantly obsessed with her, calling her name all night, begging her not to leave him. Candy, for her part, feels some sort of half-love, half maternal instinct, and is drawn to him as well. Before long he’s proposed to her, just before he is wheeled into surgery, and she accepts, even though she “wasn’t sure if she loved him, could love him, or just felt a deep psychological pull that forced her to answer his cry for love and tenderness and understanding.”

After this, Shep takes a decidedly creepy turn. His surgery is a success, and his vision begins to return, but he is convinced he is a cripple, and he becomes increasingly demanding of Candy. He expects her to be with him every minute she is not working, and every time she goes to see him, “the invisible chain seemed to tighten slightly.” One night she forgets that she has told Shep that she would visit him and goes out with Dr. Connor for a hamburger—so Shep pushes his way past his nurse in the hospital and, in an attempt on the stairs, falls down a flight and knocks himself unconscious. “What happened tonight was my fault,” Candy tells her roommate. “I don’t know how I could have been so selfish—going out with Mark, enjoying myself like I did, when Shep was up there waiting for me.”

Candy runs into Shep’s former girlfriend, who he dumped for Candy, and she says, “I know how he is—how demanding he can be … that’s the way he was with me, when he was in love with me. Jealous, dependent on me, calling me at all hours at the sorority house, worrying about whether or not I loved him, that’s the kind of lover Shep is.” He is running true to form with Candy. He keeps insisting that his vision will never improve, and he’s very upset when he is discharged from the hospital. “Look at me!” he tells her. “Look how shaky I am, how—kind of feeble. I feel like and old man … half-sick, half-blind.” He grabs Candy’s hand. “Without you … everything scares me. God, how I need you, Candy.” Before long he’ll be knocking her around, stalking her when she leaves the house, and eventually stabbing her to death despite numerous restraining orders. But not to worry, Candy is saved from this horrific fate when the school decides to have a Shep Harris ceremony at the next football game, and Shep is suited up and sitting on the bench with the team. And I don’t even have to tell you what happens next.

It’s a curious little story, mostly because with a modern eye one can recognize how truly manipulative and dangerous Shep is. Though most of the other characters in the book also see that Shep is out of control, including Candy herself, it’s not enough to put a kibosh on the relationship or Shep into some very intensive therapy. It is somewhat frustrating to watch her continue to be sucked in and used by him when she seems to know it’s not going to turn out well for her, not just personally, but professionally as well—she recognizes that Shep will force her to give up her nursing career, which she values above everything else in her life, if they are married. But the situation ends quickly enough not to become outright irritating, and all things considered, this book is an easy enough read, if not anything special.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Nurse Was Juliet

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1965 

Julie hated what he stood for. Change to her beloved little mountain town. Change in the way she and her doctor mother conducted their small clinic for the people of the hills. Change in her fiancé, till now the most dependable thing in Nurse Juliet’s life. And most frightening of all—change in her heart. How could she hate a man—hate everything he died—and still dream of him all the time? 


“A home and a husband and children are a woman’s trinity.” 

“This is for life; not for a romantic novel.” 

When you know an author was turning out several books a month, it’s hard not to feel a little guilty for expecting more from a book than formula. But darn it, when I see the same setup again and again, I am annoyed—especially when it’s just minor aspects of the story that wouldn’t be all that tough to switch up. For example, in this Peggy Gaddis throwaway, we meet Miss Sarah, who lives in the rough-hewn cabin set at the top of a long winding path far from the nearest road—a de rigueur setting for at least one character in four of the five of her books I’ve read to date. 

In this one, our eponymous nurse hails from a small dirt-poor town in the Georgia mountains—another big stretch for Ms. Gaddis. Steve Hayden, a newspaper reporter from Atlanta, comes to town to cover a murder trial that had a change of venue to this backwater location, and from the moment she claps eyes on him, Juliet Cochran is nasty and mean beyond all reason. You see, she is furious that the name of her hometown will be forever sullied, as people will think the murder happened here rather than just the trial, and she blames Steve for this. 

Oddly, however, she is also opposed to her fiancé’s hopes of improving the place. “He’s going to do everything he can to change Haleyville, first by getting a good road to the county seat and then, no doubt, by getting a hospital over here,” she snarls. She doesn’t mind the poverty of the residents, their hardscrabble lives, their miserable and crowded living conditions, that the “girls marry before they get out of their teens, some of them before they get into their teens,” because it’s what she’s known all her life. Besides, her parents are doctors, so she doesn’t have to live that way, which makes it all just charming and quaint. 

The aforementioned Miss Sarah has a “crumpled old face” and graying hair, and she calls herself “a cross-grained old woman,” and “a battered old creature.” Juliet visits the housebound recluse every week to give her “a life-giving injection that would keep her going for another week.” (That must be some shot!) But Steve digs up a shocking secret about her: It seems that she married a very wealthy man from New York when she was 18 and gave birth to a son a year later, only to run away back to her shack shortly afterward. Steve finds the 26-year-old Gerard and brings him to meet his mother, and all is right with the world. And now for the real shock—Miss Sarah is actually just 45 years old! Apparently the hardscrabble mountain life really takes a toll on a person. 

The millionaire Gerard then sets out to upgrade Haleyville. In a matter of months, new houses are springing up all over town, the roads get paved, banks open, industries move in, and the general store starts carrying Capri pants, halters, and Bermuda shorts. If only we had this guy on President Obama’s economics team, we’d have the recession turned around in no time. Juliet begins to see that jobs are a good thing after all, although it may be the latest fashion trends that really melt her cold, cold heart. All that remains is for her to dump her fiancé and for Steve to swing by and claim his prize, and we can toss this book over our shoulders.

This book has a couple of odd moments. One is its interest in spanking, though it would not be the only VNRN to have this unhealthy obsession. “What an unpleasant creature you are! Dr. Laura, I’m afraid you didn’t spank her often enough when she was growing up,” Juliet’s fiancé says of her. A few chapters later, Steve chimes in, “For two cents I’d turn you across my knee and wallop the daylights out of you.” Juliet reacts by catching her breath with wide eyes, as if this is an actual possibility. “And don’t tempt me by saying I wouldn’t dare!” he continues. “I can’t think of anything at the moment I’d rather do! It’s way past time when somebody should have done it!” The whole idea is wrong in so many ways—from the apparent acceptability of violence against women, to treating women like children, to the hint of kinkiness to the act—that it could be an entire term paper in someone’s women’s studies class.

Then there’s the fact that Juliet and her mother have hired Aunt Jemima to do their cooking. “Mattie, vast and ebony-hued and immaculate in her dark print dress and white apron,” is constantly urging the women to eat in her honey-chile vernacular. “Miss Laura, you ain’t had a mouthful of vittles!” she scolds Juliet’s mother. “Mattie was at the stove, smiling a white-toothed welcome that split her ebony face into a happy smile … fists on her ample hips.” Like Mammy in Gone with the Wind, she’s a sympathetic and caring character, but one that nonetheless makes me wince.

This book is not Peggy Gaddis’s finest, nor her worst. She does pursue her habit of picking up certain words or phrases and beating them to death—I think she referred to “vertical” farms on at least three occasions—once was good, but enough is enough. She also hints at things that are never answered: There’s the suggestion that something happened to Juliet when she was in nursing school—“Here was a girl who had been badly hurt sometime, undoubtedly during the years she had spent in Atlanta,” Steve thinks—though we are never told what happened, or even if this is in fact the case. Juliet herself is not a terribly sympathetic character, as she is always sniping at someone, and she is called selfish by several characters, including her mother. But for its flaws, it’s pleasant enough, especially if you haven’t already read other Peggy Gaddis books.