Saturday, August 21, 2010

Nurse Landon's Challenge

Adelaide Humphries, ©1952

“You’re spoiled, a snob—in short, the sort of girl who is not much use in the world.” That’s what Doctor Peter Hayes, the young surgeon at Lakefront Hospital, said to Kay Landon the first time they met. Nothing in Kay’s life as the pampered daughter of wealth had prepared her for this sternly dedicated man who was indifferent to her social background and didn’t seem to notice her vibrant attractiveness. She tried to forget his words in the whirl of pleasure provided by Nicky Fairchild. She even accepted a beautiful big solitaire from Nicky. It did no good. She had to show that arrogant young doctor that she was mor than just a lovely doll dressed by the world’s most expensive designers. So Kay Landon enrolled in one of the most difficult and demanding careers open to women. She started training to be a nurse—and a good one—at Lakefront Hospital.


“The reason I hadn’t called you sooner,” Peter said, “was that this epidemic has kept me so busy.”

Kay Landon is my kind of heroine. On the day that we meet her, Kay is “wearing a sheer sleeveless dress and a thoroughly bored expression on her lovely face.” Within three paragraphs she gets pulled over for speeding—and though she is contemplating harassing the cop and getting arrested, he just wants to commandeer her wheels to ferry people injured in a train crash to the hospital. So instead of to jail, she heads off to the accident scene, where an injured man and Dr. Peter Hayes are loaded into her car. He is curt and indifferent to her, so she skewers him with sarcasm, and he responds in the same tone: “You are spoiled, rather silly, something of a snob—in short, the sort of girl who is actually not much use in this present-day world.”

Immediately she decides to show him a thing or two. She’s going to become a nurse! “It would be a perfectly marvelous way to get even with him,” she thinks. She tells her boyfriend, the arrogant, “Apollo-like” clubber Nicky, about her decision, and he’s not wild about the idea. “Girls like you don’t go in for nursing,” he tells her. “You’re the sort of girl who has been waited on all her life. Not the sort to do menial tasks for other people. Rubbing old men’s backs with alcohol, emptying bedpans—Good lord, Kay, I won’t let you do it!”

But she goes anyway, though she’s not really wild about nursing. “Charity cases were apt to be unsavory; dirty old men, whiny old women, pitiful undernourished and unwanted children.” But she keeps hoping to run into a certain doctor—which she does, literally: She’s pushing a tray of sterile instruments to the OR when she turns a corner too fast, nearly running over the doctor and dumping the cart onto the floor. “Now look what you’ve made me do!” Kay snaps at him. But guess what—soon she begins to love nursing and how useful it makes her feel.

About halfway through the book she and Dr. Peter hook up, but since they’re not supposed to be dating—she’ll get kicked out of school if she’s caught with him—they don’t see much of each other, and when they do, they start squabbling. There’s another woman, of course. Peter is also pursuing Fern Wentworth, a former burlesque queen who married a wealthy man twice her age who then conveniently dropped dead. He’s hoping she’ll make a large donation for renovations to the hospital: “He wants the old wooden part torn down, thinks it’s a firetrap,” Fern tells Kay. (Does anyone besides me sense some foreshadowing here?)

This book is a fun read, and it really gives you a sense of the era it was written in. While Kay is avoiding Peter, she hangs out with the other nursing students, a great bunch of scrappy gals with colorful speech (“investigate the hock shops and get all the dope,” “She thought she looked like Mrs. Astorbilt, but she looked as though she belonged in a circus,” “You sound like a Communist!”). I appreciated the fact that this book actually takes characters (though not the leading ones) beyond the chaste kiss: “I saw you in that supply closet necking with that roughneck orderly, Birdie—the big one with the scarred face.” And Nicky’s reference to bedpans is the first time I’ve seen one of these books refer to the, shall we say, messier aspects of nursing. I appreciated the fact that Kay is a flawed individual, and even at the fiery conclusion when she is the hero, she does it reluctantly: “She had not especially wanted to do it. And at the end she had almost given up …. And she hadn’t felt brave at all.” The cover illustration may well be my favorite so far: her red convertible, the palm trees in the background, her arched eyebrow, her displeased expression. This book really has it all.

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