Sunday, August 29, 2010

Student Nurse

By Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1944
Cover illustration by Roswell Keller

“You dear stubborn girl” That’s what Dr. Alec Macauley thought of his beautiful young nurse, Gail Weston. Pleading his case with her aunt, he said: “I love Gail. I want her to marry me, but—” “I’m sorry, Doctor,” the old lady murmured. “I have been wondering if there is someone else. If there is—well, I suppose I shall still hope.” There is someone else in Gail Weston’s heart: Peter Rand. Lighthearted, gay, apparently irresponsible, Peter seems almost callow alongside Dr. Macauley. But Gail is drawn to Peter in spite of herself. Though she feels she should respond more to Alec Macauley, she finds herself unstirred. Then crisis strikes. Both men are at hand. Gail learns their true worth and makes her choice in this fine, sensitive tale of the hardest decision a woman has to make.


“Mrs. Dawson beamed from her seat behind the percolator.”

After forcing myself all the way through this relentlessly cheerful and nauseatingly patriotic book, I am about ready to give all World War II-era romance novels a quick flip into the fireplace. Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the cover illo of nurse Gail Weston adorned with a triangular halo and a beatific expression, her gaze lifted skyward (to our boys overseas? to Jesus?). Sactimony is never an attractive trait, even in a silly novel.

Gail is, we are told, a student nurse, though for all but about six pages she is on vacation, so right off I felt more than a little led astray—Nurse Hangs Around the House, it should have been called. She’s at home for a month with the elderly caretakers Adam and Ann Dawson, who keep up the family mansion, now decaying gracefully since the death of her parents. These are charming folk, we know, because Adam is always saying, “Dad bust it all!” When Gail’s mother died, Gail abruptly dumped her boyfriend Pete and went off to nursing school. Pete runs the Rand Tool and Implement Plant, but he doesn’t work very hard and is not attractive to Gail because, Adam tells him, “Why ain’t you acting your age, Peter Rand? Why are you behaving like some ten-year-old? Why do you suppose a girl like Gail Weston should bother playing around with a kid like you? … She’s a grown woman and she’s doing a woman’s work.”

Beyond these introductory facts, having just finished the book this morning, you’d think I could tell you want happens in it. Well, despite the fact that it drags on for 181 tedious pages, I am hard-pressed to tell you what the plot was, or if indeed there was one. The characters do a lot of eating, or picking and shelling peas, or rejoicing that chicken is not rationed yet. Pete consumes a lot of cookies, and there are a few sour cherry pies involved. Then there’s the Rockwellian tableau around the supper table, to which we are treated at least three times: “The food was delicious, the setting lovely, and the conversation scintillating … With head bowed while Mr. Dawson said grace, Gail’s heart was full of gratitude. … It was a simple grace … yet always her heart swelled and in her throat she felt the thickness of tears. Old, yet always fresh and somehow comforting—like getting close to the Source of Power, of Happiness and Peace. Her eyes were very bright as she raised her head and took the salad bowl Mrs. Dawson passed to her.”

We do get beaten over the head with patriotism, what with the war on and all. Sometimes it’s just foolish: “It’s against the law and unpatriotic to drive so fast,” Gail tells Pete. She wears an old dress to the country club: “Rather bouffant for wartime but Gail felt she was by no means unpatriotic inasmuch as the gown was all of three years old.” But most of the time it takes its ugliest form, xenophobia wrapped in the flag. Rhoda Emmich is a glamorous woman from Austria, so naturally she must be up to no good: She’s “the fuse set to go off at a given time … very sophisticated—old world—continental, you know. Sort of slinky—woman-of-the-word—adventurous type.” A hobo stops at the door, and Adam is convinced the man is “an alien spy”: “I got the idee [sic] he wasn’t quite so dilapidated as he wanted us to believe … wonder what his game was?” Pete and his competitor’s manufacturing plants experience explosions at the hands of saboteurs (you’d think one explosion would be sufficient, but once Mrs. Hancock gets this plot turn in her head, she beats it completely to death): “Who wouldn’t be angry to know that his beloved town had been harboring spies—saboteurs in the employ of Hitler and his cohorts?” Why this team has singled out a small town in Indiana for its evildoings is left unanswered.

In the end Pete finally enlists, and there’s the classic farewell speech: “I shall be waiting for you. Cripple, blind or a wreck you belong to me just as I belong to you—have always belonged to you,” Gail declares. She returns to nursing, and she’s giving Wonder Woman a run for her money: “The rest of the staff marveled at her endurance and amazing good humor at the end of a hard, twelve-hour trick.” Her secret is, we are told, “the alchemy of love,” and upon learning this startling revelation, Gail’s nursing chum then decides to “accept Tim’s one hundred fifth proposal … Just now I feel being Tim’s wife would be an answer to prayer.”

Speaking of prayer, let’s wrap up with one more: “Keep all our splendid young men—our defenders of the right—always within the shadow of Thy wings. Let it end soon, dear God—let it end soon!” And to be clear, we’re thinking of the war, not the book.

1 comment:

  1. Seems in quite a few of these "Patriotic Overdone To A Turn" novels from the early to mid-40's, that "somewhere in the ubiquitous Midwest" is usually the location for all the goings-on. Here, you say its in Indiana, back then mostly soybean and cornfields surrounding several traffic lights, the two big department stores of the day, L.S. Ayers, and Blocks, and the State Capitol building in Indianapolis, or Illinois, where all roads lead to The Windy City, Chicago.
    The only other variations take place on one coast or the other, where most all the BIG defense plants are.
    And everyone is served up heaping helpings of "Patriotism" the likes of which Pollyanna would find nauseating at best. And about the only thing NOT on the Ration List!