Saturday, October 30, 2010

Undercover Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1972
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

Nurse Gail Arnold was young and beautiful and happy. Her work at the Narcotics Rehabilitation Center was interesting and rewarding. And her silent worship of handsome Dr. Bruce Cranston filled her heart with hopeful dreams. But her serene existence was in for a startling change. An unknown young woman, viciously beaten and near death from an overdose of heroin, was brought to the hospital. Gail, assigned to the case, now found herself working in heart-quickening closeness with the man she loved. Then menace marred the picture. For the new patient harbored a tormenting secret that was to spell deadly danger for Gail. It would lead her, innocent and unsuspecting, into the nightmare world of narcotics traffic where not only her dreams of love but also her very life would be threatened!


“It’s hard to kiss you when you’re moving your lips.”

Just because a book is fluff doesn’t mean it has to be a complete waste of time. If the author cared about it, thought about it, and worked on it, it can be an interesting, amusing story. This, alas, is not what happened with Undercover Nurse. This book feels tossed off and mechanical, and even the great writing of some earlier Jane Converse novels (e.g. Surf Safari Nurse, Backstage Nurse) is totally lacking. You can zip through it with less pain than with some VNRNs, but that’s hardly a worthwhile motive to pick up this or any other book.

Gail Arnold works at the Bayou Narcotics Rehabilitation Clinic in New Orleans with Dr. Bruce Cranston, who she has loved from afar for quite some time. The fact that they work with drug addicts gives the book a rare flash of originality, though the constant lectures about how misunderstood drug addicts are is a serious, well, downer. Bruce and Gail get a case one night, just as Bruce has asked Gail out to dinner at Antoine’s, which totally wrecks those plans. Stella De Shiel is overdosing on heroin and has been beaten to within an inch of her life. The pair brings her back from the brink of death (curiously, they give her Dilaudid, a derivative of morphine, to help her kick her narcotics habit), and she starts spinning wild, hysterical tales about how the clinic’s main benefactor, Paul Mascon, is actually running a narcotics ring and is trying to kill her because she worked for a competing syndicate. Yeah, right, thinks our heroine.

A “friend of the family” drops in to see Stella, and doesn’t seem overly upset that she is not having visitors. He starts chatting up Gail, and in about three minutes flat she lets drop that they suspect foul play with Stella’s injuries, Stella has named Paul Mascon as the ringleader of a drug syndicate, the police have not yet been notified, and Stella was moved to a new room—that would be Room 109—last night. Would you be surprised if I were to tell you that Stella turns up dead a few days later, murdered with a heroin overdose?

That night two “policemen” show up in Gail’s apartment and drive her out to some house in the bayou to meet the “chief”—and would it shock you to learn that the “chief” is really Paul Mascon himself, and that he orders the two thugs—they’re not really policemen after all!—to kill Gail? Honestly, Gail is dumber than two sticks. “This couldn’t be happening! They were going to kill her! In a few minutes she would be dead, and there was nothing she could say, nothing she could do to save herself!” (And the italics are the author’s, I’m sorry to say.) Well, it turns out she can save herself, but that can’t come as much as a surprise, either.

Maybe drug clinics were new and interesting in 1972, and maybe reading about heroin addiction was really exciting in those days. But even if that’s the case, I don’t think that could make this a better book. It takes more than some slang expressions (“shooting junk,” “joy-popping,” “bummer LSD trip”) and a couple of patients having seizures to make for a good read. The “easy to see large type” doesn’t really help matters, making the book seem even more juvenile. It’s not painful, but that’s really the best I can say for this book.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nurse Smith, Cook

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1968

Nurse Fiona Smith was determined to go on looking after her young nephew when he went to Australia to join his father, even though that gentleman had stipulated ‘no females!’ So she pretended to be the new cook instead, hoping that everything would sort itself out in time… 


“‘The bones are not there’—coldly, from Fiona—‘they’re under refrigeration.’ ‘And so,’ submitted Steve, ‘is someone else.’” 

I was a little nervous of this book after reading the last vintage Harlequin romance, Silent Heart, which was a smidge too British for easy reading. Don’t get me wrong—I love the British locutions and slang, but the hospital organization was completely different from the American system and so more than a little confusing. But Nurse Smith, Cook is about a Scottish nurse who relocates to an Australian ranch, completely avoiding the hospital and its alien hierarchy, so I had no trouble with it at all. In fact, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable book. 

When the book opens, Fiona Smith is living with her aunt and in Scotland, and the pair are raising Fiona’s nephew, William Manning. Fiona’s older sister Fenella had married an Australian named Steve Manning, who abandoned her and baby William, and she had died in America. William is six years old and a “withdrawn, uncooperative … truculent, ungrateful, unresponsive, quite unpromising, violet-eyed brat.” So naturally we understand her unswerving devotion to the lad. Fiona sees an ad in a newspaper seeking information about Fenella Manning and responds, and soon she has a large check and a one-way plane ticket for William to Australia. She’s forbidden to accompany him, but due to her overwhelming obligation to him, she spends her check on a ticket and goes anyway. When Steve Manning, who is picking up William, asks her if she is the new cook, who the fortuitously has her same last name, she says she is, and off they go.

The trick is, ha ha, she can’t cook: “Of all the things Fiona could not do, and, as with most people, there were many, the top of the list was cooking. … She had been remarkably successful at producing lumpy arrowroot and curdled egg flip, and to this day there was a strange disc on the rec room wall, and when probationers asked curiously: ‘What is that?’ they were informed solemnly that it was Nurse Smith’s first dry toast.” The morning after she arrives at the ranch she is saved from the stove by an outbreak of scarlet fever, a complication of strep throat, among the ranch’s 24 Aboriginal children (William also gets it, in what is a curious coincidence or the shortest incubation period on record; it’s normally one to four days, with spots appearing 12 to 48 hours after onset of sore throat. The rash appears in only one out of ten strep patients, so it’s another medical curiosity that every child on the place comes down with “scarletina”). As Fiona is instructing Steve on the requirements of her patients, he is naturally suspicious: “‘For a cook,’ his voice was dry, ‘you’ve been told a remarkable lot about medicine.’” 

But those darn kids will bounce back, and then it’s off to the kitchen with her. Her first efforts there yield something that “looked like roofing tiles” instead of bread. But when Flora Macdougall, the head nurse of the region’s hospital, who is also Scottish, calls to check on the scarlet fever cases, Fiona begins sobbing about the baking catastrophe, and the matron talks her through the recipe. Two hours later, out it comes, “golden, crispy, sweet, nutty. Twenty beautiful loaves. Fiona stood beside them, actually crying. Never, she thought, never have I felt like this before, not even when Tommie Fenton haemorrhaged after his tonsils through jumping around too much, and the doctor was away, and I had to stitch him up myself.” So between the ranch’s only cookbook and the Matron on the other end of the phone, Fiona begins to whip up edible suppers. Not without mishap, however: As she puts a ruined Yorkshire pudding on the table, someone asks William what it is. “‘A brick, I think,’ William said. ‘The night we were sick they had cricket balls.’” 

In the meantime, Steve has not acknowledged any sort of relationship with William, and neither has she. Fortunately William is so withdrawn that he refers to Fiona only as “Mismif.” But she is not good at camouflage, and Steve knows something is amiss: “Ask if that unlikely story is acceptable, because it’s not, but it’s a good effort and I’ll pass it over for the time being,” he tells her when she tries to explain her unusual concern for William. Her ignorance about cooking and the medical emergencies that keep popping up don’t help her any. Steve gets the mumps, and she is required to tell him, circuitously of course, that he has to go to bed or risk orchitis, swelling of the testicles that can render a man infertile: “You could have complications. … They could ruin your life. … Your wife’s. … Your—your family. If you ever had one. Now—now do you understand?” As the book progresses, it’s clear that she likes him, and he likes her, but she can’t forgive him for running out on her sister and for refusing to acknowledge his relationship to William, and he also seems to be harboring some misconceptions about her that remain mysterious (“Is it too late for white?” he asks her about a dress). You see their dilemma.  

I was a little concerned initially when the Aboriginal house maid’s eyes “rolled” at Fiona’s red quilted dressing gown, and when the ranch hands’ kids are referred to as pickaninnies, or pics for short. But even William is referred to as a pic, so perhaps this term just means child in Australia? Because once we are over these initial bumps in the road, the attitudes are quite enlightened. William latches on to Harold, who is an orphan Aborigine boy living on the ranch, and moves him into his room in the house. She asks Steve, “ ‘Am I to understand then that Harold is now one of the family?’ ‘Any objections?’ ‘Of course not!’ indignantly.” Steve talks of sending Harold as well when the time comes for William to go away to school. “He appears a bright youngster. Possibly will leave William still floundering in the first grade while he makes the top.” Even outsiders refer to William and Harold as “family” without batting an eyelash. 

This book has a sense of humor, and the dialect is fun, too: “He’s out walkabout with name belonga Harold,” “he plurry well is,” “we like the tucker.” The writing style is different than most VNRNs (though I did have to cringe at a sentence early on that contained—and I counted twice—12 commas). But I didn’t get much sense of Australia or the times; apart from the vocabulary and a cameo by a crocodile, it really could have been set anywhere, at any time before the advent of cell phones. And I wasn’t convinced that it really needed all 187 pages. But if it doesn’t have enough to make it an excellent book, it is easily is a pleasant book plurry well worth reading.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Private Duty Nurse

By Isabel Cabot
(pseud. Isabel Capeto), ©1958 

Two men wanted lovely young Nurse Johnson. Phil Tyler, a widower, was rich and attractive. And Eleanor knew his motherless little girl needed her woman’s care and love. But young Dr. Grant was a gifted surgeon who wanted Eleanor to share his brilliant future. Then tragedy struck Phil Tyler’s daughter. Love and duty both impelled Eleanor to help, but she knew that in this crucial test she must have a man’s strength and wisdom to guide her. To which of her lovers would she turn? 


“Grant’s in the kitchen fixing a hypodermic needle.” 

“I’ve a good mind to kick the next man who treats me like a sister.” 

This book starts out with an original twist (well, at least original when it comes to VNRNs): It opens on a scene with Fay Lord discussing a blind date she has set up between Dr. Grant Tyler and her roommate, Eleanor Johnson. The joke is, Dr. Grant thinks it’s Fay’s other roommate, Connie, he’s going out with, and won’t the laugh be on Mr. “High-and-Mighty! … Here he is expecting a beautiful, statuesque redhead and out comes Ellie.” It isn’t until the middle of Chapter 2 that the spotlight shifts to Ellie and stays there, and we realize that Ellie is really the heroine of the book, not Fay. 

On the ill-contrived date, Dr. Grant admits that Eleanor is “not too bad-looking,” but adds, “But neither is she any Helen of Troy. She couldn’t launch a boat of surgical instruments, let alone a thousand ships.” The metaphor is a little contrived, but you get the point. Their date comes to an abrupt end when Grant takes her to Lookout Walk, grabs her, and, though she struggles to get away, tries to kiss her. She pushes him over a stone wall, and he fakes injury. When she approaches him to help, he grabs her again. “I’ll kiss you right, if it’s the last thing I do,” he tells her, and he’s about to when she hits him over the head with a rock to escape, jumps in his car, and drives herself home. Of course, this only intrigues Grant further: “Eleanor had felt so soft and sweet in his arms. And for the briefest moment her lips had been almost responsive under his.” Because there’s nothing like a sexual assault to really turn a girl on. It’s almost more outrageous that, for the rest of the book, he talks as if he were the one who was attacked. “I wonder how the Registry feels about private duty nurses who assault people and steal their cars,” he says to her when he sees her next—and she then blushes and asks, “Do you intend to report me?” as if his version is in fact the accurate one. 

A few days later Ellie is begged to take on a case nursing Thomas G. Tyler, who has had a heart attack, on the night shift. Mr. Tyler is Grant’s uncle, and a very wealthy man in town. When she arrives at the mansion, she naturally runs into the nephew, but he is too worried about “The Captain” to really notice her. As time passes, though, Ellie sees a lot of Grant and Phillip, Mr. Tyler’s widowed son, both around the house and around town. Ellie has no car, so she gets rides to and from work frequently from Phil, who soon asks her out on a date. He seems like a nice guy, and they have a pleasant evening. But when he drops her off at the mansion for her night duty, he, too, grabs her, kisses her, and won’t let go. Only Grant’s appearance at the car door encourages Phil to loosen his hold. Ellie, however, seems not at all alarmed by his aggression and tells him “thanks loads” when he offers to bring in her uniform, which she has left in his car. A few days later she’s out on another dinner date with him. 

And it’s not long before Grant is at it again. He asks her out on a date—and she actually agrees to go, shame on her—but once in her apartment, he “gripped her arm. ‘Let me go,’ she said coolly.” Later in the book, Grant “took her roughly by the shoulders” and does not release her even when she says he is hurting her. These violent tendencies seem not to faze her at all, and once these incidents are over, they never again cross her mind—indeed, rather than finding Grant sick and sadistic, she is attracted to him. Later recalling her first date with him, “her face flushed when she thought of the way they had tussled. And he had had the audacity to laugh. It had been a pleasant laugh, she had to admit. And his lips on hers hadn’t been as harsh as she had anticipated. For the briefest moment—she felt her face burn hotter. Couldn’t she ever forget that night?” But at the same time, she continues to find Grant’s arrogant behavior irritating. He tells her he’s forgiven her for “slugging” him, and when she is appropriately outraged, he replies, “You’re dying for me to kiss you. … Why fight it? You’re afraid to come within a foot of me. What’s the matter? Don’t you trust yourself?” 

The book starts to wrap itself up few pages later when Phil is found in the park with a gash on his head and is hospitalized, near death. Some missing jewelry turns up under a rock in the garden and then vanishes again, accusations of extortion and bribery are made against the wife of the prominent doctor who is officially attending Mr. Tyler, and then Phil’s five-year-old daughter disappears. One of the Tyler boys turns out to be thoroughly rotten, and Ellie ends up engaged to the other one. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that she falls for the character that comes across as the most despicable, and the apparently nice guy is actually not at all. 

I really had issues with the creepy way the men who date her seem to enjoy manhandling Ellie. My disliking of Grant was instant and severe after he mauled her at Lookout Walk, and his subsequent insistence that she was in the wrong that night didn’t help him any. But if that scene and his other attempts to grab her hadn’t occurred, I wouldn’t think he is such a monster. His remark that she is dying to be kissed by him is arrogant and asinine, but it’s not unforgiveable, and it must be acknowledged that this sort of comment is de rigueur for VNRNs. (That’s a topic of discussion for another day.) The regularity with which Ellie is pawed makes me wonder if this was a common practice back in the late ’50s or if Isabel Cabot just thinks this is a nifty device to bring the heroine into a clinch, as of course no nice girl would willingly participate in such a thing unless she was forced to. Whatever the reason for these scenes, they just don’t play in the 21st century, and they bring down what would otherwise be a good book.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Flight Nurse

By Kathleen Harris, ©1960

Fiestas, bullfights, the adulation of the aficionados—this was the thrilling world Raoul Bermudez, Spain’s celebrated young matador, opened to golden-haired Lieutenant Faye Ramsey, stationed at a US air base in Spain. Vainly Captain Russ Campbell cautioned the young nurse—“Love is only a game to these Latins, Faye.” But Faye didn’t hear him. She was living in an enchanted dream. Then reality broke in on Faye. Horrified, she saw that her ideals as a nurse and as an American girl were in jeopardy!


“I’ve about had my fill of being a gay bachelor.”

The cover of this book, of a woman ducking under a tree branch while a plane behinds her goes up in flames and another flies low over it, gives this book an air of urgency before you’ve even opened it. Does our heroine crash in the mountains and nurse the injured crew back to life? Is she the lone survivor after her plane is shot down? Is she taken prisoner by a hostile enemy after her plane crash-lands behind enemy lands? No, no, and no. More soap opera than action movie—which we can hardly blame a VNRN for being—the actual story does not live up to the anticipation created by the cover. Nonetheless, it’s still a pretty good read.

Faye Ramsey is a nurse in the Air Corps. She isn’t happy just working at the base hospital, so she had volunteered for flight-nurse duty. When we meet her, she has already spent six weeks in formidable training: “Faye not only had to drill and march, but carrying a medical kit and a pistol, she had been ordered to clamber out of planes that were supposed to have crashed—both on land and in water. She and the other nurses in training had had to keep themselves, their equipment, and a dummy afloat. She had had to swim through burning gasoline and oil, escape from simulated plane accidents—casually listed as ‘crash procedure’—and as a finale, as she had called it, she had had to learn how to jump and fall with a parachute. Then, before receiving her silver wings, she had to pass written exams. She had come off with the highest grade in her class.” So Faye is no slouch, and indeed, we have already been treated to a paragraph of her medical knowledge of treating wounded patients and how the altitude of the plane affects various wounds.

Faye has been seeing her steady boyfriend, Gerry Jackson, who is an obstetrician on the base, for two years. But she’s not really sure if he’s the right guy for her: “She couldn’t imagine being so much in love that it would fill her life, blot out everything else, including her career as a nurse.” Neither, apparently could many housewives of the early 1960s; enter Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” Faye meets up with Gerry to tell him that she has been called up for flight duty overseas and will be away for two years. But before she has the chance to drop her news on Gerry, he tells her he’s found “a way out” of her flight nurse duty: If they get married and she gets pregnant, “the expectant mother must leave the service—with an honorable discharge, of course.” In a few more months Gerry will be through with his tour of duty, so “in the event that you were ordered elsewhere, you’d have a foolproof way out,” he tells her.

Well, Faye gets pretty steamed about this: “She was hurt at the way he took it for granted that she would jump at the chance to marry him. Hurt and indignant—and a little disappointed in Gerry. He hadn’t understood why she wanted to be a flight nurse, after all.” He responds to her indignation by saying that she should have realized he wanted to marry her. “You did take things pretty much for granted. Including me, Gerry,” she answers. “You never came right out and asked me if, when the time came that we could, I would marry you. And now, when you finally have—well, you could scarcely call it a proper proposal.” So though she gives a passing thought to his slight of her work, when it comes down to it, it’s not really the disrespect Gerry has for her career but being taken for granted and the fact that Gerry didn’t get down on one knee with a gigantic sparkler in hand when he proposed that really upsets her.

She’s shipped off to Spain, where Faye’s flight commander, Russ Campbell, naturally has his eye on Faye. He immediately starts calling her “Angel,” even though “she wished he wouldn’t call her by that ridiculous nickname.” And he is another one of those guys who will “take it for granted that she would go with him” to dinner. Four pages later, there he is again, “taking it for granted that he knew what she wanted, how she would feel.” Russ defends himself by saying, “Most girls liked a masterful man, a man who would make up their minds for them.” Remarks like this don’t make the fifty intervening years between then and now seem long enough.

As Faye gets out and about in Spain, there is plenty to be said about the Spaniards. “The living conditions are on about as low a level as in the fifteenth century. You’ve never seen so much filth and squalor—in the poorer sections, naturally. Although the well-to-do … are not too particular when it comes to cleanliness and conveniences,” she is told by the colonel in Spain. But his wife takes Faye aside and tells her to ignore the colonel. “He is so very American that he is inclined to be prejudiced. He thinks the people here are more lazy than diligent, more bloodthirsty than placid, more unfeeling than kindly,” she says, without offering a kinder interpretation of the culture. On the other hand, Russ tells her, “The Spanish are never bound by time. … If we could be like that, our hospitals wouldn’t be so crammed with mental patients—and all in all, we’d get more out of life.” And on the whole, descriptions of the Spanish countryside and customs are favorably depicted. But the book plays it both ways by never really committing wholeheartedly to one interpretation or the other, perhaps hoping to avoid offending either the bigots or the internationals in its possible audience.

There’s another prejudiced view of the Spaniards: They are superior lovers. Her friend Barbara says, “These Latins know more about playing the game of love, courting a girl, than our American boys can ever learn.” And then there’s the fact that “everyone knew that foreign men were much more romantic than Americans. Although when it came to being serious, American men made the best husbands.” Faye indulges in this particular form of prejudice when she becomes enamored of Raoul Josepha Bermudez, the nephew of a marquesa, and, of course, a very famous matador! “One thing Faye was certain of—Senor [sic] Bermudez would never take her—or any woman—for granted.” This, of course, is a big plus for her. She also appreciates Raoul’s semantics, telling Russ that Raoul “isn’t taking me—he invited me to go” to a local fiesta.

Raoul lives up to the hype when he tells her that he loves her even though he does not think she returns the sentiment: “He reached out to take her hand in his … ‘You are not angry that I spoke so soon?’ he asked. … ‘But I loved you from the moment I looked into your blue eyes, saw your smile, gentle as a madonna’s.’ So this was the way a Spaniard spoke of love, with passion, yet tenderness. Not a work of taking for granted that its recipient would love him in return. So different from Russ and Gerry.”

Russ is angry about her relationship with Raoul, and tells her not to see him again, “because he’s not your kind.” He says, “You’re not being very patriotic, Angel.” She responds, “I am perfectly capable of looking after myself … I’m a nurse—remember?—and over twenty-one.” And the fact that she has given both Russ and Gerry the back of her hand does cause the two to start mending their ways. Gerry sends her a ring for Christmas, and in his accompanying letter, he seems to be catching a clue, writing, “Please don’t think, honey, I am taking it for granted that you will wear the ring.” For his part, Russ has no problems taking orders from Faye when patients are on the plane, as “the captain realized that when a patient was aboard the flight nurse was in command—as far as the patient went, anyway.” On one of their missions, Faye dramatically saves an injured pilot by tying off a gushing artery in his leg. Russ “was struck dumb by what he was witnessing. … His voice held humility, as well as respect, as he asked if it was all right for the take-off.” She comes to admire his leadership when he talks the crew out of danger when they are briefly abducted by a group of insurgents in a surprisingly tensionless scene. “Faye had been amazed that Russ had used so much tact in dealing with the commander. She had had no idea that he could be such a diplomat. Nor had he ‘eaten crow’; he had maintained his dignity and leadership.”

So it would seem that Faye has three men to choose from, but the foreigner, it should not come as much of a surprise to learn, is out. Not only is Raoul engaged (it’s an arranged marriage), but he also has a mistress on the side. And to top it all off, he also turns out to be a Commie traitor. Before he gets arrested, however, he delicately suggests to Faye that he could continue to see “the woman he loves” even after he is married, but of course this goes over like a ton of bricks: “All the flowers in the world could not erase the facts: he had deceived her, betrayed her trust, he was scheming to betray his country.”

While she is supposed to be in love with Raoul, and is at first pretty broken up about his engagement, not much time passes before Faye realizes “she did not love him—had never loved him. It had been a thrilling experience—a romantic infatuation, a part of being in Spain.” Her little fling is painted as a learning experience: “Faye’s brief romance with the Spaniard had made her grow up—a maturity that would help her over any rough spots in the future.” She actually does display some sense when she tells Russ that she has to be sure before she gets engaged, and to be sure she has to go home and see Gerry. But the book quickly takes an easy way out, telling us something new and unexpected about one of her beaux that effectively ends that relationship. I’ve said before that I just can’t forgive these out-of-nowhere plot turns when they involve the most important moment of the book (see Nurse Pro Tem), and I still mean it.

There are some fun parts to this book. Faye’s dates in various Spanish locales—a restaurant in a castle, a bullfight, a local fiesta—are entertaining and dated in a good way, in that you can feel what the times were like. Her tours with the flight crew are also vividly drawn, particularly their rescue of the crashed pilot. But the book tries to play it both ways on a regular basis. Faye is perfectly open to dating a Spaniard, but there’s no way an American woman could seriously consider marrying one. Then she repeatedly insists she’s an independent woman who can make up her own mind, but the first time the new and improved Russ asks her what kind of flowers she wants (“Russ offering to send her flowers! What had happened to him?”), she answers, “Any kind you like.” She insists that being a flight nurse is very important to her, but when she falls into the arms of her true love, it’s “so satisfying—so right—that it blotted out everything else.” The very second she gets the respect and recognition she’s been insisting on, she renders it null and void by subsuming her choices and her identity to a man. So while I have to say that this book is worth reading, in the end it may just piss you off.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Backstage Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1969
Cover illustration by David Blossom

Nurse Laverne Banks had never tapped a toe nor sung a song onstage, but Dr. Eric McLory was performing in the hospital talent show, so she joined the cast to be near him. When she met Dr. Phillip Hume at the tryouts and agreed to accept his wife as a private patient, the music and laughter at rehearsals became a counterpoint to tears and turmoil on duty, and the stage setting a backdrop for a real-life drama.


“No use your hanging around here for the tryouts. … No use we all should suffer. I hear there’s a dowager from the Auxiliary who’s going to chirp opera, and some kooky doctor’s wife is bringing her kids in to do an adagio number. Two little brats that throw their kid sister up in the air and try to catch her on the first bounce.”

After channeling Joan Crawford as Mommie Dearest in Nurse on Trial, Jane Converse has now turned to Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” for inspiration for Backstage Nurse. In other words, both books are eerily similar. With Nurse on Trial, it’s the faded neurotic movie star who abruptly drops dead after being given a few pills by her nurse; in Backstage Nurse, it’s the were-you-ever-famous? neurotic Dolly Joy, once a would-be child star driven relentlessly by her stage mother, who abruptly drops dead after being given a few pills by her nurse.

Laverne Banks—maybe this was once a reasonable name to give a character—is dating resident Eric McLory, who like all sensible interns has sworn not to marry before he is well-established in his practice. She wants to spend more time with him, so when Laverne learns that Eric is going to be playing his guitar in a show put on by the hospital auxiliary, she decides to audition as well, so at least she can see him twice a week at rehearsals. In the meantime, she is hired to nurse the wife of philandering Dr. Phillip Hume.

Dolly Joy—“How’s that for a theatrical name?” Phillip asks Laverne—is a hypochondriac recluse. “The formerly skinny ‘child star’ was still recognizable by her vapid, somewhat frightened pale blue eyes and pasty complexion, but she had acquired mounds of flabby white flesh and was so grossly overweight that she seemed incapable of moving from the disordered bed. A frilly, soiled pink nightgown exposed fat, chalky white arms … The pulpy round face was framed by strands of drab brown hair, as unkempt and unattractive as everything else about the young woman.”

When she meets Laverne, the first thing that Dolly’s mother, Vida Foulkes, does is show her all the framed photographs of a prepubescent Dolly Joy, back when she still had promise: “ ‘This is Dolly when she won third prize at the Kiwanis Club amateur night,’ ” Vida tells Laverne. Vida’s dialogue mostly consists of screaming at someone: Dr. Hume for his extracurricular activities, Dolly for letting her down, Laverne for allegedly pursuing Dr. Hume: “I gave my whole life to make a star out of Dolly Joy. I could still do it, if I didn’t have people like you and Phillip stabbing me in the back, trying to undermine by daughter’s confidence in me,” she shrieks at Laverne.

Laverne attempts to cheer up Dolly by doing her hair and putting her on a diet. I do have to give her credit for brooking with a lot less nonsense than her predecessor from Nurse on Trial, Jennifer Mellin, ever did: “Get hold of yourself,” she tells her patient. “If you don’t want to help yourself, Dolly, it’s not fair to any of us for me to keep this job.” Dolly swears she’ll reform, but always backslides—then Laverne gets the idea to have Dolly audition for the hospital review. It turns out that Dolly can actually sing the blues, and blows everyone away with her performance. “How many white singers let go like that?” marvels the review’s director. But success is short-lived—two lines into her next number, Dolly keels over on the stage. Who killed her? Dr. Hume is the principle suspect, though the press is convinced that Laverne has a hand in it. All is revealed at the inquest, of course, in stereotypical fashion, when someone in the height of a furious diatribe lets something slip, and then it all comes tumbling out.

Backstage Nurse is a pleasant book with well-drawn characters and amusing writing. It’s got more story line and backbone than Nurse on Trial, and the whodunit mystery of who killed Dolly is given more play and is more tightly written (if still fairly obvious). But on the whole, I might have liked it more if I hadn’t already read another version of it in Nurse on Trial.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Leota Foreman, R.N.

By Peggy Gaddis
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1957

“I wonder what happens south of Washington Square?” That’s what vacation-bound Leota Foreman, pretty New York nurse, wanted to find out … Little did she guess how much intrigue and excitement were waiting for her in Poinsettia City, Florida. First there was Dr. Gray MacKenzie, handsome and capable … but so unfriendly. And red-haired, debonair Mitch Adcock, the local lawyer … But where did Mallory Mabry, beautiful and much-married, fit into the picture? Leota finally learned the secret behind Dr. MacKenzie’s bitterness—and with it, the answer to her own heart’s questions.


“We nurses never seem to have much time for falling in love!”

With this book, the fourth VNRN of hers I have read, Peggy Gaddis’s stock continues to rise. Leota Foreman (not to be confused with previous Peggy Gaddis heroines Leona of Nurse in the Shadows or Luana from A Nurse for Apple Valley) is living in New York, three years out of nursing school, when the book opens. She’s battling her way home through an icy snowstorm, and when she gets there, she tells her roommate she’s going to Florida—“and was almost as startled to hear herself as Meg was.” So she hops a train for some small town where the living is easy and the sun is warm.

She gets off at Poinsettia City, a town of 4,000 people somewhere in the center of the state. There are no cabs, so she bums a ride at the train station from Mitch Adcock, a total stranger who turns out to be an attorney, and accepts a dinner date with him. Boy, times have changed. Checking into the town’s hotel, she—what else?—collides with Dr. Gray MacKenzie. “Doctor Sour-Puss” has “a built-in grouch, a mad on the world, himself included, and his ‘bedside manner’ is strictly nonexistent. He doesn’t want people to like him; he doesn’t want friends; he’s strictly for himself alone!” according to the desk clerk, 18-year-old Taffy, who is inclined to say things like, “Well, don’t flip your toupee, pal.” Taffy is obviously pining for Mitch—“If you’re getting ready to send Mitch into a swoon, you needn’t shoot the works,” she tells Leota before her date with him—but even having experienced the good doctor’s bad humor, Leota nonetheless tells Taffy to relax: “Dr. MacKenzie is much more my type.”

That night, he is indeed pounding on her door—but only to enlist her medical aid. The hotel chef, an Italian-speaking cordon bleu, has stabbed an assistant for the fourth time because the Hollandaise curdled. Leota helps the doctor reassemble the assistant, and the doctor talks the sheriff out of hauling Caesar off to jail. Based on her expertise in this case, Leota is recommended to care for aging Jemima Mabry, a millionaire who is dying of incurable cancer despite Dr. MacKenzie’s best efforts.

Dr. MacKenzie continues to play hot and cold with Leota. One minute he is sneering at her and dismissing her with his eyes. He asks her to lunch and then, when she asks why a fine doctor such as himself lives in Poinsettia City, says it’s none of her business, and “the tone made the words hurt like a fist plunged into her face.” But Leota takes the high road: “A nurse wouldn’t dare dislike a doctor; it’s forbidden in her training rules,” she says to him. She seems to like him only because he is a competent doctor, replete with “fine surgeon’s fingers,” which she tells him repeatedly. He soon reveals he is falling in love with her—though you would never guess it from his behavior—but can’t have anything to do with her because he was executing some unnamed experiment on his mentor, a brilliant oncologist, at that doctor’s insistence, and the doctor died. “I could never ask any woman to share a life that I have no moral right to enjoy,” he says.

Then Mallory Mabry, who after her divorce “requested and obtained the use of my maiden name”—and how nice of the courts to grant it, too—peels into town in a white Jaguar and snugly fitted Capri pants. She is “a saber-toothed tiger, man-eating variety,” and Miss Jemmy’s closest living relative. Poinsettia City is clearly not her scene, but she’s run out of money and is in town to collect more from her aunt. Before Mallory has a chance to drop by the hacienda, however, Miss Jemmy dies peacefully in her sleep. Her will gives her house and fortune to Dr. MacKenzie to start a hospital in town, but naturally that’s not going to stand unchallenged. Dr. MacKenzie’s medical competence and Miss Jemmy’s mental fitness are held up to withering scrutiny in court, and the suspense—will they emerge sparkling and whole?—is unbearable.

This is the first VNRN I have read in which the heroine is the one who puts on the moves. “Leota stepped close to him and put her arms about him and held him.” “Deliberately she leaned toward him, framed his startled face between her palms, and set her mouth on his in a long, lingering kiss.” A few pages later, young Taffy proposes to Mitch (never mind that he’s a dozen years older than her): She tells him she loves him, and he answers, “What am I going to do with you?” “You could marry me,” she replies. It also ends on a strange note: Miss Jemmy’s other nurse, a confirmed spinster, trips over a spooning couple at Miss Jemmy’s house, and there dawns a “sudden bleakness in Miss Emma’s eyes,” and in the book’s final sentence she “walks silently from the room.”

The book does a nice job of painting a scene of a particular place and time, and the lesser female characters, Taffy and Mallory, are spicy and enjoyable. If the romantic relationships in the book are not very satisfying, at least they don’t take up too much of the reader’s time. And while the ending is not hard to predict, other unique aspects of the book make up for that. It really puts you in this particular time and place, and on the whole this is a very pleasant book and worth reading.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Staff Nurse

By Jane Corby, ©1962

Lovely Sally Benedict had found challenge galore at busy, modern Boston Hospital. But she had no idea what lay in store when she became staff nurse at a giant mill in a small Massachusetts town. Trouble came from all directions. A tyrannical mill owner. A battle between labor and management. Pettiness and jealousy and even uglier emotions directed toward Sally as the impulsive young nurse was drawn into the problems of the workers. Meanwhile, Sally faced an even more painful problem of her own. There was attentive, charming Bill Clemens, son of the mill owner, and young Dr. Bob Royce, sarcastic, bitter, yet strangely attractive, each demanding to be the one man in her life. Sally knew who her choice should be—if only her head could control the longing of her heart.


“Why does everyone assume that a nurse and doctor who work together will surely get married?”

There are some interesting things about Staff Nurse. First of all, if men ever really did talk to women this way, women’s lib didn’t come along a moment too soon. This is not the first book in which the male characters talk to the female protagonist as if she were some sort of window dressing, to be admired for her appearance and little else, but Staff Nurse really lays it on thick. Indeed, its first words are, “Hi—Beautiful!’’ Which isn’t so horrible in and of itself, but every single man passing through the doors of the infirmary office of the Clemens Paper Company manages his tongue in a similar fashion.

This particular greeting comes from Bill Clemens, paper company mill owner, and Sally Benedict shoots back with a valiant and wasted diatribe about how she wasn’t hired for her looks, that she’s really a qualified registered nurse—and Bill responds that she can “change her status any time you’ve a mind to,” he says. “All you have to do is marry into the firm.” Next we meet Dr. Robert Royce, a crabby, “thin, intense young man” whose first words to her are, yes, another reference to her looks: “Bill Clemens missed his calling—he should have been casting director for a Broadway musical. You don’t look as if you could even make a bed properly.” She offers to show him her diploma and then skims through the highlights of her resume, but he, too, is unimpressed by her talents. Bill’s father, whom she looks after when he breaks his leg at the company picnic, tells her, “You look too pretty to be a nurse,” and one of the mill workers says, “They didn’t tell me that the nurse at this mill was such a doll. You’re a real looker, baby.” This same mill worker later flatters her with an attempted sexual assault, from which Bill rescues her. Really, it’s enough to make a woman want to burn her bra.

Sally has some ideas for the mill workers that might get her into trouble with Joe McCarthy. “To Sally, the workers at the plant were real people.” Well, that kind of thinking will get you into hot water every time. One apparent result of Sally’s meddling, which includes painting the mill walls bright colors and starting a bowling league for the employees, is that young millworker Herman Strauss starts going with Celia Armstrong, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. “You think you’re as good as anybody else,” Celia’s father tells Herman. “And the reason you’re getting so uppity is because Miss Benedict, who is supposed to be a nurse, has told you that you ought to have all the comforts and luxuries of your betters. … She has overstepped the bounds of her position and she is a disturbing element among the workers. She is destroying their morale.”

Sally also disagrees with the fact that the Clemens factory owns housing, which it rents to the workers, preventing them from achieving the American dream of home ownership. But her problem with the situation seems to stem from the fact that the workers’ houses are all painted white: “When you own their homes, when you paint their houses—the color you want them painted—and when you assume their responsibilities, you rob them of all initiative.” She persuades him to sell the houses to the workers, but this doesn’t work out so well. Those workers who can afford to buy their homes paint them blue with purple trim, or yellow with blue trim and a sapphire blue foundation, God love the poor tasteless simps. Those who can’t afford to buy are stuck with the white paint. “For the … workers whose houses are painted white, there is nothing to do but admit to their neighbors that they cannot afford to own their own homes,” Dr. Bob angrily explains to Sally. “In a way, [they] are advertising the fact that they are poor. It hurts—it hurts bitterly … it is a body blow.” By this curious argument, we should be opposed to public education because someone will be upset they didn’t get into Harvard.

The romance aspect of the book plays out disappointingly, as she goes for the wrong guy (spoiler alert), the irritable doctor who dumps on her for bettering the workers’ lives, rather than the boyish, charming factory owner who sticks up for Sally and her ideas. It must be acknowledged that Bill is mostly just pleased that production is up 1% after the mill’s walls are painted red-orange, but at least he is in favor of her changes, while Dr. Bob snaps at her, “You cannot interfere in other people’s lives—you must not interfere. You might do great harm.”

In thinking over her options, Sally believes “Bill hadn’t spoken too strongly in her defense. Of course he had objected when she said that she was going to quit, but Sally suspected that was only a matter of politeness.” This when, two pages earlier, he called her “our most valued employee. … Sally’s ideas are splendid.” It’s true he receives her letter of resignation rather cavalierly, but it turns out he’s not too upset about it because he is hoping she will marry him, in which case she’d have to quit her job anyway, since that’s what wives do. And besides, it would be awkward for her to continue as his employee after they are engaged. What she tells him is, “We look at things differently; just the way you spoke of my being a nurse shows that. It wouldn’t work, Bill. I’m sorry.” And that’s that. But it almost seems like her actual objection to Bill is that he is rich. “You didn’t turn down the Clemens’ bank account, did you?” Dr. Bob asks her. “And the mink coats—and the jewels—and the winters in Florida—and, maybe, your own plane?” She replies, “I can’t see myself in mink and jewels. And … what’s the matter with the regular passenger jet?”

Apart from its social curiosities, the book has little to offer. It’s not badly written, just disappointing. The story has no sparkle, and the frustration and utter bewilderment that the ending create undo the interest it generates with its explorations of color theory and improving the lives of the downtrodden. If it’s a socialist message you seek in your vintage nurse romance novel, chuck this book and reach for District Nurse, which really knows how to do Karl Marx proud.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Doctor Diane's Decision

By Ruby L. Radford, ©1961
Cover illustration by Len Goldberg

Since her teens, Diane Maxwell’s devouring ambition had been to become a physisicn. Midway in her studies, however, Diane decided to be a surgeon and now, in her third year of residency at Edmunds Hospital, she looked forward to the day when she would work with the famed Dr. Roger Fulton. It was a fine spring day when Hal Fulton, Dr. Roger’s son, came back to town—to upset the well-ordered course Diane had plotted for herself. For Hal, eager to make Diane his bride, was also toying with the idea of forsaking medicine and following a career in the theatre. This pervasive interest of Hal’s was to bring Diane to the attention of a brilliant young playwright—and lead her to two important decisions.



“Annette had IT with capital letters.”


Some vintage nurse romance novels (VNRNs) seem to have just been dashed off, without much care or thought, and Doctor Diane’s Decision is just such a book. Dr. Diane Maxwell is in her third year of residency as an OB/GYN surgeon at a hospital in Georgia. She was seeing Dr. Hal Fulton before he went off to the Army, but now that his two-year stint is over, he’s back in town, and pressing Diane to marry him. He’s not practicing medicine, however, as his father, chief of staff Dr. Roger Fulton, would have it; he’s starring in a play for the local theater group. He has never loved medicine, but only went into it because his father bribed him with a trust fund if he went to medical school. So he is not the only one in this book who has a decision to make.

Diane’s choice is between Hal and the hot young playwright, Larry Ashley, who wrote the vehicle that Hal is starring in. Diane, given a copy to read, ends up staying up past midnight to finish it, even though she had performed a very demanding surgery that morning, removing 15 pounds of tumor from a woman’s abdomen. “Oh, what a thrill I get out of removing a nice big tumor!” she says.

Diane’s aunt, Dr. Sally, is a general practitioner in the country. She was the one who inspired Diane to become a doctor, and when Sally gets into a car accident, Diane takes two weeks off from her residency and subs for Dr. Sally. While she’s there, she diagnoses a severe headache in a 17-year-old girl as a brain tumor, thereby saving the girl’s life. And guess what—this girl turns out to be Larry Ashley’s half-sister! Diane goes on a cruise down the Georgia coast with Hal and some friends to decide whether she should accept Hal’s renewed proposal of marriage, and beyond that, there’s really not much more to say about the plot.

The most interesting part of the book is its take on women in medicine. Aunt Sally tells Diane she never married because “In my younger days I was wedded to my work. I felt a woman doctor couldn’t do justice to her profession and a family.” Diane responds that she is planning to wait to marry until after she has finished her training. “The pressures won’t be any less then, Diane, but really greater,” Sally answers. “I never felt that a husband would be satisfied with the attention I could give him after doing my duty by my patients. But conditions have changed. Homes are run on a different basis. With so many modern gadgets a home can be run with a minimum of help. With a good housekeeper and someone to look after the children, it can be done—is being done—by many women doctors.”

I find it interesting that a book written in 1961 seems to think that a woman doctor is a fairly everyday and accepted creature (there are other, insignificant characters in the book who are also women doctors). This is not the impression I have gotten from other VNRNs, which at times barely even accept women in the role of nurses; certainly most give the idea that a nurse who marries must quit her job. I also find the idea at odds with my idea of what the times were actually like for women professionals at that time. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’ve had the belief that women have not been accepted in medicine until fairly recently, and this book is almost 50 years old.

Of course, the book does have to suggest that a woman isn’t complete unless she is married: “I’m convinced any woman misses something very great in life when she doesn’t marry,” Aunt Sally tells Diane. “I’ve often wondered if I wouldn’t be a better doctor if I’d been a wife and mother too.” Interestingly, however, the book also takes the point of view that a male doctor who devotes his entire life to his career is also missing out. Speaking of Dr. Roger Fulton, “one of the South’s finest surgeons,” one character says, “His wife’s settled into the dutiful position of being available when he has a few moments to see her. His preoccupation with work has never left him time to be a pal to his son. … He would be a happier and greater man if he’d taken a little more time out for his family.”

For its actual story line, the book is perfunctory and nothing special. It’s certainly not a chore to get through this book, as the writing does not make one cringe. And it does spark some interesting lines of thought, which might make it worth reading. So if that’s enough for you, then by all means, have at it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Silent Heart

By Louise Ellis, ©1970
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

Young Nurse Sara Danley was too kind-hearted for her own good—and was it worth it, when all her good nature seemed to be doing for her was losing her one boy-friend after another?


“They’re off to a factory this afternoon to see how hygienically Stackers’ Sticky Star-Dreams are made. I should think she’ll never be able to look a boiled sweet in the face again after she comes back.”

Silent Heart is a slightly problematic book, essentially because it’s British. The writing is good enough, and the characters are interesting and say snappy things like, “Shut up, infant,” and, “He’s just a crusty old bachelor who pretends he’s got brains. Half the girls say he’d be a bit of all right, though, if someone really smashing got hold of him and tempted him a bit!” While the British aspect means the characters use a lot of cute English slang (including the unfortunate “keep your pecker up”), most of which can be figured out from its context, the main problem is that British hospitals use completely different titles—ward sister, casualty officer, RMO, PTS, SRN, matron, staff nurse (see glossary below). This makes it pretty slow going at first until you get the general gist of who outranks whom.

Sarah Darley is a first-year student at a nursing school (though confusingly there is a year below her, PTS), and engaged to casualty officer and Dr. Michael Armstrong. In the opening scene, though, he slings his arm around her cousin, beautiful full-fledged nurse Thelma Cross, “and forgot to take it away,” which spells the end of that relationship. While crying in the tropical fish section of a department store, the R.M.O. (regional medical officer, the most important resident doctor at the hospital), Dr. Andrew Haynes, runs into her and offers her his handkerchief and to buy her coffee. “They told me on my first day that he didn’t speak to anyone except staff nurses upwards unless one larked about in his lectures,” Sarah’s friend Karen remarks when she hears about the incident.

Sarah also encounters a Dr. Luke Sadler, who pops up at convenient times to give her a lift in his car. During one of these encounters, Dr. Sadler tells Sarah about “your dear R.M.O. He was responsible for a girl’s death.” Then one of the nursing students steals a clipping from the newspaper archives that explains that he and a woman doctor were out on accident duty and she died accidentally. The gossip is that Dr. Haynes could have rescued her but didn’t, and that she had been engaged to him but he had jilted her. This of course changes Sarah’s opinion of Dr. Haynes, though she “enjoyed a shattering ecstasy that scared her a little” when she cries on his shoulder, which seems to happen with frightening regularity.

Sarah’s relationship with Dr. Haynes is not my idea of a good one. Because of their relative positions in the hospital, she calls him sir. She is “young enough to be—well, if not his daughter, at least a great deal his junior.” He does tend to treat her like a schoolgirl, “with a clean handkerchief mopped her face quite efficiently” when she is upset that a hospital staff member has a heart attack in front of her. He himself runs the gamut from kindly patronizing to bossy and domineering: “He swerved the wheel a little and that made him angry. He was a good driver, and he hated the mere thought of having his paintwork scratched or a man in a lesser car tooting at him, as was happening now.”

Outside of her crush, Sarah gets into quite a few scrapes, which all seem to lead, too conveniently, to her being rescued or caught by Dr. Haynes. One evening Sarah breaks into someone’s house to recover a purse that has been left there by another nursing student, who has snuck in with her boyfriend for “a bit of kissing” when the occupants were out. Another time she is supposed to be waiting for Dr. Haynes to pick her up, but a brick wall falls over and she leaps into the street to save a passerby from being crushed. Her former fiancĂ©, Dr. Armstrong, happens to be in the first car that comes along, and embraces her (which Dr. Haynes sees) before taking her and the accident victim back to the hospital. As if these escapades aren’t enough, or improbable enough, on another day she is riding in an ambulance down a road that is experiencing landslides, and Dr. Haynes takes off after her in his car to attempt to save her and gets into a car accident himself. This book is one forced adventure after another.

It’s not unenjoyable, as some of the adventures and dialogue of Sarah and her friends are amusing. But it’s more work to get through this book than an American vintage nurse romance novel. I don’t read these books for the challenge, and this one doesn’t really make the effort worthwhile enough.

almoner - somebody affiliated with a hospital as a social worker for its patients
boiled sweet - a hard candy, made by boiling sugar, that slowly dissolves when sucked
candy floss - cotton candy
casualty - emergency department
clot - idiot, fool
give over - stop it
GP - general practitioner
home sister - hospital staff member who looks after the nurse probationers
ice cream cornet - ice cream cone
jiggins - head, brain
landslip - landslide
matron - a nurse who is in charge of the other nurses in a hospital
mug up - to study hard, especially in preparation for an exam
in digs - live in a room in someone else’s house and pay rent
keep your pecker up - keep your spirits up
pitch into - attack, tear into
PTS - preliminary training school, undertaken before nursing school
RMO - regional medical officer, the most important resident doctor at the hospital
SRN - staff nurse
staff nurse - a British hospital nurse whose rank is just below a sister
swot - to study very hard, especially for an exam; an unduly industrious student; a period of time spent studying hard, especially for an exam
tear a strip off someone - to chew someone out
tiddler - child
traffic warden - a civilian employed to assist in regulating the flow of traffic
ward sister - a woman who is a ward manager in a hospital

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Private Duty

By Faith Baldwin, ©1935

Pretty Carolyn Cutler generall knew her own mind. She had learned to during three long years of training at Updale, earning the right to sign herself, Registered Nurse. But now that she was successfully out on her own, she faced a problem which her nursing training alone couldn’t solve. Three men wanted to marry her. And they all knew their own minds.
First there was Dr. Livingston. Carolyn had idolized him while she was in training; they had, in fact, considered themselves engaged. Now she wasn’t sure whether she really loved the man or the surgeon. Then there was her employer, Derek Williams, whose household she was running now that his wife had died. She knew she didn’t love him, but she pitied him and she adored his difficult young son. And last there was an impetuous, red-headed scamp named Bill Hamilton whose chief claim to fame was the number of breach of promise suits in which he had been involved. That is the involved situation of one of Miss Baldwin’s fastest, most appealing romances. It is a novel of hospital life, of the trials and problems of a nurse on private duty, and, above all, the story of a grand young girl for whom the world grew so complicated that it finally took a bloody factory strike to provide the solution.


“She looked at him and marveled silently at the utter stupidity of men. … She supposed the fault was common to the sex. It was amusing in a way. People were always talking about how brilliant they were—there wasn’t a surgeon in the state more highly esteemed than Richard Long, nor a manufacturer any better known than Andrew Hamilton. But in matters which were far more important than surgery or underwear these great men were certainly half-witted.”

“The Boston paper was restrained and brief, as befitted a Boston paper …”

“You look like a million dollars in government bonds, that is to say, expensive, hard to acquire, extremely valuable but not exhibiting much interest.”

Faith Baldwin has done it again with this crackerjack novel. Maybe not quite as good as District Nurse, its sister, Private Duty is nonetheless unceasingly funny with well-drawn characters, sparkling writing, and a modern sensibility that far outweighs that of some vintage nurse romance novels written decades later. I begin to greatly regret that Faith Baldwin only wrote one or two other books that might fall into this category (He Married a Doctor, and possibly The Lonely Doctor), and I may well dub her the Jane Austen of the vintage nurse romance novel.

Carolyn Cutler has just graduated from nursing school and has moved in with her best friend from nursing school, Sally Austin. Sally is a spunky gal with a penchant for saying things like, “Run along to the boy friend and if he starts beating you up or anything, scream. I still pack a wallop.” They have a third roommate, Marie, who is hopelessly in love with a married doctor who does not know she is alive, so she has dedicated her life to working in his shadow just to be near him. The women all do private duty, which means they are hired to care for private patients either at the patient’s home or in the hospital, on 12- or 24-hour shifts. Sometimes they have work, sometimes not.

When they don’t, they go out. When the book opens, Carolyn is engaged to Dr. Bob Livingston, but we quickly see this isn’t going to work out. He wants to put off marriage until he is well-established as a (what else?) surgeon: “ ‘Wait for me, Caro, I promise you I’ll be able to give you everything you deserve in a few years.’ She wondered, lying there, if really she wanted to be given everything. … It seemed so flat, somehow, the waiting. No sharing. No excitement of struggle and work and helping in an office. … ‘When we’re married I’ll keep you out of my office, away from the whole sorry business.’ … Did she want that? Of course, she wanted it. But she didn’t want to wait for it alone. She wanted to wait for it with him.”

Cue Bill Hamilton. (It was a minor difficulty for me keeping Bob Livingston and Bill Hamilton straight in my mind; I wish their names had been a little less two of a kind.) She meets him in stereotypical fashion, by literally running into him, but at least it was uniquely described: “On the way out she collided violently with a tall young man who was barging joyfully through the revolving door. For a brief moment she saw a hundred doors all whirling the wrong way and a thousand stars which have never been charted by astronomers.” Bill’s father owns an underwear manufacturing business, and Bill is intent on “modernizing” the factory, much to the dismay of his father, who is concerned that Bill is a “Red.” Bill isn’t serious about much, and has already had to settle two breach of contact suits with women he had proposed to and then later run away from. After Carolyn nurses him back from a ruptured appendix, he falls for her and proposes marriage: “With me, I could promise you continuous excitement, fights, laughs, never a dull moment.” (The book earns points for acknowledging that marriage will contain the occasional spat, a big departure from the ordinary vintage nurse romance novel.) She realizes he isn’t serious, and so puts him off, though she continues to date him when he’s in town and not busy with his socialist agenda.

But Carolyn and Sally’s boyfriends take a back seat to their work and their lives together. It’s a homey world, of ugly but comfortable bathrobes, where washing your hair is a major event, where the girls’ next meeting, if their schedules don’t coincide, seems more important to them than when they will see their beaux. It isn’t until Marie moves to Boston and Sally goes home to nurse her mother, who has broken her hip, that Carolyn’s love life takes a more prominent role in the story—but even then, it’s still second fiddle to the Williams family, whom she has moved in with after months of nursing the mother, who dies of cancer.

Carolyn is an independent woman. She can take care of herself, and everyone else. She smokes an occasional cigarette, and she drives Bill’s car when they go out together. She is extremely competent at her work—“as a nurse she was near perfection,” the chief surgeon thinks of her—and she doesn’t take kindly to being patronized. “I can’t tell you how it irritates me to have this pretty nurse business flung in my face … it’s a sort of—subtitle. Nurse. Pretty. It goes with pretty stenographer. It gives me … a vast pain in the neck,” she tells Bill. She is a pleasure to watch.

The book’s plot doesn’t really have a lot of places to go, and her situation with the Williams family seems a little gratuitous, created to push Carolyn to her eventual and inevitable marriage. The climactic scene, at a meeting of striking workers that turns violent, is especially forced, and it’s so rushed that it’s not possible to effortlessly follow the action as we have up to now. But the book is so well-written that it’s a joy to follow the characters even into these contrived situations. I greatly look forward to reading Faith Baldwin’s He Married a Doctor—while at the same time dreading it, as I realize that after that’s done, there will be no more Faith Baldwin books to look forward to.

One paperback edition sports
a cover illustration by 
Sam Bates