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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Office Nurse

By Adelaide Humphries, ©1949

She was his nurse … and his office wife! That’s why Janice and Eric simply had to keep their love for each other a secret. But how long could such a secret be kept from Eric’s lovely, ruthless wife, Elissa—or from Ben Archer, the man who was determined to marry Janice? How long could Janice and Eric go on seeing each other every day, tortured by the few moments of intimacy they were able to steal? All that was bottled up had to rise to the surface and break through like a volcano erupting … it had to happen!


“He had never thought that this could happen to him. To other men, yes—but not to anyone with his feet so firmly on the ground, his brain so clear, his glands functioning so properly.”

“It’s not sensible to pass up anything that sets you on fire.”

Brought to you by the same author who gave us Nurse Landon’s Challenge, Office Nurse has some of the same spunk and style as its predecessor. It starts off with almost a swear! when our heroine Janice Hilary declares right on page one that a rich and spoiled patient “cannot come into this office and raise merry H.” Are you shocked? Well, that’s nothing, because things get a lot more scandalous than that!

Janice has been working for four years in the Manhattan office of Dr. Eric Holbrook when the book opens. Janice has an admirer in Ben Archer, who has just come home from the war. Janice loves Ben as an old friend, “but she was not in love with him. And therein lay a world of difference which she had never been able to make him comprehend.” So if she’s not in love with Ben, who is she in love with? Well, there’s always Dr. Holbrook. Her boss is about twice her age and married to a beautiful, wealthy woman who built him up into a successful doctor ministering to monied women. Now that she has achieved the pinnacle of his career, Elissa spends a lot of time traveling. The day she leaves on a trip to France, Dr. Holbrook is leaving the office late with Janice, and on the spur of the moment invites her to dinner with him. It’s his birthday, you see, and he’d hate to spend it at the club. She agrees, and after dinner they take a hansom cab ride through Central Park. “It seems,” he tells her after they are settled in it, “that this is the first time in years I’ve done the things I enjoy doing. It’s a wonderful feeling, Janice.” Then he takes her back to his empty Fifth Avenue house to listen to his favorite recordings …

“ ‘I didn’t mean that to happen, Janice—please believe me,’ Eric said as he released her.” And so it happens that our heroine is having an affair with a married man! It’s not long, however, before she seems to lose heart and decides to quit her job and take a vacation. For his part, Eric tells Elissa he wants a divorce, but she just says no. “Love isn’t everything, darling. What we have is just as important,” she tells him. “And no one can hold on to that first excitement after a few years of marriage. Even you and Janice would lose it. What would you have to take its place then, that I cannot give you?”

So Elissa decides to undertake a new project: “Now there was something, once again, that Elissa could do for Eric, as at first, when she had made success come so swiftly and easily. She could remake him into something besides a misunderstood husband; it would even be fun to make Eric imagine himself in love with her again. ‘You don’t seem to understand.’ That was all he could find to say. He was afraid Elissa understood too well—better, perhaps, than he did himself.” The next day at the office, Eric is frightened to tell Janice that he can’t marry her after all, but he’s saved from this confrontation when a disgruntled minor character shows up with a gun and merry H breaks loose. After that, it’s not too hard to see which way the nurse is going to blow, and her choice is disappointing and bewildering.

This is not the first VNRN that tries to have it both ways. On one hand, several characters express horror at the idea of an independent woman. At the beginning of the story, we are told that Janice is “the pillar of the family … drawing a larger salary” than her father. But it’s apparently not a good thing that she’s managed to keep the roof over her family’s heads; Janice’s mother worries that “her eldest daughter might become too strong, too self-sufficient. … She had seen that happen to girls, girls who earned as much—sometimes more—money than the young men they knew. As time went on they became more and more fastidious, expecting so much that often they got nothing in the end.” Ben also has his doubts about her: “Had Janice become that horror of every intelligent young man—a too efficient career woman? Heaven forbid!” He advises Janice’s younger sister, who is planning to work for a year before she gets married, “Don’t ever turn into a career girl—don’t ever let your work come before loving and living.” Is that ever a problem for the boys?

In one scene between another office worker and her elderly aunt, the older woman says, “No woman wanted to wear the pants; a man, whether he was in love or not, ought to show that he meant to be the one to wear them.” Her niece thinks, “But if a woman started giving in before she was married she had to go on doing it all the rest of her days. … It really ought to be fifty-fifty.” It might be worth mentioning that this niece strings her boyfriend along for too long until he decides on a whim to move to Pennsylvania and marry another woman who he had never previously been at all interested in. Is this meant to be a come-uppance for her outlandish ideas? Are we supposed to feel sorry for her for losing her fiancé, or for the idiot fiancé for throwing himself into what is sure to be a loveless relationship?

As far as love goes, the book’s ideal relationship is quite different from that of most other VNRNs. Janice’s younger sister tells Ben, “I’d much rather marry a man I loved … than marry one I was in love with. When you fall in, you’re bound to fall out, you know.” Her relationship with Eric makes Janice “look like that, all lighted up inside … as if time not spent with the person she was going to meet were time wasted.” But, as Janice’s sister predicts, it all quickly fades: “One got over being in love, too, it seemed. Without quite knowing how or why.” In the beginning of the book, Ben seems like an old friend whom Janice loves as a brother. But by its end, we are told that this is the very best sort of love for a marriage to be based on. When Janice meets Ben in the end, she tells him, “Love shouldn’t be something that makes you catch on fire and then blows cold at a few puffs of wind. It should be something that warms you and makes you feel good all the time. Marriage should be that way too … so steady and secure that it can weather any changes.” On the final page she thinks (spoiler!) “I love you and am in love with you, since now I know they are one and the same. Or at least … the difference was different from what she had thought it was.”

It’s hardly worth pointing out that, in fact, loving someone and being in love with someone are not the same things. And the idea that passion will “blow cold” in about ten minutes may be true in some cases, but I can’t accept that you should settle for a platonic marriage because failure of romantic love is a possibility. This is such a different point of view from any other VNRN I have read—certainly Nurse Landon’s Challenge, written by this same author just three years later, had no such philosophy—that I have to ask myself what this is all about. I was just reading
America’s Women (by Gail Collins, Harper Perennial, ©2004) last night, which says this about World War II:

Marriage rates jumped. “The pressure to marry a soldier was so great that after a while I didn’t question it,” said Dellie Hahne of Los Angeles, who wound up unhappily wed to a man in uniform. “That women married soldiers and sent them overseas happy was hammered at us.”

So I am wondering if this book is intended as propaganda of that sort; otherwise it’s more than a little bewildering.

Office Nurse is a good read overall, even if its ideas about love are somewhat peculiar. The fact that the main love story is an illicit relationship is certainly novel, as far as VNRNs go. And the cover!! Did you notice the woman’s hand on the door, with that huge red ring? The cover line, “They Thought Their Affair Was A Secret”—how impossibly great is that? Up until now, Nurse Landon’s Challenge held the honors for best cover, but Office Nurse has triumphed. And as far as the story goes, ultimately not much is driving it, but even if it goes in aimless circles, there is plenty here to make the drive worthwhile.