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.


  1. Superb blog, with very helpful information. I've been looking for this particular title and the review really helped the search. I'll be digging into many more of these. Obviously, this effort is a real labor of love for you. Well done.


  2. By the way, you might already be familiar with this source, here is one other Isabel Dawson cover: