Friday, December 30, 2011

Hootenanny Nurse

By Suzanne Roberts, ©1964

Julie Dodd was in love with David Stace, the boy next door, ever since she could remember. When he studied to become a doctor, Julie decided that nursing would be her career so that their work would bring them together. And that is exactly what happened. Then Chad, a handsome folk singer, came into her life, and suddenly there was a new song in her heart.


“Julie walked as fast as she dared down the hall, pressed the elevator button, and hoped on the brief ride that she still had a bit of lipstick on.”

“ ‘All right,’ Julie said crisply, asserting her authority as on-duty nurse in Emergency. ‘Let’s get those last two out of the hall. That boy with the harmonica, too.’ ”

“Julie’s hands were shaking as she gathered up her purse and the library book on disturbed children she wanted to renew.”

“Losing a dream can sometimes be as hard as losing someone you love.”

If you are a fan of this genre, you’ve surely been waiting for Hootenanny Nurse. I must confess that I let out a small shriek when I saw this book in Kayo Books, the fabulous vintage book shop in San Francisco. (Florence Stonebraker once lived in the apartment building across the street, for added VNRN thrills!) I promise, you will never find a book in which the word hootenanny is used so frequently, which has its ups and downs. It’s way too much to expect that this book could live up to such an outrageous title, and I’m sorry to report that it doesn’t possess anywhere near the camp factor you’re probably hoping for. But it does offer up a few laughs, so it’s not a complete waste of time.

Nurse Julie Dodd is a student nurse in her final year at a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s nervous about doing a stint in the ED, though the supervisor tells her not to worry: “Some nights we only get a few phony suicides that need a good stomach wash, and then we send them home. Hysterical women, mostly.” Julie’s true calling is up on the child psych ward, because she more than the other nurses realizes that all these psychotic kids need is “love and comfort and soft words and kisses,” and soon they’re all behaving and there are no more incidents like the one where a schizophrenic boy broke into a medicine cabinet and attacked a nurse with a surgical knife.

Her boyfriend—you knew there was one—is David Stace, who grew up barefoot next door, on a ramshackle farm crowded with too many children. At fourteen, she’d been trying to figure out what she wanted from life—“somehow, just falling in love didn’t seem to be enough.” So when David declared a pre-med major, she signed up for nursing school so they could start a clinic in their poor hometown together. But as he nears the end of school, David buys an expensive car on credit and starts taking her to expensive restaurants, and soon he’s talking of setting up shop in Chicago. Well, she doesn’t think much of this at all! So she smoothes down her uniform and her pride and says, “I want whatever you want, of course.” She spends a lot of time seething about it, but “she didn’t want to be a nagging, pushy wife. She wanted to be, as she’d been all these years, deeply in love with him, letting him make the decisions, and glad that he did.”

Then a bus holding a group of folk singers rolls over, and now they’re encamped on the hospital’s fourth floor. She goes up to visit them and strikes up a conversation with the lead folkie, Chad. Soon she’s singing along with them on an impromptu “folk singing whing-ding.” “I think we’ve found ourselves a regular little Hootenanny Nurse!” Chad says. Before long, Chad is kissing her and talking about having kids. Run, Julie, run! But alas, she is another VNRN heroine without an ounce of sense.

Chad makes an appearance under her window with his guitar and asks her to join his group. They’re finally well enough to leave the hospital to go on tour, but he’s calling her every night and pressuring her to tell her she loves him. She hates the weakness inside herself that “made her cling to Chad, and yes—David. David still, and her parents, and yet she felt as if she didn’t belong with any of them.” Fortunately she has those schizophrenic kids to help cheer her up. Little Maryjo is blooming, thanks to a rag doll that Julie sat up all night sewing for her. “Honestly, Julie, without you, I think that kid would still be sitting up in bed, screaming and needing medication every four hours to calm her!” the ward nurse tells her. “All she needed was love and attention.”

She invites Chad and the gang to her parents’ house for Christmas, and when she gets off the plane, Chad is there to meet her: “We’ve got a Christmas Eve hootenanny going full blast!” He proposes to her, and she accepts, for the best of reasons: “If I don’t marry him, someone else will! And I may end up all alone, an unmarried nurse, just like some of them I’ve seen—with no place to go at night when I get off duty except a lonely little apartment and a TV set for company!” But when she goes back to the hospital wearing his tiny diamond and he goes back on tour, he’s peeved that she has to work and can’t talk to him on the phone. He calls constantly when she’s supposed to be studying for her final exams, sometimes after hours when could get in trouble for being on the phone. Then she goes to visit him one weekend in Memphis and one of the singers comes down with appendicitis, and Julie takes her place in the big solo number, “My Butternut Tree.” She’s a smash hit, of course, so now on weekends she’s performing with the group. “And if a small, nagging doubt, a bit of sadness, came to her now and then, she pushed it back firmly.” There’s a big TV performance coming up, after all, and graduation, and then a wedding to plan: “What more could a girl ask?”

So when graduation is all over and Julie is just about to leave the hospital forever, she learns that little Maryjo, who Julie has been too busy to say goodbye to, has gone missing. Julie misses the big performance in Atlanta to help find her, hiding in the locker where she’d left an old uniform. Despite this little setback, she decides that Maryjo is “nearly well! And Julie realized, with a sudden stab of pride, that she was responsible for Maryjo’s complete change.” So she puts on that old uniform again, “and quite suddenly, without any more struggle, worrying, heartbreak, Julie knew she had found her answer. A wonderful, deep meaning had come into her life.” She calls Chad to dump him: “I can’t leave those children!” she tells him, and tomorrow she’ll talk to the superintendent about getting a permanent job on the children’s ward. And then there’s intern Mike Farrell, a “short, homely young man with unruly, sandy-colored hair and steady, mature gray eyes,” who’s been helping in the search. He offers to buy her a cup of coffee, and Julie thinks, “This too, might be a beginning,” and the two of them walk off together into the elevator.

This is the first nurse romance that doesn’t end with the heroine’s love life completely sewn up, and I have to say that was a nice break. But overall I was not won over by Julie’s spinelessness and her constant obsessing about what to do, what to do? Chad was kind of a creepy character, but she can’t see him for the controlling manipulator that he really is, even if she does leave him in the end. The hootenanny shtick can be amusing, but the constant pounding on this one note makes it a bit wearing in the end. You may not come away exactly singing its praises, but if you must read Hootenanny Nurse, it’s not a complete flop.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Las Vegas Nurse

By Jane L. Sears, ©1963

Marta Humphries had been a nurse for six years. In that time it had not occurred to her that she was using the nursing profession as an antiseptic white wall to protect her from the hurts of the world outside, or from her own fierce craving for a passionate involvement in life. Returning to Las Vegas’ Hoover Memorial Hospital after an absence of five years, Marta discovered that Doctor Spence Marlow, the brilliant young surgeon, and the man responsible for her self-imposed exile, now desired her as she had once hoped he would. Marta unhesitatingly accepted his proposal of marriage. Then handsome Dev Russel, manager of the glamorous Desert Spa Casino, came into her life, first as her patient, then as her sister’s employer. For Marta, Dev personified everything she despised about Las Vegas. But as she got to know him, suspicion turned into an emotion that Marta hardly dared recognize…


“I wish she’d hurry up and find herself before I end up in a padded cell!”

“I’ve always been crazy about interns. They’re so … so grim and sexy looking!”

“Why, she hadn’t worn seams in ages!”

“Nothing can kill a romance faster than having family label it: acceptable.”

“Doctor McNulty deserved more than her shaking hands and whirling, numbed mind could give him when he began cutting into his patient to remove a cancerous colon.”

“How soignĂ©e you look in those tapered pants, Marta!”

“There was this gookie Knight […] The Ogre knew that he’d have to bump off the Knight because the Princess imagined that she was ape over him and the Ogre knew that he couldn’t get all shaped up until this babe loved him. […] The Ogre hunched in his cave far up on the mountain and looked down and watched the Princess and the Knight in their snow white clothes and pondered on how to get the Knight out of the way without making the Princess flip her wig.”

“I kept asking myself how she could go around in that sacky old uniform and have men falling all over themselves.”

Marta Humphries has returned to Las Vegas to work with surgeon Dr. Spencer Marlow, the same man she ran away from five years ago because she could not bear the heartbreak of his indifference toward her. More than that, though, she's got to start whipping her family into shape. Her father has leukemia and has 6 to 12 months to live; he feels fine, but he’s got to check into the hospital to start dying, even though he emphatically declares he wants to spend his last days in his own home. And then there’s her kid sister who needs bossing around: Polly’s “too tight clothes, a hint of defiance in her attitude toward Marta, and now complete disregard for the parking ticket which was probably just one of many, labeled the girl as rebellious.”

She’s working in the OR, “slapping the required instruments into Doctor Spence Marlow’s gloved hand almost before the command left his lips.” In the OR, Spence becomes “dictatorial, whiplashing impatience. He literally barked his commands, swore under his breath periodically, sighed and snarled… His sudden harshness indicating to Marta that so far things were going well.” And since he even has “the clever surgeon’s hand that had held Marta tense with admiration for its skills,” he’s got all the prerequisite signs of a brilliant surgeon. When she’s not in the OR, she’s attempting to take a patient’s temperature by holding his wrist and counting—which in modern times we would call a pulse, but you know how quickly medicine changes. Another patient of hers is Dev Russel, the owner of a hot nightclub on the strip. Polly, who is 17, takes to visiting Dev in the hospital, where the pair indulges in cocktails and cigarettes. This is one swinging hospital!

It’s not long before Spence notices Marta’s gray dress and asks her out, and by Chapter Six he’s proposed and he and Marta are squabbling about picking out the furniture for his new house. And about the wedding date—Marta feels she can’t marry for a year, considering that she’s just gotten home and she needs to get Polly safely grown up first. The first step is getting Polly a job at the airport. “Perhaps it would be interesting enough and exciting enough to nurture higher ambitions in Polly, secretarial school for instance, where she’d learn the tools necessary for a good, steady and high paying job with a future and security.” As for her own future with him, apart from raising children, “when the children were of school age she’d be able to act as Spence’s office nurse and even continute her surgical work at the hospital if he wanted her to. That decision, of course, would be up to him.”

Spencer is furious about the delay; he tells Marta, “I want a wife and home, and I want it now, Marta!” Though considering they’ve only been dating a few weeks, one wonders why he doesn’t want to make sure he’s got the right gal picked out. But then he takes her to Dev Russel’s nightclub to catch a show, “the chorus girls prance onstage, their scanty bikini constumes winking brilliantly against the spotlights, breasts bouncing, hips grinding to the fast jazz music … It was Polly!” The fact that Polly is a showgirl degrades both Polly and Marta, Spence says, and she is rightly furious for his comments and for springing this “surprise” on her. The next day she goes to visit Dev Russel and plead with him to fire Polly, but Dev just laughs. She’s humiliated and inscensed, but she can’t get his browned muscular figure out of her head.

Then after work the next day, Dev is parked outside the hospital, waiting for her. He tells her that if she just lets Polly get this showgirl thing out of her system, she’ll drop it soon enough. This instantly makes “wonderul sense” to Marta, and when Dev next asks her to meet this family he knows, she goes along. Cathy Murray is the widow of his best friend, and the oldest of her three children works for Dev as a busboy. Cathy and the two younger children all have muscular dystrophy. “They were all going to die. … Marta’s practiced reserve very nearly melted when Kit limped unsteadily toward her and said: ‘Pretty lady!’ ” From then on we spend quite a few days with the Murrays, agonizing in italics but without benefit of commas about how poor Cathy “couldn’t even lift the pot her muscles were so deteriorated!” There’s also a star-crossed flirtation between Dev and the engaged Marta, in which he says charming things like, “Can’t you see I want to get that good-looking broad … I mean dame, alone for a minute!” Who will she choose—the shady nightclub owner or the steadfast but domineering doctor? Well, all I have to say is that Las Vegas Nurse has, hands down, the most peculiar marriage proposal I’ve ever seen in a VNRN: “How’d you like about fifty years of private duty, you dumb broad?”

Jane L. Sears, author of the sublime Ski Resort Nurse, is ever high in my esteem based solely on the utter fabulousness of that one book. Television Nurse also had its moments, but this, her third and apparently last book, is sadly not the equal of either of its sisters. Campy characters and situtations should come easily to a book about gangsters and showgirls, but what we get most of is syrupy sentiment about the dying family. Or Marta freaking out about her sister’s wild behavior, or sighing over Dev’s devilishly handsome mien, or grumping to herself about Spence’s selfishness. There’s just not all that much to hold your interest in this book. Given my high regard for Ms. Sears, it pains me greatly to say it, but there it is. She is capable of greatness, but the only divine aspect about this book is its cover.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nurse with Wings

By Marguerite Mooers Marshall, ©1952

Anne was engaged to mary Dr. “Staff” Stafford, ambitious young New York society doctor who demanded that she give up the career she loved. Then, one storm-tossed night, her plane crashed in the Canadian wilderness, and the whole pattern of her life was swept out of her control. For as she sought to save her passengers from the burning wreckage, she found a stranger working skillfully by her side. He was Dr. Paul Roy, a young Canadian doctor. Back in New York in Staff’s possessive arms Anne Austin tried to forget the quiet, masterly young Canadian.


“Some women steal spoons. Others, if they get the chance, steal the fillings out of your teeth or the man who is your man.”

“I’ve known her for a long time, which may be the reason I should never consider her anything except a former associate and acquaintance, certainly not a friend.”

“Hadn’t someone said a woman’s husband is simply the oldest of her children?”

“Every rule has exceptions between friends.”

“Pity is a beautiful virtue but no basis for lifelong happinss in marriage. A woman wants to look up to her husband, not look after him.”

“A girl gets used to realizing the nicest men she meets are almost always married.”

Nurse with Wings opens with a bit of a literal bang: Anne Austin, stewardess and registered nurse, is assisting her passengers off her plane—which has just crashed in a field in Quebec. She’s trying to get a baby boy untangled from a smashed seat and his dead mother, but “she was no Amazon,” and it’s only the assistance of passenger Dr. Paul Roy that frees the boy. Once out, she and Dr. Roy agree to drive the baby to his father’s house, several hours away. On the drive they impress each other with their patriotism, their love of flying, their interest in “mercy flights” bringing remote, ill people to hospitals. They soon discover they are both bilingual, French and English, and binational, with one American and one Canadian parent. And she trained at the Quebec City hospital where he now works as an eye, nose and throat surgeon. When they part on page 23, “Anne, with the queer feeling of losing not a new but an old friend, gently freed herself from the strong, sensitive surgeon’s fingers still holding hers.”

Back at home, she has a fiance, Dr. William Lee Stafford, waiting for her, and he manages to irk in the very sentence in which we first meet him when he kisses Anne “proprietorially,” and then it’s all downhill from there. He’s pissy about the years he was drafted into the army during World War II, which he feels were a waste—nevermind about the waste of Anne’s brother Doug, who was killed in the same war. He’s described as brusque, suspicious, petulant, bitter and sullen, and this is all on the first page we spend in his company. Then we learn that “Staff” is constantly nagging Anne to quit her job, though she loves it, is well-paid, and has to work half the hours she would in a hospital, which gives her time to care for her ailing mother. He is such a complete ass that it’s extremely hard to figure out why Anne puts up with him. She is clearly an intelligent woman—she went to Vassar, after all—so her stupidity on this score is quite baffling. Fortunately, Staff is one of those guys who won’t marry until he can support his wife, regardless of the fact that she makes a decent salary and is self-supporting, so she’s unable to ruin her life by chaining herself to this loser just yet.

Mrs. Austin, Anne’s mother, has terrible migraines induced by the summer heat in their New York city apartment, so Anne takes her on vacation to their New Hampshire home on Great Pond in Belltown—Mrs. Marshall was born and raised in Kingston, N.H., which hosts a pond of the same name—and she invites Staff to join them. Soon after his arrival, she takes him to Great Boar’s Head, a rocky promontory in the real-life Hampton (named “Campton” in this book), where the wind is so ferocious that it almost sweeps Anne off the rock into the water. At that moment, rather than grab for her, Staff pushes her off him so as to avoid being pulled in as well. She recovers her balance in time, but she can never quite look at him the same way after that. But soon he decamps, lured away by the promise by a comely young nurse of a job in a sanitorium outside of New York City catering to the ubiquitous wealthy neurotic women. She’s not happy about it, but decides it’s not her place to criticize his choice of career—perhaps forgetting that he has no qualms about doing the same to her.

In the meantime, cataracts are eroding Mrs. Austin’s eyesight. Anne calls Staff, and he gives her the names of two eye doctors in New York. But he makes no effort to help her by calling these doctors, who might be inclined to offer a discounted fee to family of another doctor. The consultations are a complete bust: One doctor refuses to see her out of hand, and the other demands more than $1,000 for his services. So her thoughts turn to the eye surgeon Dr. Roy. What a difference a Canadian makes. While her American fiance offers next to nothing when asked for help, a letter from Dr. Roy magically arrives the day after she thinks of writing to him, offering his services if she should ever be in need of them. After she writes back of her mother’s situation, he sends a telegram offering his surgical services, and soon she and Mrs. Austin are en route to Quebec City. And this is not an isolated incident; time and again, Dr. Roy offers up something Anne and her mother need even before they can ask for it.

Anne is under the impression that Dr. Roy is married—he speaks of two children at home that he has brought up—and at the same time, he tells her that he expects to be paid for the surgery he performed on Mrs. Austin, though he won’t name an amount. Well, we savvy VNRN aficionados completely understand what is going on here, even if the couple in question does not. Then there’s her engagement to Staff in the way as well—

This book has quite a few of the same ingredients we savored in the other book we’ve met by Ms. Marshall, Wilderness Nurse: New Hampshire, New York City, Quebec, bilingual main characters. I enjoyed them all the first time around (and not just because I’m from the same area of New Hampshire), and they’re almost as well done in this book. The picture she paints of a summer cottage in rural New Hampshire is bucolic and beautiful, something you feel you are experiencing with Anne and her mother. The heroine is spunky, independent and likeable, if slow to realize that her fiance is a total dolt. It’s a gentle, easy-flowing book, well-written and intelligent. Its only real flaw is that the plot never really offers up much excitement; this story is more of a pleasant walk along a pretty garden path than any wild ride. So while I did enjoy it, it’s not quite as stellar as Wilderness Nurse.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Kay Manion, M.D.

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1959

For the first time in her life, Kay Manion was running away, driving alone cross-country, fleeing her position as a surgeon in a large California hospital. The young and beautiful doctor could not face the thought that a moment of weakness had endangered a patient’s life—or that the man she loved, Dr. Frank Silvester, was infecting her with his own self-serving attitude toward medicine. But when the floodwaters of a raging river suddenly stranded Kay in the ravaged town of Woodbine, she could run no longer. In the midst of terrible human disaster, she had to prove her worth as a doctor. Forced to choose between a love she could not forget and a new love she could not bring herself to trust, Kay learned how foolish a woman’s fears could be, and how wise her heart.


“Since when have pain and illness and death recognized office hours?”

“I’ll bet when he takes my pulse I’ll really register!”

“That was good—‘Good,’ Kay said.”

“She was, first of all, a doctor. First a doctor, then a woman—”

“Her heart plummeted to the toes of her pumps.”

“If you don’t stop talking I am going to pop a thermometer under your tongue.”

“You can’t believe that, Kay. You’re no dewy-eyed teen-ager, you’re a doctor, sweetheart—you know love is strictly biologic.”

“A surgeon pitting his skill against time realizes that time has snatched his patient’s life and is running away with it and he doesn’t dare make one swift, reckless plunge to catch up. If he does, if in his haste the hand holding the scalpel, the fingers tying a ligature, or handling a clamp—as hers had—God—please God—”

“Perhaps she needed to get away from strictly surgery for a while, perhaps that had been a part of her trouble. She had heard it argued that surgery was not for a woman. Pediatrics, definitely. And o.b., internal medicine. But not the long tedious grind that was surgery.”

“Didn’t it give her a turn, sometimes, to open people up? He wan’t right sure that he approved any such shenanigans, looks as though if God had wanted such things done he’d have put a zipper in.”

Kay Manion, M.D., is fleeing California in her red Jaguar. Like all VNRN heroines who flee home, she’s running from a terrible tragedy: While in surgery, she starts thinking about her miserable love life and misses the call for a clamp from the senior surgeon. An artery spurts for an extra moment or two until she is called back to earth—but “in that infinetismal span of time before the strength she willed came back into her hands, had Harvey Webster’s chance for life been snatched from him?” In the throes of despair, Kay’s “heart and her whole future crumbled and trampled beneath her own foolishness,” she flings her belongings into a bag and heads out of town, before it’s even known whether Mr. Webster is going to pull through. (This is the second VNRN I’ve read where an extra second of hemorrhage convinces the heroine that she’s a murderer; see also Surgical Nurse by Florence K. Palmer.)

Stopping at a gas station in Indiana for directions, the friendly fella there warns her under no circumstances should she stay on Route 50, because there’s a huge flood coming. But when she gets to the intersection where she’s supposed to turn, she’s busy ruminating over that fateful day and biting her lip “until the salty taste of blood was there,” so she just keeps on going. Even as the water gets higher and she has to drive on flooded roads, it never crosses her mind that maybe she ought to turn around. Until she’s crossing this rickety bridge and it collapses under her.

She’s saved by a couple of locals, but now she’s stuck in this backwater, because the bridge was the only way out. But they can always use another doctor, and before long she’s helping with disaster management. She always seems to be seconds away from hysteria, though; Harvey Webster is never far from her thoughts, of course, but even when she’s in the middle of treating patients, she’s still hysterically obsessing: “Kay opened her mouth to ask why hadn’t the Davidsons gotten out while they could, then closed it, the words unspoken. Why didn’t people, herself included, do a lot of things? If she had paid attention to her driving she wouldn’t be here, she would be headed east on 50, far from flood-drowned southern Indiana by now. If she hadn’t followed her foolish heart until even the marrow in her bones was weary, if she hadn’t fallen in love with Frank Silvester the instant their eyes met that day in Dr. Frank’s cubbyhole of an office—she withdrew the needle from Evy’s hip, straightened.” This woman is a nervous breakdown or a malpractice lawsuit, or both, waiting to happen. Fortunately, she can turn it down a notch after page 50, when she finally calls home and finds out that Harvey Webster is going to be all right. The wise old doctor she talks to tells her that she was running not just from Harvey Webster—“It was Frank, too,” she thinks. “And—and her—”

You see, back in California she is engaged to one of those ubiquitous young doctors hoping to set up an office catering to neurotic rich women, apparently not recognizing that his fiancee is, perhaps more than anyone, in need of his services. To develop his clientele, Frank spends a lot of nights out club-hopping and being seen at all the fashionable spots, and poor Kay has been at the verge of exhaustion trying to keep up with him and still get up early for surgery in the morning. But on her midwestern detour she meets steady, dependable Chris Buford, publisher of the local newspaper. For some reason, he falls for her, and now Kay has another reason to anguish endlessly and speak with italics and em dashes: “Chris, I—Oh, Chris, please! I—I don’t know!

The town is predictably on the verge of going under in the flood, but relentless sandbagging by the townspeople saves it, and there is much rejoicing. The strain, however, is too much for the elderly doctor, who is felled by the hard work: “Pinching the doubt in the bud she found a pulse in the muscular hairy wrist, with an eye on the sweeping second hand of her watch counted … seventy-nine…eighty…eighty-one, and it was a minute. Eighty-one! Oh, God—” Before she completely freaks out, someone ought to remind her that 81 is a normal pulse. So Kay has to stay on to help, and six months later, the old doc is better and hoping she’ll stay permanently. But there’s a rumor going around town about Chris and a beautiful music teacher, who is soon sporting a diamond. Kay flees home to California without finding out the truth of the situation—clearly she hasn’t learned anything at all—and we’ve got 20 more pages, plenty of time to develop a subplot! Back at the hospital, the staff is gossiping that one patient declined surgery, “not if Dr. Manion was to do the operating,” and that she’s a tramp, and now the medical board wants to see her in a closed session. But another surgeon tells her that there is “a master plan behind the whole thing,” an attempt to drive her out of the hospital. Who—who would do such a thing? Oh, God

Frankly, I’m torn over this book. Kay is a horrible doctor, unable to keep her mind on her work and needing to be talked in off the ledge on every other page. Though she does seem to be a magnet for disaster, the amout of emotional drama she wrings from even ordinary events is seriously psychotic. The camp factor is turned up to eleven, and though it does offer up numerous laugh-out-loud moments, it can feel overdone at times and leave you rolling your eyes at yet another self-absorbed diatribe. I did enjoy the fairly realistic descriptions of surgery and the red Jag—before it drowned, anyway—but this book is a roller coaster of amusement and exasperation. I think it’s worth reading—aloud, preferably, to a group of like-minded friends—but be prepared for a wild ride, on a rickety, collapsing bridge.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Trust in Love

By Jeanne Bowman
(pseud. Peggy O’More Blocklinger), ©1966

Nurse Merry Cowels was good at handling the problems of all her patients and friends. But when it came to her own love problems, she was at a loss. Because of her fear of letting her emotions go with Dr. Sam Baker and because of the emotional hodgepodge in her heart, Merry took a vacation from her work and from Sam … in order to think. But an accident brought handsome Les Carlson into Merry’s life and into her heart. Would Merry finally be able to let herself love and trust again, or would ugly rumors bring rejection once more?


“Her very going into training had been inspired by her—or was it their—belief such a profession could bring in needed income during the off fishing season.”

“Oh, eat your lunch; you’re disturbing the ducks.”

“She remembered the swan that had swung in from somewhere to the pond they’d sat beside that noon, lost from its flock but content, assured his inborn radar would carry him on, unless man and gunfire sought him as a trophy.”

“No, I will not kiss you. If you have picked up a few germs, I don’t want to catch any from you.”

I seem to be on a roll here, having just finished reading Peggy Gaddis’s finest book so far (Nora Was a Nurse), and now finding that Trust in Love is actually Peggy O. Blocklinger’s best as well. But before you start searching the internet for a copy, remember that this is the author who thus far has earned the only failing grade (for the spectacularly loony Conflict for Nurse Elsa; Door to Door Nurse secured a D). Her best is still pretty dreadful.

Marilyn Cowels, known as Merry, is a nurse at Westhills Hospital. She’s overworked and tired, and upset that when she ran into a former patient whose life she had saved, he asked her, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” She’s a bit loath to leave Dr. Sam Baker, despite what the back cover blurb says, but gosh darn it, she is really tired! She’s going back to her parents’ old house, which is between tenants, for a vacation. But on her way home she picks up a couple of hippies, called, I am sorry to say, Lad and Lass, and witnesses a car accident involving engineer Les Carlson. She saves the life of the old geezer who caused the accident, and is not too traumatized by the events to accept a date from Les. The next day, she turns up at the town doctor’s office to report what she saw at the accident and learns old Dr. Mathis is woefully understaffed. Soon she is suited up in her nylon uniform and efficiently ticking through the doctor’s to do list. Not long on the job, she manages to get all kinds of truths out of patients who have been seeing Dr. Mathis for decades, like the woman whose husband beats her, and the man—an old beau who dumped her—who has TB. So she never really gets that vacation.

She dates Les when he’s free, and Dr. Baker pops up from Westhills to see her from time to time. There’s a storyline about a suicidal woman artist who uses everyone and nearly starves to death when they get tired of it, but other than that, not much really happens. Except a lot of preaching: This book hasn’t met a cause it can’t take time to cluck over: elderly people swindled into buying homes in flood plains, pyromaniacs, duplicitous politicians, soil erosion, gun safety, bad drivers, war, impoverished nations, weapons in outer space. It’s like every one of the Berenstain Bears books under one cover. The author’s prose is not as spacey as it has been in previous books, but it still made me stop at times for a breath of fresh air. This book is neither entertaining nor interesting, and the writing is stilted and condescending. Sad to think the author has done a lot worse.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

County Nurse

By Peggy Dern
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1961
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

County nurse Beth Mason was young, beautiful, dedicated to her work and deeply in love. Doctor Cary Latham was bored by his patients and resentful that he must spend three years in a backwoods community. Yet they had to work together and the surprising climax to the conflict between them leads to a love story of truly dramatic impact.


“If you’re planning to welcome the man, serve his supper and show him to his room, you look fine. If you’re planning to marry him—”

“ ‘Is there anything I can do for you before I go?’ she asked, every inch the docile, well-trained nurse addressing one of those lordly beings, a doctor.”

“Unless you want to smell like a walking advertisement for my business, you don’t shake hands with me, Doctor. Boiling, cleaning and deviling crabs and shucking shrimp is not exactly a fragrant business.”

“You do agree with me then that the role nature meant for women is their finest career?”

“From what I hear you are a neat blend of Dr. Pasteur and Gregory Peck.”

“If all the really nutty people were shut up, there wouldn’t be enough left to keep things going on the outside.”

“Making the rounds, looking after the sick and ailing is your very life. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever have the nerve to ask you to give it up.”

“The education that can be found in books is only half, and the smallest, least important half.”

“Is this a private fight? Or can anyone get into it?”

This book has one of the worst back-cover blurbs ever. The truth of the story is that Dr. Cary Latham is the typical big-city snob from Atlanta, forced to work in the back country of Georgia to repay the state aid he received for his medical education. En route to his new home in Kerryville, he gets lost on the back-country roads and almost runs over a beautiful 19-year-old girl. “I was waiting for you,” she gasps breathlessly, “to beg you to take me away— ” But then a man falls out of the woods after her. John Nordman is Meredith Warrener’s uncle, and under Uncle John’s watchful eyes, she assures Cary she’s perfectly fine, takes John’s arm, and the two disappear back into the swamp. Naturally, Cary is deeply intrigued.

He arrives at the house where he will be living, the home of county nurse Beth Clay and her mother Amy, the only house in town with plumbing and electricity. They tell Cary that no one has actually seen Meredith in ten years, that her uncle keeps her isolated in the decaying family mansion—it used to encompass 10,000 acres and own 5,000 slaves—with only him and the aged black housekeeper for company. When Cary chides John about this later, John answers that he is “unwilling that she should have friends among the dolts and clods of Kerryville […] Do you wonder I want to protect her innocence, her loveliness?” Sounds a bit perverse to me.

Cary grudgingly settles in, and Beth immediately starts a grudge of her own, recognizing him as the city snob he admittedly is. Cary, to his credit, takes a more direct approach, calling Beth on her prejudice against him, pointing out that he has never said “any of the other unpleasant names you are hanging on them and trying to credit to me.” After this Beth defrosts a bit. She thinks of him with “a warmth in her heart,” and he evaluates her as “the perfect doctor’s wife”—nevermind that she is affianced to the town lawyer, Ben Cooper, who we see very little of through most of the book.

Soon after his arrival in town, Cary is approached by the sheriff, who asks him if he’s heard anything about a monster running loose in the woods or treated anyone for “peculiar wounds—maybe scratches, claw marks or teeth marks.” Then a mossy old half-blind squatter near the Warrener house reports that he sees Meredith cavorting in the woods with the monster. Shortly afterward, Meredith falls from her bedroom window in the middle of the night and sprains her ankle. Cary, called to the case, learns from her that she has a friend in the swamp who will starve if she doesn’t bring him food, which she is now unable to do. Cary, having spent less than an hour of his life with Meredith, mulls over the question of whether he is in love with her. “Oh, for Pete’s sake! When he did [think of marriage], it would not be some lovely, fragile, haunted patient!” Uh, maybe it will. And so, against his better judgment, he agrees to leave a sack of groceries in the woods for her, but that darned squatter sees him, takes the supplies, and rats Cary out to the sheriff. And thanks for the food, Doc.

The sheriff has decided the swamp monster must be an escaped convict: “We’ve got to catch him and lock him up before he does anybody any harm!” He tells Cary that he and his posse are going to set out another pile of groceries and lie in wait: “ ‘And when he comes out to get it—’ He closed a big, ham-like fist as though he were closing it around the throat of the missing man.” So guess how this ends up? Cary shows up at the stakeout to put a stop to it, but the sheriff threatens him with jail, so Cary keeps quiet and just watches as a half-naked old man staggers to the food and is shot dead. As the men, “their guns cocked and ready,” stand around watching, Meredith flings herself on the old man’s body and screams, “You filthy murderers!”

Meredith now justifiably hysterical, Cary tries to take her home, but they are stopped. “She’s going to be questioned, Doc, and you might as well shut up,” snaps the good-hearted sheriff. Meredith tells them that the old man was a Seminole Indian, exiled from his people because in his youth he killed someone. Now feeble and toothless, he was starving until Meredith helped him. “And now you’ve murdered him—you filthy beasts!” she screams and faints dead away. The sheriff insists “we’ve done nothing but ask her a few questions we had a right to ask,” and says he plans to ask her more—but Cary finally grows a spine and snaps, “While she’s unconscious?” and takes her home. I’m amazed at how the injustice of this entire incident seems to pass over every other character’s head except the neurotic Meredith. The swamp man’s only possible crime is trespassing, but the squatter does this openly—and is clearly much more of a nuisance than the “monster”—and he’s walking around free. Maybe it helps if you’re white.

While she’s out cold, Cary convinces Uncle John that Meredith needs to get out of the house more, and John, shaken by Meredith’s association with the flea-bitten old Indian, finally agrees. When she’s awake, Cary tells her he wants her to date around—but he’ll be waiting for her, because he loves her. She thinks that over and agrees—then asks him to kiss her. “I always thought it would be like that!” she says, “Like walking on clouds and bumping your head against the stars.” For her part, Beth suddenly realizes that she’s been “the world’s worst silly ever, even for a moment, to think she wanted Cary, when Ben had been there all the time, a very part of her.” Ick and double ick.

Overall, this is a good book. The characters are well-drawn and the setup of the story—the mysterious woman in the decaying house, the monster in the woods—is intriguing and certainly unique. Beth’s mother is a fantastic character, smart and wry, always saying things like, “Have a cup of coffee, darling, and then you can explode.” But the situation with the old man in the woods is completely unsatisfying, as it feels like the sheriff has gotten away with a serious crime and ought to be prosecuted, or at least fired, but if his actions are hinted at being unjustified, he gets away with them. I was also disappointed that Cary so quickly falls for a clearly nutty teenager (remember, she is just 19) while Beth, out of the blue, goes gaga for a man who is a cipher throughout the book. If it had ended differently, this could have been a top-notch book. But even with its flaws, it’s a very pleasant read.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Nurse

By Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1954
Cover illustration by D. Rickard

The life of a nurse is not an easy one, but Susan Trent enjoyed every minute of her work, even those times of tragedy when unavoidable accidents brought disaster, bloodshed and suffering. She found it absorbing because she shared in those difficulties and problems of all those whose lives and health she guarded. But Susan had not expected to be involved so deeply that the problems of others would affect her own secure existence. Nor that the sinister and deadly happenings in the busy shops and factories would culminate in her own quiet office.


“Almost she wished she were a girl with a past—an intriguing past.”

“Life held many far more important things than mere marriage—or did it?”

“I haven’t eaten a little girl in years. Reformed, you know.”

“How a few pleasant words of commendation brightened one’s day! Too bad more people didn’t go in for that sort of philanthropy.”

“Once she had asked Dr. Marshall why professional men were notoriously such poor penmen and he had laughed and told her it was necessary to impress the public just as using long unpronounceable medical terms did.”

“You know what men are. They don’t know what real pain is; that is, most of them don’t. If they had to suffer as we women do they’d be less ornery.”

“It was queer that it so often rained just at twelve and at five when most people were quitting work.”

The cover of this book is certainly a tough act to follow. Though it is a bit of a spoiler—you’ll get to the penultimate chapter before the heat-packing thugs make an entrance—I’m hard-pressed to think of many better. I know Ms. Hancock to be capable of very fine work (see
Graduate Nurse), and while The Nurse is a pretty good book, it’s just not quite that good.

Written in 1954, this book is set more than ten years earlier. The United States has not yet entered World War II, and the men are always debating enlisting in the Army versus waiting to be drafted. (Even our heroine, Susan Trent, discusses enlisting, as “nurses will be needed, you know.”) In the meantime, Susan lives in the family home in the eastern town of Ashton, working at the Whittle Tool and Implement Plant with Dr. Joel Marshall and supporting her family: widowed mother; middle sister Barbara, age 19; and baby brother Dick, age 17, who is reluctantly studying to be a lawyer as his father was. Susan’s salary keeps the family afloat and allows Barbara the luxuries that have turned her into a spoiled brat who hangs out with the wrong crowd. Susan, almost to compensate for her younger sister, “seldom had dates—she wasn’t the type.”

So while sis is partying—and even vomiting in the bathroom at 3 a.m. after a hard night of drinking—Susan has only Dr. Marshall in her life, with whom she has shared nothing but the most professional of relationships, until architect Alan MacDowell comes into her life. He’s working on a plan for housing for the factory workers, but Dr. Marshall doesn’t approve. Could it be that the doctor is a bit jealous? Well, of course he is, and he asks Susan out on a date—the first time he’s ever noticed her—shortly after she starts seeing Alan. She can’t go, as she has a date with Alan that night, but she thinks about how much she cares for him. “He was such a grand person!” Then Susan hears that the doctor is married to a woman who has been in a psychiatric asylum for the last 15 years. So the doctor moves to the back burner—and Alan also has qualities that make him unattractive to Susan, such as his infatuation with the beautiful and charming Barbara when he spends an evening at the Trent home.

Of course, everything sorts out in the end, down to the wayward sister, but overall the plotting is pretty weak. Some things (a worker with an apparent gunshot wound to the shoulder, a man of Austrian descent suspected of bombing the factory, the identity of the person who has been writing threatening letters to Dr. Marshall for years) are never explained, and the wrap-up explanation of why the two gunmen come after Susan and Dr. Marshall is so strange and loose that I still don’t get it. But the plot is not really important; as with Graduate Nurse, the heart of the book is the heroine’s daily life, and this is what makes the story worth reading. Susan visits numerous patients, handles emergencies in the plant, frets about her sister, cooks eggs and bacon with her brother, soothes her nervous mother. It’s an old-fashioned, sweet and simple life, even quaintly socialistic, in which the emphasis is on the community over the individual, where men who take shortcuts on the job wind up with injuries and a guilty conscience for thinking they knew better and trying to buck the system. Here a secretary is a far better person than a socialite, and ambitions of working as a machinist or joining the army are held in higher esteem than going to college.

I find a number of parallels between this book and Ms. Hancock’s real life. As with Graduate Nurse, this story touches sympathetically on psychiatric patients; Ms. Hancock’s oldest sister lived in an institution for most of her life, so perhaps there is a connection there. Ms. Hancock also held various positions at International Harvester throughout most of her career, as she didn’t start publishing books until she was in her late 50s, and this informs the book’s setting in the tool factory. And of her seven siblings, only two married (the oldest of her three brothers); Ms. Hancock lived with three of her sisters all her life, so their home must necessarily have been the center of their lives. The fondness and devotion Ms. Hancock shows for family life—Susan’s eventual fiancĂ© even agrees to move into their house with them—makes me think that her home must have been very happy indeed.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The New Nurses

Arlene Hale, ©1970
Cover illustration by Edrien King

Lynn Lawrence and Bobbi Wagner vowed to forget Chicago and devote themselves entirely to their nursing careers. Lynn was white, Bobbi, black, and Quiet Fairview General Hospital seemed an “island of contentment” until … Dr. Paul Hamilton appeared and charmingly, persistently, he began to break down Lynn’s resistance. Despite the memory of a shattered romance, Lynn knew she was beginning to fall in love again. While for Bobbi the attentions of handsome sax-player DeVore Johnson, were proving to be more of a distraction than she had planned. And just when she thought she had really left the ghetto behind, brother Johnny showed up in Fairview looking for trouble. Then a supervisor’s job opened up that both girls desperately wanted. Too late they realized that this sort of competition would threaten their careers, their friendships and their love affairs.


“It’s all over, Dad. The break was clean. So clean that it is sterile, in fact. I’ll never be infected again.”

“In a way, Steve had been good training for her. She had learned a great deal about the male animal from her association with him, and Doctor Hamilton, when it was all said and done, was just another male animal.”

“I’m forty-two and single and darned glad of it. I’ve got no complaints and if I need something to warm my feet on a cold winter night, I can always get a hot-water bottle.”

“All landladies are a decent sort until you miss a month’s rent.”

“Was her poor, frozen heart beginning to thaw out at last?”

“There was never time for women in my life. I’ve paid for it in loneliness.”

I deliberately avoided reading this book for a while because the cover illustration of that blonde woman with the big head put me off. The doctor smoking a pipe in the background (I’m always intrigued by the contradiction of a medico who smokes) and the unheard-of major character who isn’t white finally won me over, though—that and the fact that as soon as I get it over with I can tuck the book away and that big-headed woman won’t be staring vapidly at me from my to-read pile.

This is a tale of two nurses: Lynn Lawrence, who is blonde and blue-eyed; and Bobbi Wagner, who is not. The two are “as different as black and white,” in Bobbi’s words. “What a contrast there was. Bobbi was Negro, light-skinned and while not strikingly beautiful, she was nice-looking and the uniform suited her. Lynn was a golden blonde, with very blue eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion. They were a startling combination.” They’ve been friends and roommates since nursing school in Chicago. Lynn has just left Chicago to escape a broken relationship with Steve, about whom we learn little over the course of the book, apart from the fact that he and Lynn are not getting married after all and Lynn’s crushed little heart will never live again. She’s pleaded with Bobbi to come with her, and Bobbi has agreed: She’s escaping too, but it’s from her little brother Johnny, a good-for-nothing mooch always tapping her for money since he can’t hold a job.

The two move in together, but they’re not all that close, and much is made of this throughout the book: “Though they were friends, there were some things that they had never fully shared with each other.” This is partly due to their different races, we are told. Lynn “didn’t know what it was like in the Harlem of Chicago and that was scarcely her fault. But all the same, it made a breech between them that perhaps they never would be able to span.” It’s also due to the fact that Bobbi can be a bit of a bitch, with “moods … sometimes as black as her skin.” And now she’s in a real funk about Johnny, who soon shows up, grafts himself onto the girls’ couch, and seems content to moulder there indefinitely. Lynn professes not to mind, but Bobbi certainly does. She can’t actually kick Johnny out, though, because then he’ll go sponge off their parents, and “it would kill Dad if he knew the sort of man Johnny really was. Mamma would accept it quietly but it would put more lines in her face, more gray in her hair, more sadness in her eyes. They’d endured enough!” Then Bobbi hears about these robberies in town … and Johnny goes out only at night … and he wears all these flashy clothes …

Of course, we have to work in some romance for the two. Lynn starts dating Dr. Paul Hamilton, and Bobbi hooks up with DeVore Dunsmore, a groovy sax player in town for a six-month gig who wears “red socks, a red tie and had a matching red handkerchief in his breast pocket. His shoes were two black mirrors. A small diamond glittered on his left pinkie.” Did I mention that he’s a real swinging cat? Before long, DeVore hears that Johnny is involved in a gang called, quaintly, the Rovers, and he also hears that the Rovers are responsible for the robberies, which leaves Bobbi smoking cigarettes like a chimney, pacing the apartment, rudely rebuffing all Lynn’s efforts to help.

Meanwhile, the nursing supervisor is felled by a brain tumor, and now that job is up for grabs. Both Lynn and Bobbi want it, but Bobbi is convinced that she will never get it because she’s black. “Oh, if she could only get that super’s job! It would prove she was more than just that black girl from Chicago!” This makes her more than a little nasty to Lynn, and she accuses Lynn of dating the doctor in order to get the job, causing “the first serious rift of their friendship.” Johnny figures out what’s eating Bobbi, and attempts to cheer her up: “You know what’s wrong, don’t you? You forget where you’re from. You forget you’re just a black girl. Nothing’s going to change that, Bobbi. You’ll never make it. Because you’re black. You got to make your own luck when you’re black!” Thanks, bro.

One night Johnny doesn’t come home—he’s been beaten to a pulp by a bunch of unnamed men at the club where he and the Rovers hang out. Johnny refuses to say anything at all about the incident, but he swears to Bobbi on the Bible that he’s not involved in the robberies, so Bobbi knows he’s telling the truth, because even Johnny would never lie on the Bible. When pressed, he tells Bobbi that he got his clothes from a rich woman who liked him, and Bobbi is completely relieved: Her brother is not a thief, he’s a gigolo! Phew! Johnny is offered a more respectable job in the hospital, but he turns down this chance at redemption: “I’d just be cleaning up, doing the dirty little jobs. That’s not for Johnny Wagner!” That night he blows town without saying goodbye, so the questions of why he was beaten or what’s going to become of him is never resolved. You can’t help thinking that it’s only a matter of time before he’ll turn up again, and not exactly a changed man.

The gals’ love lives aren’t nailed down either, but Lynn gets the happier ending. She and Paul profess their love for each other, and while the ring isn’t on her finger at the end of the book, you know it won’t be long. DeVore likewise tells Bobbi he wants to marry her, and that she can move around the country with him as he plays with his band, getting jobs as a nurse everywhere she goes. “We’d have a swinging good time,” he tells her. “Be a vagabond nurse?” she snorts, and I can see the title of Arlene Hale’s next book. But Bobbi never claims to love DeVore, and she tells him there are things she has to do first, “and then later she would think about love, marriage, a home, and maybe even kids!” DeVore claims he’s going to hang around until she’s ready, but it’s unclear how he’s going to manage that when his gig runs out in a few months. So either she doesn't get the guy, or she sacrifices her own desires to marry a man she doesn't love and take on a lifestyle that doesn't seem to excite her.

Race is not something often addressed in a VNRN. In this book, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for the difficulties Bobbi faces—“the insults, the sly looks, the talk, the open prejudice,” including her perceived obstacles getting the supervisor job and even a decent apartment: “A lot of people don’t want to rent to Negroes,” Bobbi points out. The fact remains, though, that the two major black male roles are overwhelmingly stereotypical. DeVore is a decent guy, but that flashing diamond irks me just a bit. And while the white girl’s straightforward problems are quickly disposed of, Bobbi’s complex issues are punted into the future, and she does not get the VNRN heroine’s traditional—or the white character’s—happy ending. Even the issue of who gets the supervisor position, though resolved in a way that allows the friends to smooth things over, doesn’t address the fundamental issue: Could Bobbi ever hope to get promoted, or is prejudice working against her in the hospital? So while this book attempts to tackle a tough issue in a fair way, in the end it says one thing but itself doesn't treat the two women equally.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Visiting Nurse

By Margaret Howe, ©1954
Cover illustration by Darrell Green

Alice Gregory had wanted to be a nurse from the time she had been a child. Now her dream had come true in a very special way—she was a visiting nurse to the blind. Each day Alice learned a new lesson in courage from her patients. Only one, Leila Haley, seemed at the brink of despair. The girl had beauty and a magnetic attraction for me. But the loss of her sight had made her sullen and resentful. It was Alice Gregory’s task to restore Leila’s desire for life. Then the terrible moment came when Alice discovered the truth. She and Leila were not only nurse and patient—they were two girls who desperately loved the same man. Could Alice Gregory remain true to her sworn oath to help her patients in every way? Or should she fight for her own chance for happiness?


“I hope I won’t have to wear glasses. My boyfriend wouldn’t like that.”

“Today a doctor is judged more by his bedside manner and his golf score than by his skill with a scalpel.”

“Women have just one idea—how to spend money.”

“It’s easy to stumble into a mistake, but hard to have the courage to face about and acknowledge it.”

“Men aren’t like women, Alice. They got a need to have someone help them in spite of their belief that they’re strong and self-sufficient.”

“It takes more than love to make a successful marriage.”

VNRNs written in the 1950s or earlier have, most of them, a charming, quiet way about them. Maybe it’s the simple life they describe, where the focus is on the community and family more than the individual, a world a little more removed from our modern life. Milk still arrives daily in a truck, phones and television are not ubiquitous, people go home for lunch. I’m not saying all that is a good thing; certainly people’s lives are far more circumscribed and narrow than they are in VNRNs just a decade younger. But it’s certainly enjoyable to look in the window on the gentle glow for a little bit.

Visiting Nurse is one such book. Alice Gregory is a nurse for the blind living in Hastings, Ohio. She’s kind of a plain gal, but she’s managed to hook Bart Hanson, a flashy dresser with a flashier social life. Bart’s uncle, Dr. Norman Evans, has been “almost a father to her and it was through his influence and assistance that she received her nurse’s training.” As it happens, Dr. Evans went blind two years ago, so Alice’s choice of specialization is paying off for him now, as she drops by his house every morning to see him as both a friend and a patient. Dr. Evans is, of course, thrilled about the engagement between Alice and Bart. “It will be a good thing for Bart when you two get married,” the doctor tells Alice. “What he needs is a wife and children to keep him steady.”

But from the book’s opening chapter, we see that as much as Alice would love a closer tie to Dr. Evans, and looks forward to living in his house when she and Bart are married, the idea of actually being married to Bart, who is so different from her, makes her uneasy. This perhaps stems from Bart’s disgust with Alice’s career and his insistence that she quit working once they are married. “The girls I know don’t get flat feet pounding around trying to help folks. Get wise, baby,” he sneers. But Alice loves her work, so she keeps postponing the wedding.

In the meantime, Alice is caring for Leila Haley, a trashy young waitress who has suddenly gone blind and mopes around her house in a dirty housecoat instead of learning the skills she will need to get by. Alice hopes that Leila’s boyfriend, whom Leila has not told of her condition or even seen since she became blind, will rally around and support her when he finds out. But Leila will not tell Alice who he is, so she gets Bart to take her to the seedy joint where Leila worked to see what she can find out. Bart is behaving strangely when they arrive, and when Alice finally tells Bart the name of her patient, “For a full minute, Bart stood stock-still. Then he hurried her toward the car. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said roughly.” Hmmmm. What could that possibly be about? Shortly afterward, Leila names Bart as the man, ending our suspense. Bart, of course, says he never met Leila, and if he did, he wouldn’t marry her. “When a man thinks of marriage, he doesn’t pick his wife from that type, believe me,” he tells her, and even if it were true, he would never see her again because “I never could stand handicapped people.” Alice is strangely not reassured by this and breaks off their engagement.

Enter Dr. Ben Harrington. He “would never give the women heart palpitations,” but he’s a brilliant new doctor at Hastings Memorial Hospital, and he shares some of Alice’s patients. (One of them, a blind woman with a blind husband, is pregnant, which is controversial in town: “There’s been some question about their right to have a child,” the doctor tells Alice.) Ben asks Alice out, and when he smiles, “Alice forgot that he was homely.” But he’s decided, like all the other young MDs, that he can’t get married until he can support a wife, so he won’t talk marriage, or even love, to Alice, who currently earns more than he does. “If you would only realize that together we could share something wonderful, and not allow stupid pride to keep you from telling me what I can see in your eyes every time you look at me,” she thinks. “But what can I do about it? Nothing.” So she never even broaches the subject of their feelings for each other, let alone their getting married. Instead she just wails about his fickleness on every other page.

Speaking of fickle, Bart has refused to have anything to do with Leila, and out of the blue marries an actress from Manhattan. This deters Leila not in the least, who tells Alice that she is still interested in Bart despite the fact that he now wears a ring on his left hand. “He isn’t the type of man to make any girl happy,” Alice says to Leila. “Who said anything about happiness?” Leila answers. “That’s the trouble with girls like you. You think too much about happiness and not enough about getting your man. I lost mine, but I’ll find a way to get him back.” Alice is shocked!!! But Leila’s attitude gives her pause: “Girls like Leila might be cheap in their ideas and crude in their approach to love, but at least when they wanted something they went after it.” Unlike some people …

In the final pages, Alice finally takes a cue from Leila and puts her cards on Ben’s kitchen table. It’s one of the more rewarding endings to a VNRN I’ve come across, because the heroine of the book actually evolves and becomes a stronger person. The book has other fine points: The writing is fairly smart, with occasional witticisms sprinkled throughout, and the characters—the trashy moll; the impetuous cad; the plain, hardworking country doctor—are so well-drawn and quintessential of the time period that it’s a pleasure to follow them. And the atmosphere of the book is gentle and warm, like a grandmother: She might be more than a little behind the times, but she’s wonderful to spend an afternoon with.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Surfing Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1971
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

“Too good to be true!” was how Nurse Kara Simmon felt about her temporary assignment away from St. Mark’s. For she was on Surfari with the American Surfing Team as team nurse and as top competitor in the World Championships in Australia. And now this halcyon dream is abruptly shattered as she finds herself pulled by conflicting desires more turbulent and dangerous than the pounding surf … Caught between two men—brothers in name only. Surgeon/surfer Paul Denning, blond, handsome, coolly professional—who seems more interested in her skills than in herself as a woman. And Ross, the professional surfer—wild, headstrong, his animal magnetism undeniable… In conflict between the same, familiar world of nursing and an exciting new world of the professional surfer’s endless summers on the beaches of the world.


“Kara had won wolf whistles and applause herself when she walked into the South Sea Lounge with Ross. The spontaneity of that had made her feel good.”

“Let’s make this last dance really Hawaiian! The rest of you make a circle and undulate!”

“You don’t even know me yet. How can you when we haven’t even kissed?”

“She must stop him soon now, she knew. But for a moment still she could thrill to the male warmth pressing against her. Moments like this were few when you were a nurse, she remembered. Too often there was sickness and pain, grief and death. And those things built up tensions inside you.”

“These days everyone has doubts. It’s a symptom of the times.”

“They’re good guys, but they exaggerate like Texans.”

“It would be too much to look like you do and be able to cook like that too.”

“Some of the surfers were taking photos of an odd-looking building on the foreshore of Sydney harbor. It looked like something from science fiction, shaped like huge, streamlined orchestral shells in an intriguing pattern. One of the reporters who joined them at the rail explained that it was an opera house and something of a national joke with Australians. It had been years since the building began and nobody seemed to know when, if ever, it would be completed.”

To call this a nurse novel is a bit of a stretch. True, Kara Simmon is a registered nurse with a job at St. Marks Hospital in Los Angeles, and theoretically she’s the official nurse to—as well as a member of—a contingent of American surfers, but she doesn’t really do any nursing in this book. Mostly she’s catching a wave. She won the California state women’s surfing title this past summer, which gives her the right to enter a world title competition in Australia. Her surfing mentor, Paul Denning, just happens to be a surgeon at St. Marks. He’s the son of the founder of Denning surfboards, and actually dropped out of his internship twice to pursue surfing, but then decided to return to medicine. He’s the one who coached Kara to her surprising win in California, and the relationship is “an odd sort of intimacy into which sex did not intrude.” It’s not often you meet a VNRN that dares to use the word sex, but maybe that’s because this book was written by a man.

Paul’s younger brother Ross is also entered in the competition, and as the book opens, the American team is on a cruise ship steaming to Australia. Paul has had to remain back in the states practicing medicine, which is lucky for Ross and his enormous ego: “If Paul Denning was with us on this surfari, Paul Denning would win it,” she’s told by one of the other surfers. Ross isn’t likely to win the competition for Kara’s affections, either, the poor conceited sap. He’s convinced Kara is going to tumble for him any second and pursues her relentlessly, much to her annoyance. But when he finally catches up with her one night, he tells her that if she wins this competition, she could make a lot of money and travel the world endorsing Denning surfboards—and she needs his help as a coach to win. She tells him she’s not going to quit nursing, but she agrees to accept his coaching. Only then does he put the moves on her, which she curiously goes along with. I continue to be amazed at the number of women in these novels who kiss men they don’t like.

When the surfing team finally arrives in Australia, Ross takes her out to the beaches and teaches her that she has to maximize her scoring points with each wave. That night, at a beach party, a totally plastered Ross decides to try night surfing, though all the other surfers warn him of the danger. While out in the surf, he is attacked by a shark, which “fastened into his thigh and torn off a long strip of flesh all the way down to his heel.” Ew! Kara applies pressure to the femoral artery until the ambulance arrives, Ross is whisked into surgery, and his life is saved, though his surfing career is over. The never-mentioned upside to this is that he is now spared from ever having to compete directly with his brother in a surfing competition, and so can live on as a champion in his own mind.

The next day, Kara and the rest of the team is back surfing at the beach, the callous dudes. Later she tries to call Paul, but guess what! He’s quit the hospital and is on his way to Australia! He arrives a day later, and Kara quickly persuades him to take Ross’s spot on the team: “Then, and only then, will you really know to which world you belong.” He also takes over Ross’s place as Kara’s coach: “Don’t try any last-minute gimmicks, no matter what Ross tells you,” he advises her. “Surf your own natural style.” During her heat at big competition, she follows his advice—until her last wave, when she hangs five, whatever that means. She knows Paul wouldn’t like that, but thinks Ross would—“Ross was inclined to showboat that way himself.” She wins the heat by just one point, and now she’s in the finals. “She was tempted to try a left break, but memory of the chance she took hanging five drove it from her mind. It was better to stay with her natural style, surfing safely and as well as she could,” just like Paul advised her to do. So what is she doing with her next wave? Why, breaking left, of course. “Don’t ask me why I did that, Paul,” she says as she steps out of the surf onto the beach.

You can predict how this book is going to end in the first chapter. Apart from the shark attack, which takes a long time to unfold, not much happens in this book. It spends a lot of time surfing, but the jargon is so thick that it’s not really enjoyable to a non-surfer: “She set herself and took off, then saw Nerida dropping in on her right. Kara found herself turning instinctively left. She saw the danger at once: a fast right break with a toppling crest rushing toward her along the wall. Flat water ahead! She went into a tight bottom turn. The velocity she had built up steaming across that smooth wall turned her in the beginning of the flaky white—she was steaming back halfway up the face going right now. She was stoking in a glorious long slide ahead of the crest breaking well behind her. Coming out of it at the foot of the wall way right, she flipped out in a backhand turn and rode white water in to the beach.” Whatever that means. Oddly, the book allows Kara to win by following Ross’s advice, not Paul’s, but it’s Paul that she’s in love with and Paul’s lifestyle as a healthcare professional that she is completely devoted to. In the end, I’m just confused by what this book is trying to tell me, both in its message and its surfing descriptions. I wish I’d watched “Gidget” instead.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shoreline Nurse

By Jeanne Bowman
(pseud. Peggy (O’More) Blocklinger), ©1965

Boarding the trawler that was to take her to her new home, Lorina Rodgers wondered if she had made the right decision. Was she crazy to leave her safe and hectic job at the mainland hospital to become the only nurse of this isolated, starkly beautiful island? Old Benjamin Jones, the island’s wealthy and crotchety owner, had been curiously intent on persuading the pretty young nurse to take the assignment. Lorina knew the island needed her, but she suspected that the cantankerous old man had another card up his sleeve—finding the right wife for his handsome, blond, and equally stubborn grandson. Before long, Lorina found herself caught in a tangle of island politics and deepening love that forced her to choose between her duty as a nurse—and her life as a woman.


“He gave her the kind of smile seldom seen off the Silver Screen.”

“He said all of the proper things, then went his way. And the two women went their normal way, to the kitchen.”

“There was something about a nurse’s uniform which turned a normally ugly girl into a beauty in the eyes of a patient.”

I have to say that I now pick up a Jeanne Bowman novel as I would a fork spearing brussels sprouts, but sometimes even tiny cabbages can surprise you. That said, they’re just never going to be my favorite.

Lorina Rodgers is nursing a wealthy old bastard, Benjamin Johnson, back to health. After he needles her relentlessly for days, she tells him off: “Calm down and shut up,” she says to him, “because if you don’t, I am going to fill you so full of injections you won’t come to until I have you laced in a strait-jacket. I have had it!” Naturally the old goat is instantly smitten. This works out for her so well that she sasses his gorgeous grandson, also called Benjamin Johnson, when he comes in to visit. When young Ben threatens to have her sacked, she responds, “Would you, please? I’d so appreciate it. I haven’t the courage to walk out on five years of training and experience, but I do so want to get away.”

It’s her mother, see, “who believes all daughters were born into this world to serve mama.” But Old Jamin, as the elder Johnson is unfortunately nicknamed, has a plan to help Lorina and himself at the same time: He tells Lorina she’s “too selfish to let her mother find a life of her own,” and then persuades her to come to live on the island he owns to care for his factory workers. But he has another motive: “He might not look like Cupid, but he had cupidity, and the one thing above all others he deeply needed was the right wife for young Ben.”

Out on the island, Lorina gets right to work setting to rights all the troubles that have come to the island’s population. She explains to an elderly woman that her son, who lives next door, painted his house pink not in defiance of the red-house-painting ways of their home country but because “pink represents new ways,” and her son “always wants the latest.” Another aged islander, crippled by a heart attack, refuses to sit still all day despite the certain danger this brings to his health because “his sickness lay in being unable to contribute to the family income.” But he does like to whittle, and Lorina has a friend on the mainland who owns a gift shop who is looking for items just like the figurines he carves, and soon the whittler is bringing in big bucks. One young man is accident prone: “He had cut his hand on his scaling knife. And yes, it was a shining clean knife, scalded, ready for business. He’d been the business.” But Lorina sees right through this; really he is discontent with his life as a fisherman and hopes to leave the island and take up his true calling, forestry. She immediately pens a note to Old Jamin, who prior to opening the fishery logged every tree on the island, and suggests that he start a reforestation program. There’s lots more where those cures came from, but I’ll take pity; perhaps you have a weak stomach.

Meanwhile, Lorina’s mother is maneuvering to get her daughter back by sending her everything her daughter owns, including artwork from when she was in grade school. Mom disappears and wires her other daughters, who long ago abandoned mom for husbands, that only Lorina will be able to find her. Lorina mulls it over and wires her sisters that mom is at the nearest ski resort. “Why do we take on so much responsibility for the actions of others? How do we know giving in is the best thing for them?” she asks young Ben, just one round of many philosophical discussions about being “unselfishly selfish” by giving her mother everything the old bag has ever asked of her.

Needless to say, the book winds up with everyone’s problems solved: The island’s ailing economy is revived by a timely earthquake and an article that Lorina has given Old Jamin, Lorina’s mother finally figures out what she’s going to do with her life, Ben finds a wife, and Lorina finds a husband. These endings are each as improbable as all the other solutions Lorina has contrived throughout the book, so the fact that they come out of nowhere and are entirely unsatisfying is not surprising. Having suffered through several other of Ms. Bowman’s books, I expected that wacky pop psychology was going to play a heavy hand in this book, and there it was, in every chapter. But the far-out prose of the other books of hers I’ve read (Door to Door Nurse, Conflict for Nurse Elsa) is completely absent, making me think that Ms. Bowman must have gone on the wagon for the week or two it took her to pen this one. Shoreline Nurse is easily the best book of hers I’ve read to date, but coherent prose is just not enough to recommend any book, let alone this one.

This book was also published
with a really bad cover
as Nurse on Pondre Island

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Casino Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1974
Cover illustration by G.H. Jones

Lovely Rena Stafford had been taught as a student nurse never to become involved in the private lives of her patients. But she found it impossible not to get caught up in the wealthy Madame Zeigler’s exciting, glamorous existence in Monte Carlo. Rena had never expected this strong bond to grow, nor did she expect the strange reaction of Madame Zeigler’s handsome nephew, Dr. Stephen Montrose, when she summoned him urgently to Monaco. When two of Madame Zeigler’s attractive friends from the casino, Mark Lassiter and Jean Auriol, began to vie for Rena’s affection, she was surprised—and strangely disturbed. But the biggest surprise of all was to discover she had fallen in love—with the very man who could only mean heartbreak.


“These are small and very expensive suites available for purposes other than gambling. I’m sure you know what I mean. They are very private.”

What the back cover blurb (above) doesn’t tell you is that Madame Anne Zeigler dies on page eight. Rena Stafford had been caring for Madame for the past year, living with her in a luxurious suite in Monte Carlo. Madame had leukemia, so it was just a matter of time. But now the hotel manager is on the phone, telling her that she has to pack her bags and get out in three days, when Madame’s monthly rent payment ends.

All of Rena’s salary had been held by Mrs. Zeigler—and then there’s the matter of a small loan of all her cash on hand that Rena made Mrs. Z three days ago, which had not yet been repaid—so Rena is scrambling for some ready cash and a place to live while she sorts out Mrs. Z’s final affairs. Fortunately, these two guys are hovering around, ready to help. Mark Lassiter is an old friend of Mrs. Z’s who works at the baccarat high tables at the casino, and Jean Auriol is a croupier at the chemin de fer tables. Another fella is on the way, too; Dr. Stephen Montrose, Mrs. Z’s nephew, who is in his last year of residency, is winging his way over from New York.

Fortunately for Rena’s fiscal situation, the job as casino nurse is open, and Mark Lassiter secures it for Rena. 
Though Jean’s early attempts to befriend Mrs. Z were shrugged off, he finds out about this and “arranges” for Rena to work nights so she will have her days free to go out with him, and then he calls and harasses Rena until she agrees to have lunch with him—though why you would have lunch with someone you find annoying is a mystery to me, particularly since he attempts to entice her by saying, “Please come. There’s nothing … sinister.” Right. Lo and behold, after lunch, though Rena is expected at a meeting with Mrs. Z’s attorney and tells Jean to bring her straight to town, he instead drives her to a secluded spot in the mountains and refuses to take her back until she kisses him. Like a good VNRN heroine, she does, and finds it “long and vaguely disturbing.” He presses her for more—and her hand over his “thudding” heart—until she threatens to walk back to town and actually gets out of the car. She makes the meeting with 15 minutes to spare. Unlike other VNRN heroines, she never goes out with Jean again—but only because he is never seen again for the remaining 50 pages of the book, with no clear explanation of why he was hanging around to being with.

Meanwhile, at a small gathering after Mrs. Z’s funeral, Steve learns of a gaming system that won an Englishman a great deal of money at the casinos: when red comes up on the roulette wheel, you bet $100 on red for the next spin. If you win, you double your money. You continue to bet red for the next five spins, leaving all your winnings on the table. Then repeat the process on black. Steve’s eyes light up when he hears this, and it isn’t long before he’s at the tables, and winning, too! Rena has to literally drag him away from the tables after he’s made $700 to go to the reading of his aunt’s will. It turns out Mrs. Z was worth about $40 million (between $175 million and $375 million in today’s money)! She leaves Rena $20,000 and a diamond and mink stole, Mark Lassiter inherits $50,000, and Steve gets the rest. After this, Steve goes straight back to the tables: “It really is a most exciting way of passing the time,” he says. “It’s not as if I intend to become an addict. Nothing like that at all.” Which is sure to keep him safe, because all those other addicts meant to get hooked.

Curiously, Rena does not even start working as a casino nurse until 35 pages from the end, after the will has been read. We first see her on the job when she’s been there a week. On this night, a countess attempts suicide with an overdose of barbiturates. The house doctor is home with the flu, so she calls Dr. Steve from the gaming tables to help. She politely waits for Steve to finish his game of baccarat, in which he loses a million francs—$100,000—and then “the fight to save the life of the Countess Isabella Galvani began.” As dawn breaks, the Countess is breathing easier and looking less blue, and Steve says, “You did a great job. Really special. I mean … really special.” Then he asks her how long she plans to keep working in the casino, and Rena tells him she’s quitting her job and returning to the States tomorrow. Naturally, he decides to go with her—and proposes out of the blue. Then it’s all over except some smooching. As Charlie Brown used to say, bleah.

Not much at all happens over the course of this book. And what does happen occurs over a glacial pace: The “race” to save the Countess takes 17 pages. The whole situation with Jean is totally “sinister,” to use his own word, more so because Rena can’t seem to say no, despite how much she dislikes him. It’s not out-and-out boring, but the most interesting things about this book are the cover illustration and the ad for Kent cigarettes bound into the middle.