Saturday, January 1, 2011

Graduate Nurse

Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1947 
Also published as Dr. Kim

Jill Ordway was proud to be a nurse. She threw all her energy, her radiant health, her high courage into making the Kimberly sanatorium a success. Like the owner and Chief of Staff, Dr. Kimberly, she was fired with the dream of a haven for troubled minds and sick bodies—and its great power for good. But gradually, Jill saw that sinister forces were at work, forces led by Sylvia Webster, the wealthy young society girl who was determined to marry the handsome young doctor—if it meant destroying the sanatorium in the process. As Jill watched the town of Westhaven choose sides, she realized it was her duty to act—even if her action meant trouble for herself.


“So you’re the gal who brought Bruce Kimberly back from death’s door intact and set him on the road to life, liberty, and the pursuit of—Sylvia Webster’s idea of happiness.” 

“By aiming high we shall certainly reach a greater elevation than if we made our target the nearest blackberry bush.” 

“I’m sort of exclusive, darling. I’ll have no other gal’s tears dampening my shoulder except yours.” 

The last book I read of Ms. Hancock’s was Student Nurse, a saccharine, nauseatingly patriotic tale of Nazi spies infiltrating a small town in Indiana. Having covered the student nurse’s life in excessive detail, Ms. Hancock apparently moved on to a student who has finally graduated, but I was not hopeful for any change in her sanctimonious character. 

I love a good surprise. Graduate Nurse is a well-written, entertaining, engrossing story that has (almost) entirely cleared Ms. Hancock’s reputation with me. 

Dr. Bruce Kimberly has just returned from World War II, where he suffered a shrapnel wound in his right arm, and a subsequent infection and sepsis nearly killed him. This was followed by a “nervous collapse” that also took its toll. But devoted Lt. Jill Ordway, R.N., nursed him back to health over many months in her Tunis hospital. Now safely at home, Bruce’s career as a surgeon is in shreds, so he’s decided to open a sanatorium where fellow soldiers can recover their shattered spirits. 

It’s a “common” problem, he tells his spoiled, beautiful fiancée, Sylvia Webster, who despises Bruce’s “morbid interest in the ailments of derelicts,” as she thinks of psychiatric patients. She is constantly after him to sell out the sanatorium, urging him to forget work and come out and play with her and her friends, and constantly apologizing for her snarky remarks, such as when, right on page 3, she tells him, “Honestly, one would never suspect you of being a cripple.” She’s devious, vapid, and (of course) completely wrong for Bruce, but from the beginning I was smitten, especially after she, “in a smart black suit and furs, stopped her blue roadster at the curb in front of Westhaven’s Y.W.C.A.” 

She’d gone there to see Jill, who has just returned from overseas and is in town to visit Dr. Bruce. Sylvia accuses Jill of “maudlin sentimentality” when it comes to Bruce—and when she sees Jill at a cocktail party later that day, pretends they’ve never met before. Jill joins the sanatorium staff despite Sylvia’s enmity, and is soon a huge favorite with both the patients and Ruth Kimberly, Dr. Bruce’s sister and herself an R.N., now serving as chief supervisor of the sanatorium. We spend a lot of time hanging out with Jill and her fellow nurses, who, when they are not working hard to nurse their “neurotic” patients back to health, walk to the nearby pond half a mile away for skating parties—replete with a blazing bonfire, fresh coffee, and lots of other friendly youths—or skiing on a nearby hill, or going on sleigh rides. It really sounds like an idyllic life. 

The book’s dramatic tension comes from an undercurrent of concern about the sanatorium’s financial troubles; Sylvia is scheming to get her uncle, who is a cranky millionaire, to buy out—and then close—the sanatorium. And then there’s the ongoing question of whether Bruce is going to wise up and dump Sylvia. He has some odd notions about marriage: “Sometimes he didn’t seem to have the patience with her moods that he used to have, and perhaps marriage was the answer.” Because if you don’t like her before you’re married, a walk down the long aisle will surely solve all that. 

Graduate Nurse is such a pleasant trip that it feels like the author forgot she was supposed to be taking us somewhere. The almost summary climax—Jill is attacked by a patient—ends Bruce’s engagement to Sylvia, brings Jill and Bruce together, and also finds a husband for Ruth, in about 10 swift pages, leaving you feeling like your leisurely drive through the country just met up with a tornado. A mysterious endowment is made to the hospital to assist with their financial woes, and though you guess this is associated with the disappearance of a favorite patient for an afternoon, it is never quite explained. And anyway, it doesn’t really matter in the end; Ruth’s fiancé buys the sanatorium’s mortgage, saving them from hostile takeover. But if the ending feels forced and hasty, leaving several loose ends unexplained (how did the patient who attacked Jill know that her real name is Juliet, a question debated by several of the nursing staff?), the book as a whole is such a treat that you can easily forgive it.

Alternative cover, illustration by
David Attie

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