Saturday, February 26, 2011

Headline Nurse

By Phyllis Ross, ©1965
Cover illustration by Harry Bennett

“I’m a nurse! Not a woman!” She kept repeating the words to herself as she looked down at Pete’s broken body. His shirt was in rags, one trouser was ripped from ankle to knee, and there was a terrible gash on his forehead. She took out bandages and antiseptic and began to dress the wounds—all the time trying to forget that the battered man was the one she loved. The others in the clinic had turned their backs for a moment. She leaned down quickly and brushed her lips against his bruised cheek. “Oh, my darling,” she cried softly, “My poor darling.”


“College, by itself, doesn’t fit you for any career except teaching.”

“Not many women can look sleek and sinuous on a stanchion!”

“Chrys went there to relax and Ken went there to neck.”

“What are you—a communist?”

Chrys Evans has just graduated from nursing school and has taken a job as nurse at the Port Anne Gazette—“temporarily,” she acknowledges, until she gets herself a husband. And not just any husband, mind you, but a rich one. Chrys (short for, I’m sorry to say, Chrysanthemum) is unique amongst VNRN heroines in that she is a blatant gold digger. While hanging out on the docks one evening—she’s from Arizona, see, so all that water is really fascinating—she happens to run into Ken Hopkins, the 22-year-old son of her boss, newspaper magnate Gary Hopkins. At the end of their conversation, he kisses her. I’m always stunned by the rapidity in which the male characters make their move.

While Chrys knows that she could have Ken on a leash in no time, she also knows that “she could never, never get him to marry her. A boy who can be forced into a business he detests will never marry against his parents’ wishes.” So her scheme is to get him to take her to a big upcoming dance at the country club, where she can rub silk-clad elbows with the town’s elite, and “find her way to other, less infant sons.” She’s pretty ruthless in her attempt to reel in her invitation, too. The next time she meets him, she plays him like a pro. “Say, have you eaten lunch?” he asks her. “As if the idea had just come to him,” she thinks. He takes her to a restaurant, where the menu “was oversized—and expensive. Good!” She orders the chateaubriand, and eats every bit of it. This girl is a hungry tiger.

But there’s this up-and-coming reporter, Peter John Sprock. He visits her on the first day with a fake injury, because word gets around—“word that the new nurse was quite a dish!” With lines like that, you know she is going to tumble for him like a bag of wet cement, and who could blame her? The first sign of their blossoming love is a tendency to quarrel whenever they meet. When Pete shows up at the clinic door, trying to find out why Chrys has sent a fellow employee to the hospital, she refuses to tell him anything. “ ‘Career women!’ Pete snarls, and stamped out of the clinic.” Boy, he really knows how to insult a gal.

Chrys finally snags her invitation to the ball—but what is she going to wear? She has to have an insanely expensive dress, “not for Ken, or for Ken’s friends. He wouldn’t know the difference between a basement bargain and a Paris original. But his mother would know, all right, and the mothers of his friends.” So how is our schemer going to get the money for this dress? Enter Pete, who takes Chrys to the horse races—naturally she wins big, $244, on a long shot. She has no qualms about informing Pete exactly what she’s up to. The money is “not really for a dress, Pete. For a chance to sail down that river, and out to sea. For a chance to do things and see things in the great big world—and not be cooped up forever in a narrow town, with a husband I’ve come to despise, and children I resent.” Money can buy glamour, she tells him—and he answers, “Apparently it can buy you.” Chrys, bless her, is not even insulted by this remark.

Then push comes to shove—and to brass knuckles—when Pete is beaten up while covering a dockworkers’ strike. While she is patching him together again, she keeps herself from falling apart by telling herself, “I’m a nurse! Not a woman, but a nurse … That’s not Pete—that’s only a nameless, faceless patient.” She takes him home and stays with him all night—on the living room sofa, I swear!—most of which she spends thinking, “very deeply, about herself.” Guess what she decides?

Headline Nurse has some unique aspects to it, and the writing is entertaining. The cover illustration is good, if limited, and I love the fact that the cover includes the line, “Continued on back page.” At first this just confused me, but the back cover is more clearly laid out to look like a newspaper clipping, so even if it took a while, I finally got the reference. All in all, even if this is not a great book, it is nonetheless worth reading.

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