Saturday, April 30, 2011

City Nurse

By Jeanne Judson, ©1959

The imperious ring of the telephone shattered the silence of the sleeping ward. It was a message for young, red-headed Nurse Dora Tracy. “Report to Emergency at once. Dr. Terry has asked for you.” The victims of a terrible explosion were being wheeled in when Dora took her place beside the young surgeon. Silently, with practiced skill, she responded to his brusque commands. As always, Dora thrilled as she worked beside this stern servant of medicine. He had taught her the deeper meaning of their chosen profession. But Nurse Dora sometimes wondered if their shared dedication could substitute for love, the love shared between a man and a woman.


“Sanitary engineers, good old plumbers, have done more for the health of the world than all the doctors since Aesculapius.”

“All the interesting men died three or four hundred years ago.”

“He spoke in the cheerful way that doctors always do about other people’s pain.”

“Men are a necessary convenience.”

“She walks as if she had joints all the way down.”

“All men look like thugs when they aren’t shaved.”

“Little girls were wriggling their thin hips, twirling bright-colored hoops, a passing phase that had hit the juvenile world like a pestilence, or like those epidemics of involuntary dancing that had manifested themselves in the Middle Ages.”

“Don’t think that I’m a philanthropist. I’m not. But it’s the fashionable way to avoid income tax right now. First, you make a lot of money and then you start giving it away—not to the people you took it from, naturally.”

“Don’t modern doctors trace every ill, physical and mental, to the pernicious influence of parents and guardians who do not understand their children half as well as welfare workers and psychiatrists?”

“No man will admit that it is mere beauty in a woman that attracts him. He always tries to pretend that he is fascinated by her intellect or her character.”

“ ‘She lives in the Bronx.’ She might as well let him know the worst about Mercedes at once. There were lots of men who would rather drive to Boston than to the Bronx.”

Nurse Dora Tracy has left her home in Hartford and moved to New York to take a job at Manhattan Memorial, on the men’s surgical floor. Dora is quietly efficient, which is noticed by Dr. Terry, who himself is a machine: “The other doctors would usually make one or two casual remarks just to show that they were human beings as well as doctors, but Doctor Terry never wasted a word.” He calls Dora down to assist in the Emergency Department one night when a ship in the nearby harbor explodes and two dozen burned sailors are brought in—and one young man who is clearly not a sailor. He is well-dressed and handsome, carrying no identification and huge wads of cash, and, wouldn’t you know it, in a coma. She is assigned to “special” him, or care for only him on her eight-hour shift, and she comes to think more about him than she should about a patient, though she knows nothing about him: “When he did come out of his concussion, he would probably turn out to be a ‘dese and dose’ character.”

He doesn’t; it turns out he is Chris Thorsen, the son of the owner of the shipping line, a very wealthy young man. Dr. Terry, a neurosurgeon by trade, wants to perform a new operation he’s perfecting, but Chris declines. Instead, Chris’s father offers up an old sailor, knocked on the head and never the same since, and if Dr. Terry cures him, Captain Thorsen will fund a new hospital for Dr. Terry. The operation is successful, of course, and Dr. Terry asks Dora to come work for him in the new hospital when it is up and running.

Dr. Terry’s interest, however mild it may be, is noticed by Nurse Vera Maynard, who is desperately in love with the doctor, and in petty revenge she takes it upon herself to spread malicious gossip about Dora. One of the lies she propagates is to tell Chris that Dora is in love with Dr. Terry. Chris asks Dora out, but she can’t go—Dr. Terry has asked her to go with him to the Founder’s Day Dance, because, as he explained when he asked her, “One must show up there for a while, at least, and it’s better to go with someone. I can’t stay long, but if you go with me, it will be a sort of—protection.” What a romantic fool. Chris tells Dora he’s heard she’s in love with Dr. Terry, but before she can explain, the Captain plows in and starts insulting everyone by handing out crisp $100 bills, and Dora runs off. Chris is discharged, and Dora tries to get on with her life.

Thankfully, Dr. Terry has ordered Dora to take advanced coursework at Columbia three nights a week, so that keeps her mind off Chris. She doesn’t have many friends, not really even her roommate. Liza is a wealthy young woman with a PhD in Greek and Latin that she doesn’t want anyone to know about who endlessly dates a stream of eligible young men, interested in none of them. “I don’t want to marry anyone,” she tells Dora. “It isn’t George that I dislike. I wish I did. It’s matrimony. The word has an ominous sound. It means the giving up of all freedom. It can’t be helped. It’s just the way things are. If you marry, you have to live in the mental, social, and financial milieu of your husband. You’re classified. So far, I’ve been able to live without belonging to any class—as free as one can be in this world.”

And so the book floats gently along, through Dora’s daily struggles in the hospital and at home, until it drifts into its easily foretold conclusion. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few surprises along the way—what happens to Liza, for example, and the Founder’s Day Dance, when Dora looks so ravishing in a silver gown and “properly absurd” $23 slippers, doesn’t turn out at all like the big dances in VNRNs usually do, but much more honestly. I especially liked the treatment of Dr. Terry, who begins the book as an awesome hero on a pedestal and is gradually deflated, chapter by chapter, until we see him as the inconsiderate, selfish pedant that he actually is. I actually wonder if Ms. Judson hasn’t deliberately subverted the usual custom of awarding the VNRN heroine to the deified doctor.

The writing is sophisticated, with references to Joyce Kilmer and his poem “Trees,” and the passage in which Dr. Terry offers Dora a job is “almost like a proposal out of Jane Austen,” when he begins, “This may be a little premature—you probably haven’t noticed that I’m interested in you and of course it will have to be some time in the future—” Dora is well-educated enough to spot the similarity: “For a moment she had been preparing a speech in which to tell him that she ‘esteemed’ him but could not love him.” The book is also witty and humorous, with a decent chuckle on practically every other page; my list of Best Quotes, above, is edited down to about half its original length, yet still longer than any other book I’ve reviewed. In short, City Nurse is an elegant and intelligent book, gentle in the tradition of earlier VNRNs (e.g. K,” District Nurse, Graduate Nurse), and not to be missed.

Desert Doctor

By Nell Marr Dean, ©1959

“We figure women should stay home.” That’s what they told Dr. Ann Logan, beautiful and only twenty-five, when she dared set up practice in the wild desert country of the Southwest. But the need for medical care in this desolate area was a challenge Ann could not ignore. When she discovered that more than prejudice against her sex was behind the threats she received, she still performed her duties as she saw them. Then a criminal struck, leaving Ann unconscious on a lonely mountain road. Through her long recovery, Ann battled with the question: “Was her dedication to her profession worth the risk of her life?”


“I would much rather have you operate on my appendix than on my office ledger.”

“Being aware of a man’s emotional apparatus, she was careful to keep her physical weariness to herself. Men always enjoyed the company of a lively, happy woman; not a droopy, harassed one.”

“You mean, Doctor, you’re going to keep him in your nice house all night? A foreigner—and all lousy with fleas!”

“Don’t think a woman doctor isn’t human like all other people. Don’t think she’s exempt from the need of falling in love and having a husband and being protected like every other woman in the world.”

“Never, she went on thinking as they drove along in silence, must she let her career become too all-consuming. She must learn to divide her energies between her work and Tim, never letting her work steal too much of her vitality and gaiety so that there was none left for Tim. And her skill at being a wife would be tested to its ultimate when they had children and her time must be divided to include them.”

“Doctor—if I do have the hysterectomy, will I still be nervous and want to snap at John for no reason at all?”

Dr. Ann Logan has bought the practice of the retiring doctor in Pueblo Mesa, New Mexico, a town of 5,000 in which half the population is Indians and Spanish-speaking people and the other half white. There’s no other doctor in town, and the nearest hospital is 70 miles away, but that doesn’t stop the townspeople, who “haven’t become used to women doctors,” from giving Ann the cold shoulder. Well, all except the drug addict who attempts to carjack her for the morphine she carries in her bag. And Tim Butler, who “saves” her after she flashes an SOS with her headlights, by simply opening the car door—gosh, if only she’d thought of that! He takes to going around with her, because “a woman’s really not safe in this town—with crazy Mexicans running loose.”

Ann is, of course, a woman doctor, and this fact is thrown in the reader’s face on every other page, with reminders of what a terrible obstacle this is for her, as if she had warts on her nose or something. Curiously, the prejudice that Ann is so conscious of does not help her see the hypocrisy of her attitudes toward the minority residents. “Would these Indians never learn to follow her advice?” she grumps when one of her patients with strep throat goes swimming. She’s “thoroughly exasperated with her thoughtless, self-willed patients,” who “often indulged in the wild extravagance of owning several pieces of high-price electrical equipment” like washing machines and automobiles, items she herself could not imagine living without. Her boyfriend’s not much better; he tells her that although “a lot of these Indians get checks for two or three thousand dollars every few months,” they are “nothing but moochers” who pay Ann in beans and corn.

Ann has an idea to start a free clinic for well babies so she can get to know the townspeople and, she hopes, gain them as patients, but the cranky chair of the city council turns down her request to use space in the city hall. The owners of the local mine dismiss her suggestion that they open a separate clinic because they don’t want to pay for “socialized medicine” for their employees, even though it’s a dangerous job with lots of injuries. She nags the townspeople that they ought to use the funds they have allocated to create a museum to build a hospital instead, and is shot down. But she’s got enough patients to keep her head above water—until a doctor with a penis comes to town and is promptly granted use of the town hall to give immunizations to the town’s children, and the gas company opens up a clinic and puts him in charge of it. Ann is furious that he has “stolen” her idea of a clinic, and scorns him because he drinks too many martinis. The book winds itself up after this with another (more successful) appearance from the drug addict, everyone finally rallies around Ann, and ground is broken on the hospital that the reader can easily see has been in the works from early in the story—three guesses as to what it’s named.

Numerous little plot threads come and go, a good deal of them nowhere, like a woman who has to have her foot amputated when it’s caught in a trap on a night when Ann has gone out on a date instead of waiting by the phone lest someone need her. Or Dr. Jones’ drinking, or Ann’s strictly platonic relationship with the flirtatious Dr. Lacy at the hospital, or the traveling couple who have rented her their house in their abscence telling some people they are coming home but not Ann. In another book, these things would portend something, or amount to more they do. In this one, it just feels like we are hearing about every element of Ann’s life, no matter how inconsequential, and it’s just confusing to wonder which details are important. The only thing you never wonder about is her relationship with Tim, and we’re subjected to a little too much spooning and swooning from the pair to make you at all enthusiastic about their eventual and totally inevitable engagement. The ending suddenly drops off a cliff, like you’re expecting floor when there’s really one more step to go. It’s not a painful read, but the book has a fair number of little flaws that make it not worth the effort.

Network Nurse

By Rose Dana (pseud. William E. Daniel Ross), ©1968

If she’d intended to shock young Dr. Burt Lee, Ann Haley couldn’t have managed better. She was leaving Midtown General, leaving him, for an exciting nursing job at the Amalgamated Broadcasting Co. But only Ann knew the pain of leaving the man she loved. Even in the hard, cruel but always fascinating world of TV, even under the pressure of famous stars’ demands—for her understanding as well as her care—she could not forget Burt. She knew why he wouldn’t marry her; couldn’t their problem be solved? Then an entirely new and glamorous TV career unfolded for Ann, one that few girls would refuse. But could Ann accept it—if it meant losing Burt forever?


“The personal wireless outfit he always carried with him would give off its warning beep, and he would at once get in touch with them from whatever part of the hospital he might be in. The quick communication between members of the staff was one of the ways electronics was helping in their fight to save lives.”

“One likes to dress bravely these days. It’s the in thing. I’m sure you had to brace yourself before you made up your mind to wear that daring mini-skirt.”

Ann Haley is working at a Manhattan hospital, uptown on Park Avenue (she lives on E. 64th Street, “not too far from the river”). She’s tumbled for Dr. Burt Lee, who is 39 and has a 12-year-old daughter, Gail—his first wife is now deceased. But Gail refuses to meet Ann, and Burt is too spineless to prevent Gail from interfering in his private life. So Ann and Burt are drifting along, waiting for the day Gail changes her mind and Ann and Burt can get married. Until Ann gets tired of this situation and accepts a job offer to work for a television company as staff nurse.

Burt is entirely against this idea, because “that wouldn’t be real nursing.” They both also take the job switch as a sort of breakup, as if Ann leaving the hospital is the same as her leaving him. She sees less of him, of course, but they still date, so I wasn’t clear what had really changed between them. But she does see other men. At work she meets executive Wade Nelson, who takes her to see Ethel Merman in “Hello, Dolly.” She likes him a lot—“Wade was always prompt ... and when she went out to join him, he noticed her dress at once,” unlike some other young men we know. So she mulls over whether she ought to marry Wade even though she doesn’t love him. Apparently remaining single is just not an option.

On the job at the network, Ann is “astounded at the number of diabetics and allergy victims on the staff. She had not imagined these diseases to be so common.” (This left me scratching my head, wondering if she spent her time at the hospital in the broom closet.) She treats young secretaries who have fainted from taking “reducing pills” and an executive who has a “heart seizure.” One young man in the publicity department is ill with “viral jaundice,” and Ann is very concerned that he may have infected the entire department by coming to work that morning. He’s more dangerous than a leper, she tells him—“Leprosy is only mildly contagious.” Viral jaundice is actually hepatitis A, which is transmitted via the fecal-oral route, so there must be some strange doings down there in publicity.

Outside of dating and slapping splints on crewmembers who fall off the scaffolding, Ann is embroiled in office politics when the network star Dr. Ruth Winters connives to oust Pat Harrigan, a long-time variety show host, because Dr. Ruth wants his time slot. Ann befriends Pat because he has epilepsy and is scared witless that Dr. Ruth will find out, because “it could finish my career if it got out,” he tells Ann. You’d think he might want to take off that medic alert necklace.

The book runs on autopilot until exactly 30 pages from the end, when the author must have realized he had just two chapters left to tidy everything up and shifts into overdrive. Suddenly we learn that Ann has decided, out of the blue and for no discernable reason, to leave her job. Dr. Ruth’s contract negotiations don’t go well and she leaves the network, and Ann is offered a TV show called—wait for it—“Network Nurse,” where she answers questions from viewers and interviews doctors. Burt tells Ann, “You’ll be making a major error if you go through with it” because the show has “cheap appeal,” and stops calling. Then, four weeks after the show has aired, he phones to say, “It’s not so bad after all,” demonstrating what a nice guy he is. This lifts Ann out of a depression—though the show has been a complete hit (surprise, surprise), she’s unable to enjoy it because of Bert’s censure. So now all we have to do is get Gail to approve of Ann, and we can break out the champagne.

This book has little spark to it, and it feels like author Dan Ross is just going through the motions. The writing is not terrible, though the medicine in it is completely bogus. If you’re going to write a nurse novel, can’t you spend at least an hour doing some basic research on the diseases you’re going to expose the heroine to? Dan also returns to an odd device we first encountered in Nurse in Nassau (which bears more than a few other resemblances to this book); he refers to one of the secretaries as “the dark woman” 14 different times throughout the book. On the plus side, it is rare for a nurse novel to give us a romantic interest with a child, and the author goes further by also introducing us to “a smart young Negro doctor” with “intelligent eyes” who briefly crosses paths with Ann in the hospital. Dan also gives us a television star who became an alcoholic, but then joined AA and sobered up and is trying to make a comeback. Her show flops and she kills herself, but you can’t win them all. And neither can Dan; this book, no winner itself, is not worth your time.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

TV Nurse

By Patti Carr 
(pseud. of William Neubauer), ©1965 
Cover illustration by Bob Abbett 

At $300 a week no job could be all bad. Anne Osgood’s new position as medical consultant to Arthur Howard’s projected TV special on Buttrick Hospital was a far cry from scrubbing in with Dr. Lee Vaughan on Surgery 1. She was no longer the dedicated nurse working with the doctor she loved. The thrill was gone. Lee’s own fierce ambition had brought about Anne’s disillusionment—which led her straight to Arthur, who offered all that money could buy. Was it enough to sway an uncertain heart? 


“I do hope to do something about both the Miss and the Harlowe, of course. Meanwhile, call me Didi.” 

 “ ‘Take a pill,’ Arthur advised Mr. Grapnis. ‘I have some excellent ones at home. I’ll send you a few by messenger in the morning.’ ” 

 “She insisted he sit at the head of the table so they could all have a fair opportunity to rejoice in the presence of a male.” 

 “ ‘Little nurse,’ Didi said, ‘your technique as a woman is all wrong. I may know very little about anatomy, but I do know a great deal about strategy. You must be cornered, little nurse; your defenses must be stormed; your stern resistance must be overwhelmed.” 

 “I always feel sorry for intense people who think that all the present moment is good for is to serve as a springboard into tomorrow. Yesterday, today was tomorrow. Why’s tomorrow so much more important than today?” 

“The place of a woman, by golly, was beside her hero, whether he liked it or not!”

“ ‘I always marvel,’ Arthur said, ‘that people consider clothes and good grooming unimportant. … I dare say only the poor can afford the luxury of not caring how they look.’ ” 

Nurse Anne Osgood is the “roust” nurse of the surgical floor of Buttrick Hospital in Hardin City, a fictitious berg apparently in Southern California. (I’ve never heard of a roust nurse; when I googled the term, almost all the references were descriptions of this very book.) She seems to be a supervisor of sorts, managing the scrub nurses and the equipment needed for the various surgeries. But when the book opens, one of the surgeons, Dr. Lee Vaughan, has been making complaints about her. These charges are a significant black mark on Anne’s record. Of course, they’re completely unjustified: “I think if you’ll check my record, you’ll find that I’ve never before questioned any doctor’s decision on anything. I don’t have to be told that my knowledge isn’t equal to a doctor’s knowledge, or even that I lack the brain power of a doctor. But this is unfair,” she tells the chief surgeon, Dr. Peake. 

The whole issue is complicated by the fact that Anne has been dating Lee. “Was this harsh-faced, harsh-voiced fellow actually the fellow who’d walked her along a certain beach last week and spouted the customary nonsense under the quarter-moon?” It seems now he wants to drive her out of surgery because she commented in her usual report that his unorthodox surgical methods require more work from the support staff, which got him in trouble with Dr. Peake. 

Then Dr. Peake has an insulin reaction in front of Anne—apparently it’s a well-guarded secret that he’s a diabetic—and after she calls for help and the word of his condition comes out, he is instantly retired to a farm in the country. Now his job is open—and Lee is hoping to step into it. Then he’s trying to make up with Anne: He tells her that Dr. Peake was afraid that Anne would discover that he was a diabetic and turn him in, and he asked Lee to complain about her to get her out of surgery. The plot thickens when she visits Dr. Peake, and he calls her a liar hoping to further Lee’s career. What’s the real story behind the complaints? We’ll never find out. Anne forces Lee to retract the complaints and leaves the surgical department to work with a television production team filming a show about the hospital. 

Meanwhile, the remaining staff in surgery becomes convinced that Anne has been needlessly persecuted and quits, leaving the department in tatters. Lee continues to be rude to Anne, but now he’s childish, too, pouting about how he’s wrecked his own career, since the hospital administration makes it clear that with the surgery department falling apart, they’re not about to promote him. None of this seems to make any impact on Anne, and out of the blue she tells Didi, the woman she works with on the TV show, “I hope to marry Dr. Lee Vaughan.” This came as unpleasant news to me, and I kept hoping that some more suitable prospect would pop up in the second half of the book, but no such luck. She persists in chasing the big jerk, much to the chagrin of her friend Didi, who tells her, “I don’t know why you bother to humiliate yourself for this fellow. Girls are supposed to marry men; not crybabies.” 

It’s just never going to work when the romantic interest is set up as an ass and then awarded the heroine at the end of the book. We keep hoping she’ll dump him, and even though she tells him—twice—“don’t call me, I’ll call you,” she always picks up the phone. The writing is often stilted and phony, such as when Anne tells Lee goodbye, yet again: “So hail and farewell, and all that. Or as they sing in one of those Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, there’s lots of good fish in the sea.” The television aspect of the book is really peripheral to the story, for all its play in the title. And the bizarre machinations to get Anne kicked out of surgery are, in the end, pointless to the story, for all the time we spend wrangling with them. If you can’t bring yourself to care about a book, you just shouldn’t read it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Television Nurse

By Jane L. Sears, ©1963

Just before Doctor Duncan Manley left for Europe he had shared a dream with Nurse Joan Shipley: when he returned he would set up a practice somewhere far from the phony glamour and the phonier symptoms of the Hollywood Hypochondriac Set. His eyes had told Joan that she was included in this dream. Now Duncan was back, but not where he belonged: in an operating room, with Joan by his side. Incredible but true, Duncan had turned television actor in a series called THE AMERICAN DOCTOR. Why? Surely the owner of Sunset Hospital, who was also the series’ chief backer, could not have compelled him to do it. Joan’s conscription as technical advisor was another story. She couldn’t risk dismissal from the hospital with the word UNCOOPERATIVE scribbled across her record. But Duncan was a free agent. Or was he? What had happened in Europe to change him so completely, and to destroy Joan’s most cherished hopes?


“There is no pseudo sophisticate propped atop a hospital bedpan.”

“She reminded him of a typical California orange: large, lush and mouthwatering, but hollow inside.”

“He had that Ivy League tastefulness you seldom saw in native Californians.”

“Gathering up her bottles, her lotions, her creams and polishes, her cigarettes, beach towel, robe, sandals, straw handbag, transistor radio, and three white Poodles that had been lolling in the shade, Lace made a stiff-backed exit.”

“The love he felt now was an intelligent, mature love. An all-encompassing love which, while it delighted and amazed him, also filled him with an agony even seven scotches didn’t dull.”

“How he envied that bastard smoking over there under the grid—that Doctor Duncan Manley with his hound-dog eyes and jutting chin which dames always figured denoted some kind of stalwart strength rather than an excess of bone formation.”

Joan Shipley is a young nurse working at Sunset Hospital in Bel Air, California. She’s been waiting for Dr. Duncan Manley to return from Europe, where he’s been studying abdominal surgery for the past year. They’d never even dated, no promises were made before he left, but the two were just so, well, simpatico—“ideas and opinions meshing so perfectly they had often glanced at each other in quick surprise. ‘I was just going to say that!’ or, ‘That’s exactly the way I feel!’ ”—that, now that he’s back, Joan can’t believe a marriage offering isn’t in the works.

Until she hears that, instead of starting up a practice in a “small California town, still simple and untouched,” where she can work alongside him, “their ideals and dreams holding them firm and sure in a land of shaky foundations and artificial emotions,” the doctor has taken a starring role in a pilot for a television show called AMERICAN DOCTOR (the all-capital letters is, unfortunately, how the name is shouted at us through the entire book). Instantly, she is transformed into a seething, frigid little Popsicle. When she meets Duncan in the elevator and snubs him, he tells her that he has to do the show: “I … I can’t explain it, Joan.” Of course, we savvy VNRN readers instantly understand that some form of blackmail is at play here, having seen this exact same plot twist, oh, dozens of times before. But does Joan clue in? We savvy VNRN readers instantly understand that she will not! For the rest of the book, we listen to Joan’s constant and endless internal rants against Duncan: “Oh, what had happened to him? How could he come here day after day and waste time mouthing words from a television script when people needed his skills and services at the hospital?”

But we must keep the sparring couple in close proximity, so at the same time as she learns of Duncan’s role in the TV show, Joan is informed that the hospital’s owner, whom she cannot refuse for fear of losing her job, is insisting that she serve as technical advisor to the starlet who has the role of nurse. Claudine Christopher is staging a comeback after her seven-year-old child star son, Benjy, died. Claudine has some sort of hold over Duncan, who drops his petals and folds his tent every time she insists he do this or that for her. Joan briefly wonders about this, but it never occurs to her to ask Duncan about it. No wonder he chases her with such determination.

Another of Joan’s flaws is that, for all she now despises Duncan for not ministering to the “simple people in California with complicated stomach aches,” she herself is a bit of a snob. She’s grown up with money—her mother is a famous, and shallow, interior designer to the stars. She went to Stanford for her undergrad degree (apparently she couldn’t get into Berkeley). “She had a style, a sleek, smart class,” and her clothes are always so much more sophisticated than the gaudy Hollywood people around her. She is wooed by Ad Cartwright, the show’s totally fabulous and phony director, who “talked in italics,” air-kisses everyone, and says things like, “I’ll be miserable if you don’t come to cocktails Thursday!” When he tries to impress Joan by taking her to the best restaurant in town, she snarkily mentions that she is personally acquainted with the chef and his repertoire: “I really prefer gigot d’agneau to the gelantine of duck in port they serve here, but then Alexandre can prepare anything from the entire French haute cuisine, don’t you agree?”

The writing is clever and amusing, and some of the minor characters are very enjoyable—thankfully we do get to spend a fair amount of time with Ad Cartwright, both from Joan’s perspective and also inside his head as well. But Joan is not an especially endearing heroine. Her relentless, over-the-top fury at Duncan comes across as stupid and irritating, especially since we are treated to generous helpings of it in every chapter, and as it is more than obvious that Claudine has forced Duncan to do the show. I don’t really mind an overused plot device—i.e. the misunderstanding that one party cannot explain to the other keeps the star-crossed lovers apart—but it really ought to make sense. Why is Joan’s anger so unrelenting and all-possessing? Why are Duncan’s actions so totally unforgiveable? I could not understand Joan’s feelings, so I couldn’t sympathize with her, or even like her, which pretty much undoes the main foundation of a VNRN. While the writing makes this book worthwhile, I still left it feeling unsatisfied, because I felt that, after everything she put Duncan through with her unjustified rage, Joan didn’t really deserve her inevitable happy ending.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Timberline Nurse

By Ruth McCarthy Sears, ©1965
Cover illustration by Chuck Miller

Crystal Garnette loved the beautiful, pine-covered mountains where she had grown up. But when her romance with wealthy Jeffrey Varian ended in heartbreak, Crystal fled to the city to forget. She succeeded, working at busy Rochester-Main Hospital—until her father’s death brought her back to Timber Town. Crystal vowed she would quickly leave. But she could not resist when old Doctor Curtis begged her to stay on at the understaffed mountain hospital. Then, in the midst of her greatest challenge as a nurse, she was faced with the hardest decision of her young life. How could she choose between two very different men—one a rough lumberman, the other a handsome doctor—who said they loved her? In this place where she already had made one painful mistake, dare she risk her heart again?


“You use much better grammar than the other people up here.”

“Sam says when two wimmin can’t seem t’ git along you can jus’ bet there’s a man mixed up in it somewheres.”

“Hill-country morals, darling, are so dreary!”

“Pink dresses are always magic.”

“No man in his right mind would let his girl see him in a shortie nightgown!”

“She longed to pour out the full strength of her womanhood on him.”

“I don’t know much about underwear and that stuff.”

“How you could hate Case a little when he forgot you to go about his mysterious man affairs.”

Crystal Garnette is a nurse who has returned home to her mountainous hometown in the Sierras of California for her father’s funeral, but she cannot leave fast enough. When the book opens she’s all packed up and waiting for her ride to the train station—but then four women in the hospital decide to give birth at once and she is prevailed upon to stay and help out just one more day. Before you know it, Crystal has moved into a little house and appears ready to stay on indefinitely.

But she hates the towntownsfolk because they think she’s trash, stemming back to an incident when she was 16. (Now she’s either 22, as on page 19, or 24, as on page 153.) She had gone for a drive up in the mountains with young logger Clark Casey, aka “Big Case,” and when he made a pass at her and she tried to escape in his jeep, she drove the car off a cliff. They were forced to walk back into town, arriving there after midnight and landing smack in the middle of a search party about to set out looking for her. When she asked Case to explain where they’d been, he just said, “Explain what? That was no accident, sweetheart!” and stomped off. I’m hard-pressed to find anything even minimally scandalous in this misadventure—she’s clearly a wreck, with “torn clothes, the scratches on her arms and legs, the dirt caking her from head to foot,” and the wrecked jeep had been found earlier—but even now, six or eight years later, the villagers still scorn her; when she walks downtown, “two women, fat-hipped and heavy-busted, lifted their chins in a direct snub.”

Her reputation wasn’t the only ruin that Case’s refusal to clear her name created. Her then-boyfriend, summer resident Jeff Varian, the son of the man who owns all the timberland surrounding the town, dumped her following the incident. In her heartbreak she followed him to Rochester, New York, where Jeff’s family lives, to go to nursing school and occasionally call his house and hang up when the butler answered. Eventually, though, she ran into him, and the fickle cad took up right where he left off, until he used his father’s disapproval of her to leverage a trip to Europe: “I told him that unless he let me go to Paris I intended to marry you! … Isn’t that rich, darling?” So off he went, while Crystal furnished “their” apartment, waiting for his return and their marriage—but when he came back, he had (surprise!) a British wife in tow.

Crystal still blames Case for the wreck of her relationship with Jeff, although the fellow had displayed plenty of shallow tendencies all along. Case is big, arrogant, violent, and sneering, a complete boor. But he’s not the only flame in town; there’s Dr. Rich Lane, who dates Crystal briefly until he reveals that’s he’s really in love with the town’s wild half-breed Indian woman, Tondelaya. Then there’s a big dance, when Case asks Crystal to polka—and then, four pages later, “Why, I love Case! she thought wondrously.” What?!? Are they kidding? To make the absurdity complete, three paragraphs after that, Jeff turns up again, sporting a phony little British accent, telling her that his now-ex-wife has given his parents a blue-blooded grandson so he’s free to marry her at last. What a romantic! Case stomps off, and Crystal’s all heartbroken because “Case had wiped her kiss off his lips!” With this, my disgust with Timberline Nurse was complete.

Nauseating prose (e.g. “If she moved to serve him in any way, it would only affront his virility”), plot twists that defy logic, an Indian character drawn in a stereotypically bigoted fashion (“there’s buried treasure in that wild little heart of hers … She just doesn’t feel equipped to cope with the so-called civilization we try to inflict on her”), and a romantic interest who we’ve been set up to despise for the first 100 pages of the book did not endear this book to me. The best thing about it is the cover, which is truly spectacular. It is uncredited in the book, though it has the signature “Miller” in the corner. After a few hours of research, I’ve come to think that it was done by Chuck Miller, who apparently worked for Playboy, based almost entirely on its uncanny similarity to another painting of his, which appeared on the cover of the March 1962 issue, just three years before this book. So while you should spend some time with the cover, just don’t open it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lady Doctor

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1956

When David jilted Dr. Ruth Prescott, her every dream and hope died. Her only thought was to escape the busy hospital and the sophisticated city life she knew. But what help would she find from the bayou people who resented her—and from the man who wanted her so badly he wouldn’t take no for an answer?



“I hope you will look on me as a doctor and not as a pretty woman.”

“Doctors don’t weep, even on such nice broad shoulders.”

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with Peggy Gaddis. On one hand, her plots tend to be predictable (big city healthcare practitioner moves to the sticks, usually in the mountains of Georgia, and comes to love it) and her writing can be nauseatingly syrupy (“David’s home, she told herself warmly, was in her heart, and her home was anywhere in the world David wanted to be”). On the other hand, they frequently have lively characters and interesting situations, and are laugh-out-loud funny, whether intentional or not. So while I enter into them with an eyebrow askance, I am frequently won over, at least somewhat, by their end (the odious Dr. Merry’s Husband being a notable exception).

Lady Doctor is just such a book. Dr. Ruth Prescott, who is smitten with some guy named David, “since that first night when he had been brought into the hospital, critically injured in a taxicab smash-up.” But he’s been away in the jungle of South America for a year, and she’s been waiting for him … to come home and tell her he’s engaged to a missionary’s daughter. To ease her heartbreak, she does what any sensible professional would do: She chucks her job and moves to a bayou community near Tampa, where only jeeps and motorboats can penetrate the wild country.

There she finds a community divided into squatters (“good-for-nothin’ trash,” according to Maude, Ruth’s landlady) who subsist (quite well, actually) off the swamp, the more genteel Harbor people, and the po’ folk of the Flats. The Flats is a slum belonging to Walt Hubbard, the trading post owner, who overcharges for rent and underpays for wages, keeping the people there in perpetual poverty. Which apparently inclines them toward wife-beating and alcoholism, as Ruth discovers not long after her arrival when little Beatsie Holcombe tears into the doctor’s office screaming, “Pop’s about to kill Mom!” In a fairly graphic scene (for a VNRN) we burst into the filthy, cluttered hovel to find “a thin gaunt woman, face down; over her stood a big hulking brute of a man, a thick leather whip in his hand. The woman’s back was torn and bleeding, and even as Ruth paused, incredulous with horror, in the doorway, the man lifted the whip again to bring it down on that pitiful back.”

This sets Ruth off on a crusade (after she snatches the whip away from Bud and uses it on him a few times) to create a board of health to enforce the laws against slums and beating the womenfolk. On her side is town mayor Len Hudson, who proposes to her the day after he meets her. But the rest of the townspeople either stop showing up at her clinic or openly deride her plans: “Dr. Ed knowed the Harbor, Ruth. He respected people’s rights to live their own lives. And if you’re aiming to stay here, Ruth, I reckon maybe you’d better learn to do the same,” Maude sneers.

But then Ruth is kidnapped by one of Walt Hubbard’s compatriots, rowed out into the swamp, and left on a barge as the sun is going down. “She couldn’t remember who had said it; but she could hear a voice saying, ‘Ain’t nothin’ human could live in the swamp more’n a few hours, come night. Mosquitoes would eat him alive.’ ” Here I had to pause for a hearty laugh, even as Ruth “could not keep back the wild screams that bubbled from her throat” and soon passes out. But little Beatsie has overheard the dastardly plot and runs to Len. The good people of Copeland Harbour, belatedly seeing the error of their ways, and remembering how Ruth took care of Barney “time he stuck a rusty nail in his foot, and sat up with him for two nights to keep him from having lockjaw,” now turn out en masse to find Ruth, burn down the trading post and the Flats, and lynch Walt. It’s quite an ending, I have to say.

I admired how Ruth showed a lot of backbone in standing up for what she thought was the right thing to do, even when she knew it spelled her own doom. I liked how Ruth, delirious with fever after her night in the swamp, calls out for David—and it doesn’t mean at all that she is in love with the man; it’s just that “people in delirium say the darndest things.” And I was pleased with Ms. Gaddis’ occasional ability to see through the sexist situations she herself has set up, as when a friend of Ruth’s, in town on a visit, looks askance at how the townspeople refer to Ruth as “Miss Doc,” because “when we got us a woman doctor, and her so young and pretty and—well, sort of sweet, just saying Doc didn’t hardly seem respectful. So folks got to calling her Miss Doc.” In answer, Ruth’s friend drawls, “I suppose it didn’t occur to you just to call her Dr. Prescott.” In short, this book is sensible and, at the same time, silly, each where it should be—a perfect combination and making for a pretty good book.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nurse Forrester’s Secret

By Jane Converse, ©1965

Love … or loyalty? Such choices had never been a problem for Elaine Forrester. The lovely nurse’s keen sense of integrity had always guided her professional—and her personal—life … But then, she had never been truly in love. Until now. And now was when Jay Lowell, her dearest friend, needed her most. He was gravely ill, a victim of chronic nephritis. He wanted her near him. He needed her—and her love. How could she give up everything she so passionately hungered for, in exchange for a future that promised only despair? How could she deny the insistent urgings of the young doctor whom she loved…and the yearnings of her own heart?


“I gather Iva’s going to be a long while getting her face on, or whatever it is women do to hold up the works when a man’s starving.”

“Whatever he may have thought, the doorway to the linen room was not the place to express it.”

“I like to believe that on my wards the carrying of bedpans has been elevated to a fine art.”

 Elaine Forrester is a poor parentless waif (mom died of cancer, dad’s a drunk) struggling through nursing school when she meets doctor-in-training Jay Lowell. He’s a nice guy—and incredibly wealthy to boot—and he takes her out to dinner and pays for her tuition. He’s in love with her, but as nice as he is, to Elaine “he could never be more than an adored older brother.” But he doesn’t give up, hanging around “as an Eskimo in the frozen North looks for the first break in the ice,” hoping her frigid heart might melt. 

No such luck. Instead, he comes down with kidney disease, which is slowly killing him. He’s had to drop out of med school, and now he sits around his enormous ranch outside of Reno and snarls at everyone who comes to see him. Which is really only Elaine, who shows up daily to pat his hand soothingly. It’s a miserable relationship built on guilt and bickering, so naturally Elaine tries to convince Jay that she’s in love with him and they ought to be married right away. But now he refuses her, saying she should be getting on with her life instead of hanging around with an invalid. 

Enter Dr. Norm Beatty. He’s dating Elaine’s scandalous roommate, Iva. Sleek, sophisticated, and not the most dedicated nurse you’ll ever find, Iva spends evenings hanging out at the casinos to pick up gentlemen to pay for her dinner and straggling in the next day all strung out and hung over. Norm stops by the apartment to pick up Iva, and Elaine, in her most unflattering housecoat, her hair unbrushed and not a speck of makeup on, is obliged to keep the man company while Iva lets the final coat of varnish dry. They exchange some legitimately amusing banter, and it seems he still likes her even if she isn’t dressed to the nines. The next time he shows up on her doorstep, Iva isn’t home and he’s carrying a mess of dead fish. She invites him in, and it isn’t long before Elaine and Norm get carried away while she’s showing him how to work the garbage disposal. While the bluegill is frying on the stove, he proposes—but she just can’t drop Jay.

The rest of the book is a back-and-forth about what to do, what to do? It’s fairly predictable; you can practically see the bull’s eye on Jay’s back. The writing is interesting in places, especially when Iva comes on the scene or when Elaine and Norm are bantering. But when the couple of interest hooks up, even sort of, one-third through the book, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for further interesting developments. So while this book isn’t a complete waste of time, there’s just not a lot to say about it.

Alternative cover