Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Nurse from Alaska

By Florence Stuart 
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1964 
Also published as Strange Triangle

Nurse Carol had loved Doctor Mike since she was fifteen—and now, at last, she was to be his wife, work by his side, raise his young daughter as her own. Then, on the eve of their wedding, the glamorous and beautiful Beth Bliss came back to town from Alaska—and demanded that Doctor Mike be hers. She had three powerful weapons: she had been Mike’s wife, she knew a strange secret—and she was Nurse Carol’s own sister.


“He thought about all that Carol would be giving up to take on the care and responsibility of his child by another woman. In particular, she would be sacrificing her nursing career. Whenever they discussed this problem, Carol would smile at his doubts. She would remind him that she was, first of all, a woman, and a woman in love.” 

“The love of her life was as close as the nearest mirror.” 

“I’d like to sit at the bar and smoke a cigarette. Maybe somebody will take me for an abandoned woman who has really loved and refuses to quit.” 

“Carol didn’t want to think about what might happen if the child was taken away from both her and her father, to be given over to the mother she instinctively hated. It could lead to deep emotional disturbance, even brain damage.” 

“She was as efficient as an IBM machine if anything went wrong.” 

“You’re suffering from a rush of blood to the head, darling.” 

“As long as the little girl remains in this hospital, she will have proper nursing care, from a competent person who neither threatens her nor allows her to wander around and hemorrhage in a closet.” 

“Give me a prescription for some barbiturates with real authority.” 

“It seems to have become a habit with you, dear. When you can’t think what else to do, you must say to yourself, Well, I can always run over and threaten to ruin Mel Walters as a doctor.” 

“Let’s say I tuned in on some vibrations saying that you needed me, sweetheart.” 

I am irritated by false advertising in a book’s title. Now, The Nurse from Alaska does not exactly qualify, since the anti-heroine, Beth Bliss, has in fact arrived in town from Alaska, but the story takes place in Kentucky, and there are no snow-topped mountains, fur parkas, or totem poles anywhere in the book except in the cover illustration (which, if somewhat irrelevant, is excellent). I think this gives author Florence Stonebraker, who we have met before as Florence Stuart and Fern Shepard, a near 100 percent average in this respect. 

Beth has returned home after her impending marriage to an Alaskan millionaire was undone by an inconvenient plane crash. She’s heard that Dr. Mike Conway, whom she left five years ago with their infant daughter Joannie, has come into $3 million. But like all VNRN medicos who inherit millions, Mike intends to use every dime (and the easily nauseated might wish to avert their eyes) to build a new hospital to help poverty-stricken orphans. He also intends to marry Carol Bliss, but gorgeous, evil Beth turns up in his office and sobs on his shoulder that she has incurable leukemia, and he develops the spine of a jellyfish. She wants to marry him again so she can be with little Joannie and have a family again in her last remaining year on this earth. The money means nothing to her, nothing at all. But if he doesn’t marry her, she’ll go to court and get sole custody of Joannie. 

To stall her, he agrees to let her take Joannie away for a week, though he knows the child despises Beth and hasn’t seen or heard from her in five years, and agrees to postpone his wedding to Carol—which was supposed to be tomorrow, by the way. Beth is a nurse herself and worked with local GP Dr. Mel Walters years ago in New York, and knows that his young wife, dying of cancer and in extreme pain, had begged him to put her out of her misery with an extra-large helping of morphine. He refused to do it, but someone else in the hospital did—and though no evidence had been found against him, he was dismissed from the hospital. Beth threatens to reveal the whole story, which would ruin Mel’s career, if he doesn’t back up her leukemia act. He agrees, but insists on doing a complete physical exam … “At the end of that hour his eyes were grave, his tone that of a serious medical man. … ‘I’m afraid I have a little bad news for you,’ he said.” 

The plot thickens when Beth goes to court anyway and gets sole custody of Joan for 30 days. Carol and Mike are helpless, though they greatly fear that Beth is insane, “and psychos can be very dangerous,” says the man with the medical degree. When they break the news to Joannie, she becomes violently ill with “quinsy,” or peritonsillar abscess, which she apparently gets regularly (I will spare you the details of why this is medically unlikely), and has to be admitted to the hospital. There, Beth comes marching in wearing a nurse’s uniform, fires Mike and Carol from the case, and assumes complete control of Joannie’s medical care, because she has a court order, darn it! 

As Carol looks on, Beth proceeds to punch Joannie so hard she knocks her off the bed and threatens to take a strap to her. Carol, instead of running straight to the nursing supervisor, goes to Mike’s office, where the pair have some brandy to buck themselves up before they go off to do this emergency appendectomy on “the town’s confirmed old maid” who is “thirtyish.” It actually takes the night nurse, who has no more authority than Carol, to have Beth thrown out of the hospital after she guesses what Carol should have known all along, that Beth does not have permission to work as a nurse in the hospital, much less a Kentucky nursing license, and that abusing patients makes her unfit for the job in any case. I was hoping that the night nurse might be the one to end up with custody, since she seemed to be the only one capable of actually protecting poor Joannie. 

No such luck—after Joannie is discharged, Beth turns up on Mike’s door, out of her mind with fear because she has to have a hysterectomy to cure her cancer. “She thought about the patient, just her own age, who had gone through such an operation in the New York hospital. Oh, she had lived. A hundred percent cure, the doctors said. And when Beth ran into her, months later, she looked like an old hag of seventy. Her skin was all dried out and grooved with a thousand wrinkles. It had to do with cutting off nature’s supply of female hormones. When they went, your youth went.” To get her mind off the surgery, Mike, the blithering idiot, tells Beth that Carol has taken Joannie to Mike’s house in the mountains. How incompetent can the man be? Guess where Beth goes when she leaves Mike’s office? Well, after she stops at the hotel for a gin and tonic? 

Author Florence Stonebraker loves a sexy woman (see Runaway Nurse) and a violent woman (The Nurse and the Orderly, Courtroom Nurse, Night Nurse). Here we get both in one package, but Beth just isn’t as satisfying as she could be. I laughed at the old faked-illness-comes-true plot, and the issue of Beths uterus as the source of her vitality could spawn several term papers. I did wonder if it wouldn’t turn out that it was Beth who actually bumped off Dr. Mel’s wife, which would have made a lot of sense, but the true “killer” was never identified; perhaps Stonebraker intended to write this in but forgot about it. The Nurse from Alaska is a fairly typical Stonebraker story, between the motherless child, the sexy ex-wife, the child abuse, and the psychos (it even has the sassy sidekick), but it’s not one of her best. I don’t care if the plot is hackneyed, but the central characters need to be admirable, and their inability to see the obvious (that Beth has no right to care for Joannie in the hospital) or protect their child makes them not so. The book isn’t a complete waste of time, but it’s vaguely dissatisfying, and not the first I’d reach for.

This book was also
published as Strange Triangle,
with a much worse cover.

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