Saturday, June 25, 2011

College Nurse

By Fern Shepard
(pseud. of Florence Stonebraker), ©1965
Cover illustration by Ser Leone

Since the tragic death of her fiancé one week before their wedding, Fern O’Connor had buried her grief in her work as a nurse at College Hospital. She thought she’d buried her heart with it. But when her wealthy young patient, Bob Creasy, reached out to her in his desperate emotional need, she found herself responding not just as a nurse, but as a woman. And when her anger at the brilliant and arrogant Dr. Stanley Lowden began to change to excitement, Fern had to choose between faithfulness to a memory and her duty—as a nurse and as a woman.


“What are your plans? Work, work, work, nothing but work, until you finally end up one of these sharp-faced, frustrated spinster nurses who has missed out on everything and takes it out on the patients?”

“Pushing the office door open, Fern walked in and said a cool good morning to Dr. Stan Lowden, who got up from his desk and gave her the customary grin, which for some unfathomable reason invariably made her want to hit him.”

“In her day, said Grace, kids went to college to learn something. But no more. Now the girls went to find a husband, and the boys went to find a wife to support them while they took it easy studying their books and putting off assuming a man’s responsibilities as long as possible. So what was the net result? … The result was that these girl-children-wives found themselves buying maternity clothes instead of dresses for the Junior Prom.”

“What’s the glad word from the world of moonlight and roses?”

“There’s a girl who had better develop lots of character and brains. With her face, she’ll need them.”
“If you don’t stop calling me ma’am, I am going to beat your brains out.”

“Glory be, Dad, that creature has about as much class as a retarded owl.”

College Nurse is a lot like Campus Nurse, and not because they are both ostensibly set in college hospitals. Both involve a guilt-fueled engagement to a patient who becomes manipulative and overly dependent, but College Nurse is a lot less creepy and is better written, too.

Fern O’Connor (and I do find it interesting that Florence gave the heroine the same name as her pen name) is working at College Hospital in Kentucky when she meets Bob Creasy, who is a biochemist studying magic mushrooms. Though “the work was done with the consent of the university,” Bob has landed in the hospital after overdosing on some fungi. The newspapers have spread the story that Bob’s psychotropic adventure was an act of suicide, not science. While that is not the case, Bob is an emotionally fragile, pathetic lump who has never felt loved by his father, and he has actually attempted suicide in the past, so the story not so far-fetched.

Bob’s father, Jake, is a hillbilly made insanely wealthy by a lucky strike of oil on his property. Seeking to defend his family’s reputation, Jake arranges for Bob to give a TV interview about the incident. The script that Bob is handed requires him to declare his love for a family acquaintance, but at the last minute Bob persuades Fern to agree to allow him to use her name instead, and to say that they are engaged. As soon as this story hits the airwaves, Fern, who sympathizes with the emotional trauma he has suffered, feels compelled to give in to Bob’s request to make the story true. But soon he’s a little too dependent and clingy. “If you really loved me,” he tells her, in shades of Shep Harris, “you’d want to be here with me. You’d rush in here every chance you got. You’d make chances.” Bob also wants Fern to give up her nursing career: “If you loved me, you’d do it quick enough. You wouldn’t give your job a second thought.”

Fern doesn’t think much of this idea: “Her nursing career represented quite a lot in terms of years of training, sacrifices of one sort and another, hard work, and the very real love and devotion she had given it. ‘You don’t slice all that off your life as casually as you slice off an end of bread, Bob,’ ” she tells him. Because Fern is no shrinking violet, she puts him off by saying that she wants to be “courted,” which means they should spend some time dating. Bob responds by taking her out—and drinking too much. “Give me time, baby,” he says. “I aim to grow into a good two-fisted drinker.” She eventually decides she’s had enough of his self-indulgent, childish behavior and tells him that she can’t marry him. Bob responds by taking cough medicine and nutmeg, which is supposed to be another suicide attempt. But it’s not Fern that this self-pitying gesture brings around—it’s his father, who rushes to Bob’s bedside, tells him how much he loves him, and the two ride off into the sunset, accompanied by a psychiatrist of some renown. This frees up Fern to marry the doctor, as a good nurse should.

The plot is pretty simple, and takes its time working through it all. The story is not nearly as skin-crawling as Campus Nurse, and you never feel like smacking Fern. If the story is slow, the writing is sharp and amusing, as Florence Stonebraker usually is. Even if this book is not one of her best, I’ve seldom gone wrong with one of her books.

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