Friday, October 21, 2011

Redheaded Nurse

Bennie C. Hall, ©1960
Cover illustration by Gilbert Riswold

Jane Hamilton stood on the top deck of the cruise ship Madrigal, watching the twinkling lights that marked the Mediterranean shoreline. It was midnight, and the sound of laughter and music floated up from the Carnival Room on the deck below. She had known so few carefree hours in her young life, and now she longed to become a part of the gaiety surrounding her—but as ship’s nurse, she was here to work, not to enjoy herself. It would be so easy, she thought, to set conscience aside and forget her job—to surrender completely to a world where anything might happen…


“They’ll dance, drink and make merry till dawn—and tomorrow they’ll die.”

“Nurses are for healing, not feeling.”

“He removed her cape from her shoulders and folded it as carefully as if it were—well, at least squirrel.”

“Never jump to conclusions, Janie, though I’ll admit most of us redheads do. Remember—it’s impossible to look at a cat and tell when and how far it’s going to jump. It’s the same way with people. You can’t assign characters to human beings and expect them to stay put. They’ll fool you every time.”

“The best sedative was an open mind and a clear conscience.”

“Aside from an occasional headache or an upset stomach, the passengers had remained disgracefully well.”

“It was like a man, she reflected, to be excused for an infraction of the rules, whereas she, a woman, had to wear her remorse like a heavy blanket.”

“Peter was a very studious person and innocent of the implications of a gift from the Island of Lesbos.”

“I thought I’d inherited a temperamental redhead who would know more about catching a man than about curing whatever ailed him.”

At one point, after being sunk by Cruise Ship Nurse and Sea Nurse, I threatened to toss all my cruise ship VNRNs right into the brink if I got one more dud. Redheaded Nurse doesn’t exactly make up for those two duds, but it will stay dry for the time being.

Jane Hamilton has been selected from all the nurses at her Boston charity hospital to fill the position of head nurse aboard the cruise ship Madrigal. The doctor on board, Dr. Jerry Clayton, is usually mean to her. It’s her “copper curls,” you see, that push Dr. Clayton over the edge, and he asks her to pull her cap down over her ears to hide them when she’s on duty. “You’re too young. And too beautiful,” explains Schuyler Dawson, a young man on the ship. “Chances are he wanted someone more mature, less decorative.” Jane is drawn to young Sky, though early on she had decided he must be a paid companion to one of the older passengers, Mrs. Carter-Peterson. “She knew all about those unscrupulous characters known as ‘gigolos,’ but she had never expected to meet one face to face.” Then Mrs. C-P tells Jane that Sky has stolen a diamond locket from her, and Jane is convinced that Sky is a “slick fellow” whom she should avoid. So the next day, when he plays up to her, she naturally agrees to go dancing with him that night and ashore with him in Alexandria, Egypt, the next day.

They have a great time, dancing as one—but then suddenly Jane realizes that all the other ship’s passengers have left the building. They have to fly across town in a pokey old cab while the ship’s horn is sounding insistently in the background, sprinting down the dock and losing Jane’s hat to reach the gangplank in time while all the passengers watch in amusement. This incident leaves Jane totally mortified beyond reason, and she determines never to go ashore again, until the captain scolds her, “It’s gotten so now your hair shirt is showing—and it’s not a bit becoming with those copper curls.” So all is right again in Jane’s simple little world.

In the meantime, Mrs. C-P has decided to throw a party for all the children at some port of call and give them all dolls, because the poor waifs don’t have any. On an expedition into a part of Alexandria that the captain had expressly forbidden passengers to enter, she is exposed to a smallpox epidemic. While helping the dowager sew dresses for the nude dolls, Jane notices a rash on the back of the older woman’s neck … and so the two ladies are quarantined for a week, until it is determined that it’s some other disease and not smallpox that the great lady has contracted. As a reward for her selfless duty, Jane is allowed to pick out one bracelet from Mrs. C-P’s collection, and inadvertently chooses the most expensive one there—the stone is so huge, it couldn’t possibly be anything other than costume jewelry. She wears it to another dance on the ship, where Sky sets her straight about its real value—and then the bauble disappears that night after he smooches her to such effect that “she could only feel as if she did not exist as a person but only as a part of Sky.” Jane begins castigating herself that “she had fallen in love with a playboy and a card shark. … He goes on one cruise after another in order to play poker with the wealthy passengers and fleece them.”

I am sure that I don’t have to tell you that in the end all this misunderstanding is cleared away, and Jane is proved once again to be a silly little girl. Some older VNRNs have this gentle feeling about them, like chiffon floating on air. Redheaded Nurse is one such book, with a soft touch both in the writing, characters, and situations they are put through. Jane’s mortifications and crises are really small molehills, and we can pass through them without a wrinkled brow. In the end, the book is so light that it doesn’t really amount to much, even if it does have a noticeable flavor of camp to liven things up a bit. But it’s enough to make me want to attempt another VNRN cruise.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Army Nurse

By Barbara Bonham, ©1965
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

I can’t believe it,” Connie said in a stunned voice to the Communist agent. “We were so sure she was dead. Can you get her out of China?” “For a price,” Bo Duc said. “You could be very useful to us.” Connie shuddered. It was the cruelest form of blackmail, one the Communists used masterfully. “You devils!” she said through clenched teeth. Lt. Constance Moorehead had two great secrets—her war mission and her love for Captain Harmon. To carry out her duty she was prepared to risk her loyalty, her love, and even her life.


“What’s a gorgeous girl like you doing in this place?”
“Fighting Communism,” Connie replied.

“Connie had had to hold herself back the last few times Niles had kissed her to keep her lips from revealing her love for him.”

“I’m familiar with Communist tactics. I cut my teeth on them.”

“And you guys think you can conquer the world! You can’t even make a decent whisky.”

Lt. Constance Moorehead is the first nurse heroine I’ve met who isn’t white – she’s biracial, as her mother was Chinese. Her parents met when her American father was teaching English in China, but when Connie was six years old, the Communists began to overrun China, and her family fled the country on a sampan for Hong Kong. En route, however, they were strafed by a Communist patrol boat, and her mother was killed. Which explains her burning hatred for the Commies. Now that she’s 22, she’s enlisted in the army has been stationed in the Southeast Asian country of Surbaco, which is struggling against a Communist take-over, serving capitalism the only way a girl can. “Nursing the wounded is the next best thing to actually carrying a gun against the Communists myself,” she says.

As much as she hates the Communists, she loves Capt. Niles Harmon, MD, whom she just met a month ago. He’s attracted to her “mysterious and exotic beauty,” as he puts it. Then Bo Duc, the waiter at the officer’s club, jumps out of the bushes next to the nurses’ quarters and tells her that the Communists have her grandmother. Unless she cooperates with them, they will kill Nana. She responds with the most vehement curse she can think of: “You devils!” she spits through clenched teeth. But she proves to be somewhat resourceful: She sends a letter to American Ambassador Kilby, who checks into the hospital six hours later, complaining of chest pain. Connie can’t get over the coincidence, but guess what? It’s all a big hoax so he can talk to Connie alone! He tells her to cooperate with Bo Duc for now, as they may have an opportunity to track down the communist leader through him. Though Dr. Niles is perplexed that he can’t figure out what’s wrong with the ambassador, he doesn’t suspect anything. Yet.

Connie leaves a window open in the supply room along with a list of the supplies that the bad guys need. Niles, discovering the break-in, sees Connie slip the list, which the thieves have inconveniently left behind, into her pocket. You’d think this would be an opportunity to bring up Connie’s racial background and use it against her, but Dr. Niles is made of sterner stuff, and just frowns. But the Commies aren’t satisfied, and soon come back with another assignment: She’s to put a bomb under the bed of the Surbacoan president. A few days later, at a ball at the president’s mansion, Dr. Niles catches her coming out of the president’s living quarters. The president, who has been informed of the plot by Ambassador Kilby (who Connie keeps in the loop), isn’t hurt, the scuttlebutt goes, because an aide had woken him to take care of an important matter that had just come up. Niles ups the ante and gives her the cold shoulder on rounds that afternoon.

Next the Communists kidnap Connie and Niles, dragging them out into the jungle to care for their general. Connie doesn’t have enough time to contact Ambassador Kilby, but she does manage to mail a letter – though she has no idea where in the jungle they are to be taken, so things are looking glum for the medical team. At first Niles is pretty pissed – “You lousy traitor!” he hisses at Connie – but after they’ve amputated the general’s gangrenous foot and they have a minute alone, she fills him in on her double-agent duties, and soon they’re smooching behind the general’s tent. But the Commies are threatening to kill them both as soon as the general is better. Will they be found in time?

As action-packed as the plot may seem in the retelling, I just couldn’t bring myself to care whether Connie and Niles were rescued or not. The ending was wholly predictable, the writing uninspired, and the only fun in it from the puerile jabs at communism. It’s interesting for its view on war in Southeast Asia at a time when the country was actually fighting one there, but apart from that, it’s pretty much a waste of time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cinderella Nurse

By Jane Converse
(pseud. of Adele Kay Maritano), ©1967
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

“Give it up,” Glen Seabrook had said. “They’re using you, Rita. They’ll never change.” But she couldn’t abandon her family. And she lost Glenn. It all seemed so long ago. Before she became wife to an alcoholic, mother to a son—and widow. At twenty-four, life held no more surprises for Rita Ambler. Then came the accident that changed everything. That thrust Rita Ambler into the arms of Dr. Lester Wyman and out of reach of his new protégé, Dr. Glen Seabrook…the only man she had ever loved.


“You’ve been out of it so long, you think dates are sweet gooey things that grow on palm trees.”

“She wanted to scream out her anger at the pink and white and lavender woman who sat reading about submerged continents while her grandchild displayed alarming symptoms.”

“If one’s vibrations are in tune with the infinitude, there are no insurmountable obstacles.”

The problem with an author like Jane Converse, who has written many, many VNRNs – this is the tenth book of hers I have reviewed – is that you just can’t always be at the top of your game, but you’re always held to your highest mark. Jane’s highest, which would be (and faithful readers know what I’m going to say) Surf Safari Nurse, is a good mile or two above Cinderella Nurse. This book is not her worst, but I can’t help feel especially disappointed, since I know what she is capable of.

At book’s open, we have something very unusual in our heroine – a widow! With a three-year-old son, Timmy! Rita had fallen in love with Glenn Seabrook, a medical student, who takes the typical attitude of male medical students in love: “Do you think I’m going to let you support me?” he asks her. “It might be a good arrangement for some lush who’s looking for a meal ticket. Not me.” “What difference did money make when two people were genuinely in love?” she asks him, as all the other nurses ask their medical student boyfriends, but he, like all the others, will have none of it. Dumb guys.

So when he leaves her for a neurosurgery residency in New York, she accepts a marriage proposal from the first loser who comes along, a lush looking for a meal ticket named Keith Ambler. Rita nags and scolds, Keith keeps drinking, and soon he abandons the family for warmer climes. Eventually Rita gets a letter from one of Keith’s drinking buddies that Keith has died of cirrhosis in Mexico.

As a single mom, it’s not just Timmy that Rita has to worry about. There’s her good-for-nothing kid sister, Nadine, who is ostensibly studying to be a nurse but seems more interested in shopping for new dresses on Rita’s paycheck than going to class. Rita’s mother, a widow herself, has gone in heavy for the psychic scene, and spends what little is left of Rita’s money on tarot readers and Ouija boards. Neither of these two ladies has acquired any experience with holding a mop, much less a job, so it falls to Rita to clean and cook when she gets home from work. It is her role as the uncomplaining nanny for all these people that earns her the nickname Cinderella, given to her by Glenn before they split up, and which adds additional heat to Glenn’s insistence that he won’t be a sponge, too.

And now the book starts. Glenn is back in town, a surgical resident working with the esteemed brain surgeon Dr. Lester Wyman. But after seeing that Rita is no less a dishrag than she ever was, he turns to feistier nurses to keep him company. Then little Timmy, while under the care of his grandmother, sneaks out of the house and takes quite a tumble, knocking himself unconscious and fracturing his skull. Dr. Wyman operates, foots the bill, and starts seeing Rita and talking marriage. She agrees – but then she finds out that he believes it to be “axiomatic that a surgeon couldn’t keep operating without a steady supply of alcohol to sustain his nerves.” And rumors are flying around the hospital that it wasn’t Dr. Wyman who operated on Timmy at all, but sober Glenn, when Dr. Wyman, shaking with the DTs, drops a scalpel, and then stoops to pick it up … though I’m not sure that readers unfamiliar with the OR will understand the horror and italics this statement is expressed in. The sterile field of the operation is absolutely inviolate, and deliberately touching something that isn’t sterile during a surgery, or apparently intending to use a dirty scalpel, is, shall we say, frowned upon.

During all this crises, the battle axe head nurse, herself a doomed spinster desperately in love with Dr. Wyman, wreaks her vengeance on Rita. But for the first time in her life, Rita stands up for herself. She tells off the head nurse, which is overheard by Glenn, who happens to be standing outside the head nurse’s office when all this goes down. She calls home to check on Timmy and finds her sister is being uncharacteristically sweet, saying that she’s really tired from all the studying she’s been doing all day and that Rita and Timmy should go out to dinner without her and just let her sleep. Rita, the dope, throws this example of Nadine’s generosity in Glenn’s face, and poor Glenn has to tell Rita that Nadine was kicked out of nursing school months ago.

Then Rita gets another call from Nadine’s boyfriend David, a wealthy med school student, telling her to hurry home. She and Glenn rush back to Rita’s house to find that Nadine has somehow gotten her hands on a drug that will induce abortion and is nearly dead from it, while David implores them not to take Nadine to the hospital because if he is implicated in the sorry mess, he’ll be kicked out of medical school. Though it’s quite clear that there’s no way Nadine could have gotten her hands on the medicine of her own accord, after Nadine recovers from her near-death experience, she refuses to name David and says that it was all her idea.

Rita finally sees herself as “the world’s champion patsy,” who has “always latched onto weaklings and chisellers on the pretext that they need me.” Rita thinks about insisting that her mother to find a way to support herself. “It was that simple. And that impossible.” But she thinks she can tell Nadine to get her ass off the couch. Arriving home, however, she finds that she has been spared the opportunity of de-lousing herself. Nadine has extorted money from David’s family in return for her silence and split for Hollywood, and Rita’s mother, having wheedled a cut for herself, is just finishing her own packing before she leaves to become a resident disciple at the Institute for Ultimate Wisdom in California. Free at last, Rita calls Glenn, who rushes right over …

The book isn’t badly written, and Rita’s mother is certainly enjoyable as she chews the furniture with lines like, “Honey, if I hadn’t been properly tuned when your poor daddy passed over into the next world, I shudder to think what would have happened to us.” But she’s a one-note wonder, and while we don’t see much of her, we’d probably tire quickly if we did. Jane earns points for plotting, but the writing is ordinary, and there’s not as much camp as I know she is capable of. It’s more than a little disappointing that we don’t get to see Rita stand up for herself in the end. We’ve seen her take a few small steps toward independence, but nothing significant, and I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen when Mom and Nadine come crawling home from California.

Alternative cover

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Nurse of the Midnight Sun

By Mary Collins Dunne, ©1973
Cover illustration by Edrien King

Cory Hanson didn’t consider herself a man-chaser, but it was six months since her fiancé, Paul Farron, had left Oregon for an engineering job with the Trask Valley project in Alaska—and she missed him! After writing Paul that she was flying out for a vacation, she gave up her apartment and her hospital job and boarded the plane for Kovarik. Once she reached the small sawmill town of Datlow Springs, Cory had to wait two weeks for Paul’s arrival. When he finally showed up, it was with the overwhelming news that he had just gotten married. Though Cory wanted nothing more than to return to Oregon immediately, an accident at the mill changed her plans—and laid the foundation for a surprising turn of events in the Land of the Midnight Sun.


“How could she convince him that this was for the best? ‘Really, this is all for the best.’ ”

Cory Hanson met Paul Farron at a party back in Portland, Oregon, when he was in town for a few months as part of his job as an engineer in Alaska. Two months of nightly dates and they were engaged, and three weeks after that, Paul returned to Alaska. Now it’s six months later, early June, and Cory has gotten tired of dreaming about her boyfriend and fighting with the mean old head nurse, so she quits her job and flies to Alaska to be with Paul.

In what should be no surprise to readers familiar with the genre, Paul is not there when she lands at the nearest town, Datlow Springs. There’s no way to get to the mining village where Paul works, so she takes a room at the local doctor’s house, helps out during the day, and waits for him to show up. Three weeks later, he does … wearing a wedding ring, the fickle cad.

The morning she is supposed to leave Alaska forever, there’s the customary medical emergency, in this case a mill explosion, and she winds up accompanying the badly injured patients to the nearest hospital in Kovarik. There, the local doctor, tremendously short-staffed, begs her to stay for a few weeks while one of his few nurses is out on maternity leave. She agrees, and starts dating around. What with women being in short supply up there in the woods, she soon snags a few marriage proposals, including one from Paul, who has left his new wife after a couple of weeks and is in the process of getting an annulment. Have I already called this loser a fickle cad? Cory tries hard to talk herself into marrying the other man, who she likes but does not love; a bush pilot, who has a reputation of being something of a swinger, sets her chaste heart a-pounding but doesn’t make her any offers and is seen around town in the company of a gorgeous blonde, way out of plain little Cory’s league.

I desperately wish that this book, half again as long as most VNRNs at 180 pages, could be summarized in more than these three rather dry paragraphs. But alas, no. While perhaps not quite as protracted as an Alaskan summer day, this book has little to offer in the way of interesting plotting, good writing, or campy poses. Apart from descriptions of occasional Eskimo characters, the sparsely populated villages, and the abundance of sunlight, this book could be set anywhere. So you should set this book down emphatically, and move on to something else.