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.

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