Friday, November 25, 2011

The New Nurses

Arlene Hale, ©1970
Cover illustration by Edrien King

Lynn Lawrence and Bobbi Wagner vowed to forget Chicago and devote themselves entirely to their nursing careers. Lynn was white, Bobbi, black, and Quiet Fairview General Hospital seemed an “island of contentment” until … Dr. Paul Hamilton appeared and charmingly, persistently, he began to break down Lynn’s resistance. Despite the memory of a shattered romance, Lynn knew she was beginning to fall in love again. While for Bobbi the attentions of handsome sax-player DeVore Johnson, were proving to be more of a distraction than she had planned. And just when she thought she had really left the ghetto behind, brother Johnny showed up in Fairview looking for trouble. Then a supervisor’s job opened up that both girls desperately wanted. Too late they realized that this sort of competition would threaten their careers, their friendships and their love affairs.


“It’s all over, Dad. The break was clean. So clean that it is sterile, in fact. I’ll never be infected again.”

“In a way, Steve had been good training for her. She had learned a great deal about the male animal from her association with him, and Doctor Hamilton, when it was all said and done, was just another male animal.”

“I’m forty-two and single and darned glad of it. I’ve got no complaints and if I need something to warm my feet on a cold winter night, I can always get a hot-water bottle.”

“All landladies are a decent sort until you miss a month’s rent.”

“Was her poor, frozen heart beginning to thaw out at last?”

“There was never time for women in my life. I’ve paid for it in loneliness.”

I deliberately avoided reading this book for a while because the cover illustration of that blonde woman with the big head put me off. The doctor smoking a pipe in the background (I’m always intrigued by the contradiction of a medico who smokes) and the unheard-of major character who isn’t white finally won me over, though—that and the fact that as soon as I get it over with I can tuck the book away and that big-headed woman won’t be staring vapidly at me from my to-read pile.

This is a tale of two nurses: Lynn Lawrence, who is blonde and blue-eyed; and Bobbi Wagner, who is not. The two are “as different as black and white,” in Bobbi’s words. “What a contrast there was. Bobbi was Negro, light-skinned and while not strikingly beautiful, she was nice-looking and the uniform suited her. Lynn was a golden blonde, with very blue eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion. They were a startling combination.” They’ve been friends and roommates since nursing school in Chicago. Lynn has just left Chicago to escape a broken relationship with Steve, about whom we learn little over the course of the book, apart from the fact that he and Lynn are not getting married after all and Lynn’s crushed little heart will never live again. She’s pleaded with Bobbi to come with her, and Bobbi has agreed: She’s escaping too, but it’s from her little brother Johnny, a good-for-nothing mooch always tapping her for money since he can’t hold a job.

The two move in together, but they’re not all that close, and much is made of this throughout the book: “Though they were friends, there were some things that they had never fully shared with each other.” This is partly due to their different races, we are told. Lynn “didn’t know what it was like in the Harlem of Chicago and that was scarcely her fault. But all the same, it made a breech between them that perhaps they never would be able to span.” It’s also due to the fact that Bobbi can be a bit of a bitch, with “moods … sometimes as black as her skin.” And now she’s in a real funk about Johnny, who soon shows up, grafts himself onto the girls’ couch, and seems content to moulder there indefinitely. Lynn professes not to mind, but Bobbi certainly does. She can’t actually kick Johnny out, though, because then he’ll go sponge off their parents, and “it would kill Dad if he knew the sort of man Johnny really was. Mamma would accept it quietly but it would put more lines in her face, more gray in her hair, more sadness in her eyes. They’d endured enough!” Then Bobbi hears about these robberies in town … and Johnny goes out only at night … and he wears all these flashy clothes …

Of course, we have to work in some romance for the two. Lynn starts dating Dr. Paul Hamilton, and Bobbi hooks up with DeVore Dunsmore, a groovy sax player in town for a six-month gig who wears “red socks, a red tie and had a matching red handkerchief in his breast pocket. His shoes were two black mirrors. A small diamond glittered on his left pinkie.” Did I mention that he’s a real swinging cat? Before long, DeVore hears that Johnny is involved in a gang called, quaintly, the Rovers, and he also hears that the Rovers are responsible for the robberies, which leaves Bobbi smoking cigarettes like a chimney, pacing the apartment, rudely rebuffing all Lynn’s efforts to help.

Meanwhile, the nursing supervisor is felled by a brain tumor, and now that job is up for grabs. Both Lynn and Bobbi want it, but Bobbi is convinced that she will never get it because she’s black. “Oh, if she could only get that super’s job! It would prove she was more than just that black girl from Chicago!” This makes her more than a little nasty to Lynn, and she accuses Lynn of dating the doctor in order to get the job, causing “the first serious rift of their friendship.” Johnny figures out what’s eating Bobbi, and attempts to cheer her up: “You know what’s wrong, don’t you? You forget where you’re from. You forget you’re just a black girl. Nothing’s going to change that, Bobbi. You’ll never make it. Because you’re black. You got to make your own luck when you’re black!” Thanks, bro.

One night Johnny doesn’t come home—he’s been beaten to a pulp by a bunch of unnamed men at the club where he and the Rovers hang out. Johnny refuses to say anything at all about the incident, but he swears to Bobbi on the Bible that he’s not involved in the robberies, so Bobbi knows he’s telling the truth, because even Johnny would never lie on the Bible. When pressed, he tells Bobbi that he got his clothes from a rich woman who liked him, and Bobbi is completely relieved: Her brother is not a thief, he’s a gigolo! Phew! Johnny is offered a more respectable job in the hospital, but he turns down this chance at redemption: “I’d just be cleaning up, doing the dirty little jobs. That’s not for Johnny Wagner!” That night he blows town without saying goodbye, so the questions of why he was beaten or what’s going to become of him is never resolved. You can’t help thinking that it’s only a matter of time before he’ll turn up again, and not exactly a changed man.

The gals’ love lives aren’t nailed down either, but Lynn gets the happier ending. She and Paul profess their love for each other, and while the ring isn’t on her finger at the end of the book, you know it won’t be long. DeVore likewise tells Bobbi he wants to marry her, and that she can move around the country with him as he plays with his band, getting jobs as a nurse everywhere she goes. “We’d have a swinging good time,” he tells her. “Be a vagabond nurse?” she snorts, and I can see the title of Arlene Hale’s next book. But Bobbi never claims to love DeVore, and she tells him there are things she has to do first, “and then later she would think about love, marriage, a home, and maybe even kids!” DeVore claims he’s going to hang around until she’s ready, but it’s unclear how he’s going to manage that when his gig runs out in a few months. So either she doesn't get the guy, or she sacrifices her own desires to marry a man she doesn't love and take on a lifestyle that doesn't seem to excite her.

Race is not something often addressed in a VNRN. In this book, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for the difficulties Bobbi faces—“the insults, the sly looks, the talk, the open prejudice,” including her perceived obstacles getting the supervisor job and even a decent apartment: “A lot of people don’t want to rent to Negroes,” Bobbi points out. The fact remains, though, that the two major black male roles are overwhelmingly stereotypical. DeVore is a decent guy, but that flashing diamond irks me just a bit. And while the white girl’s straightforward problems are quickly disposed of, Bobbi’s complex issues are punted into the future, and she does not get the VNRN heroine’s traditional—or the white character’s—happy ending. Even the issue of who gets the supervisor position, though resolved in a way that allows the friends to smooth things over, doesn’t address the fundamental issue: Could Bobbi ever hope to get promoted, or is prejudice working against her in the hospital? So while this book attempts to tackle a tough issue in a fair way, in the end it says one thing but itself doesn't treat the two women equally.

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