Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Nurse

By Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1954
Cover illustration by D. Rickard

The life of a nurse is not an easy one, but Susan Trent enjoyed every minute of her work, even those times of tragedy when unavoidable accidents brought disaster, bloodshed and suffering. She found it absorbing because she shared in those difficulties and problems of all those whose lives and health she guarded. But Susan had not expected to be involved so deeply that the problems of others would affect her own secure existence. Nor that the sinister and deadly happenings in the busy shops and factories would culminate in her own quiet office.


“Almost she wished she were a girl with a past—an intriguing past.”

“Life held many far more important things than mere marriage—or did it?”

“I haven’t eaten a little girl in years. Reformed, you know.”

“How a few pleasant words of commendation brightened one’s day! Too bad more people didn’t go in for that sort of philanthropy.”

“Once she had asked Dr. Marshall why professional men were notoriously such poor penmen and he had laughed and told her it was necessary to impress the public just as using long unpronounceable medical terms did.”

“You know what men are. They don’t know what real pain is; that is, most of them don’t. If they had to suffer as we women do they’d be less ornery.”

“It was queer that it so often rained just at twelve and at five when most people were quitting work.”

The cover of this book is certainly a tough act to follow. Though it is a bit of a spoiler—you’ll get to the penultimate chapter before the heat-packing thugs make an entrance—I’m hard-pressed to think of many better. I know Ms. Hancock to be capable of very fine work (see
Graduate Nurse), and while The Nurse is a pretty good book, it’s just not quite that good.

Written in 1954, this book is set more than ten years earlier. The United States has not yet entered World War II, and the men are always debating enlisting in the Army versus waiting to be drafted. (Even our heroine, Susan Trent, discusses enlisting, as “nurses will be needed, you know.”) In the meantime, Susan lives in the family home in the eastern town of Ashton, working at the Whittle Tool and Implement Plant with Dr. Joel Marshall and supporting her family: widowed mother; middle sister Barbara, age 19; and baby brother Dick, age 17, who is reluctantly studying to be a lawyer as his father was. Susan’s salary keeps the family afloat and allows Barbara the luxuries that have turned her into a spoiled brat who hangs out with the wrong crowd. Susan, almost to compensate for her younger sister, “seldom had dates—she wasn’t the type.”

So while sis is partying—and even vomiting in the bathroom at 3 a.m. after a hard night of drinking—Susan has only Dr. Marshall in her life, with whom she has shared nothing but the most professional of relationships, until architect Alan MacDowell comes into her life. He’s working on a plan for housing for the factory workers, but Dr. Marshall doesn’t approve. Could it be that the doctor is a bit jealous? Well, of course he is, and he asks Susan out on a date—the first time he’s ever noticed her—shortly after she starts seeing Alan. She can’t go, as she has a date with Alan that night, but she thinks about how much she cares for him. “He was such a grand person!” Then Susan hears that the doctor is married to a woman who has been in a psychiatric asylum for the last 15 years. So the doctor moves to the back burner—and Alan also has qualities that make him unattractive to Susan, such as his infatuation with the beautiful and charming Barbara when he spends an evening at the Trent home.

Of course, everything sorts out in the end, down to the wayward sister, but overall the plotting is pretty weak. Some things (a worker with an apparent gunshot wound to the shoulder, a man of Austrian descent suspected of bombing the factory, the identity of the person who has been writing threatening letters to Dr. Marshall for years) are never explained, and the wrap-up explanation of why the two gunmen come after Susan and Dr. Marshall is so strange and loose that I still don’t get it. But the plot is not really important; as with Graduate Nurse, the heart of the book is the heroine’s daily life, and this is what makes the story worth reading. Susan visits numerous patients, handles emergencies in the plant, frets about her sister, cooks eggs and bacon with her brother, soothes her nervous mother. It’s an old-fashioned, sweet and simple life, even quaintly socialistic, in which the emphasis is on the community over the individual, where men who take shortcuts on the job wind up with injuries and a guilty conscience for thinking they knew better and trying to buck the system. Here a secretary is a far better person than a socialite, and ambitions of working as a machinist or joining the army are held in higher esteem than going to college.

I find a number of parallels between this book and Ms. Hancock’s real life. As with Graduate Nurse, this story touches sympathetically on psychiatric patients; Ms. Hancock’s oldest sister lived in an institution for most of her life, so perhaps there is a connection there. Ms. Hancock also held various positions at International Harvester throughout most of her career, as she didn’t start publishing books until she was in her late 50s, and this informs the book’s setting in the tool factory. And of her seven siblings, only two married (the oldest of her three brothers); Ms. Hancock lived with three of her sisters all her life, so their home must necessarily have been the center of their lives. The fondness and devotion Ms. Hancock shows for family life—Susan’s eventual fianc√© even agrees to move into their house with them—makes me think that her home must have been very happy indeed.

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