Thursday, November 24, 2011

Visiting Nurse

By Margaret Howe, ©1954
Cover illustration by Darrell Green

Alice Gregory had wanted to be a nurse from the time she had been a child. Now her dream had come true in a very special way—she was a visiting nurse to the blind. Each day Alice learned a new lesson in courage from her patients. Only one, Leila Haley, seemed at the brink of despair. The girl had beauty and a magnetic attraction for me. But the loss of her sight had made her sullen and resentful. It was Alice Gregory’s task to restore Leila’s desire for life. Then the terrible moment came when Alice discovered the truth. She and Leila were not only nurse and patient—they were two girls who desperately loved the same man. Could Alice Gregory remain true to her sworn oath to help her patients in every way? Or should she fight for her own chance for happiness?


“I hope I won’t have to wear glasses. My boyfriend wouldn’t like that.”

“Today a doctor is judged more by his bedside manner and his golf score than by his skill with a scalpel.”

“Women have just one idea—how to spend money.”

“It’s easy to stumble into a mistake, but hard to have the courage to face about and acknowledge it.”

“Men aren’t like women, Alice. They got a need to have someone help them in spite of their belief that they’re strong and self-sufficient.”

“It takes more than love to make a successful marriage.”

VNRNs written in the 1950s or earlier have, most of them, a charming, quiet way about them. Maybe it’s the simple life they describe, where the focus is on the community and family more than the individual, a world a little more removed from our modern life. Milk still arrives daily in a truck, phones and television are not ubiquitous, people go home for lunch. I’m not saying all that is a good thing; certainly people’s lives are far more circumscribed and narrow than they are in VNRNs just a decade younger. But it’s certainly enjoyable to look in the window on the gentle glow for a little bit.

Visiting Nurse is one such book. Alice Gregory is a nurse for the blind living in Hastings, Ohio. She’s kind of a plain gal, but she’s managed to hook Bart Hanson, a flashy dresser with a flashier social life. Bart’s uncle, Dr. Norman Evans, has been “almost a father to her and it was through his influence and assistance that she received her nurse’s training.” As it happens, Dr. Evans went blind two years ago, so Alice’s choice of specialization is paying off for him now, as she drops by his house every morning to see him as both a friend and a patient. Dr. Evans is, of course, thrilled about the engagement between Alice and Bart. “It will be a good thing for Bart when you two get married,” the doctor tells Alice. “What he needs is a wife and children to keep him steady.”

But from the book’s opening chapter, we see that as much as Alice would love a closer tie to Dr. Evans, and looks forward to living in his house when she and Bart are married, the idea of actually being married to Bart, who is so different from her, makes her uneasy. This perhaps stems from Bart’s disgust with Alice’s career and his insistence that she quit working once they are married. “The girls I know don’t get flat feet pounding around trying to help folks. Get wise, baby,” he sneers. But Alice loves her work, so she keeps postponing the wedding.

In the meantime, Alice is caring for Leila Haley, a trashy young waitress who has suddenly gone blind and mopes around her house in a dirty housecoat instead of learning the skills she will need to get by. Alice hopes that Leila’s boyfriend, whom Leila has not told of her condition or even seen since she became blind, will rally around and support her when he finds out. But Leila will not tell Alice who he is, so she gets Bart to take her to the seedy joint where Leila worked to see what she can find out. Bart is behaving strangely when they arrive, and when Alice finally tells Bart the name of her patient, “For a full minute, Bart stood stock-still. Then he hurried her toward the car. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said roughly.” Hmmmm. What could that possibly be about? Shortly afterward, Leila names Bart as the man, ending our suspense. Bart, of course, says he never met Leila, and if he did, he wouldn’t marry her. “When a man thinks of marriage, he doesn’t pick his wife from that type, believe me,” he tells her, and even if it were true, he would never see her again because “I never could stand handicapped people.” Alice is strangely not reassured by this and breaks off their engagement.

Enter Dr. Ben Harrington. He “would never give the women heart palpitations,” but he’s a brilliant new doctor at Hastings Memorial Hospital, and he shares some of Alice’s patients. (One of them, a blind woman with a blind husband, is pregnant, which is controversial in town: “There’s been some question about their right to have a child,” the doctor tells Alice.) Ben asks Alice out, and when he smiles, “Alice forgot that he was homely.” But he’s decided, like all the other young MDs, that he can’t get married until he can support a wife, so he won’t talk marriage, or even love, to Alice, who currently earns more than he does. “If you would only realize that together we could share something wonderful, and not allow stupid pride to keep you from telling me what I can see in your eyes every time you look at me,” she thinks. “But what can I do about it? Nothing.” So she never even broaches the subject of their feelings for each other, let alone their getting married. Instead she just wails about his fickleness on every other page.

Speaking of fickle, Bart has refused to have anything to do with Leila, and out of the blue marries an actress from Manhattan. This deters Leila not in the least, who tells Alice that she is still interested in Bart despite the fact that he now wears a ring on his left hand. “He isn’t the type of man to make any girl happy,” Alice says to Leila. “Who said anything about happiness?” Leila answers. “That’s the trouble with girls like you. You think too much about happiness and not enough about getting your man. I lost mine, but I’ll find a way to get him back.” Alice is shocked!!! But Leila’s attitude gives her pause: “Girls like Leila might be cheap in their ideas and crude in their approach to love, but at least when they wanted something they went after it.” Unlike some people …

In the final pages, Alice finally takes a cue from Leila and puts her cards on Ben’s kitchen table. It’s one of the more rewarding endings to a VNRN I’ve come across, because the heroine of the book actually evolves and becomes a stronger person. The book has other fine points: The writing is fairly smart, with occasional witticisms sprinkled throughout, and the characters—the trashy moll; the impetuous cad; the plain, hardworking country doctor—are so well-drawn and quintessential of the time period that it’s a pleasure to follow them. And the atmosphere of the book is gentle and warm, like a grandmother: She might be more than a little behind the times, but she’s wonderful to spend an afternoon with.

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