Sunday, June 24, 2012

Small Town Nurse

By Harriet Kathryn Myers, ©1962

When the strain and pressure of huge Memorial Hospital proved too great for Ann Wellington, R.N., she was advised to take a tour of duty in a small, peaceful community. At first sight, Beverly Beach seemed like the right place, but her hope was shattered the moment Ann became nurse with the Bronston family—crippled Emily who lived on broken dreams of the past; cruel Hester, who cursed love and all who loved; and strong, handsome Bruce, the young intern who hated nurses.


“If it had been possible for an old hellion like me to sire a daughter, I would have liked her to look like you, Ann, so that when I came home nights tired, I could just look at you and be refreshed. So when the world’s ugliness became too much for me, I could look at your fresh cleanliness and be recreated.”

“The first thing you should do is relax. A pretty young girl like you should never get so tense. It makes a line between your brows, an indentation.”

“A girl as pretty as you should be helpless. She shouldn’t ever have to do anything for herself—growing up as pretty and clean looking as you is enough for anybody.”

“I thought your dad was riding herd on you these days, dressing you like a young lady.”

Ann Wellington has just completed her training at a large hospital, but finds that her ideals are being mercilessly crushed by the cynicism of the nurses and doctors she works with. She’s worn down and worn out, and she is so lost that she’s considering quitting nursing, before she’s barely even started her career! Then kindly Dr. Sage Millburn—who clearly deserves his given name—calls her to her office to tell her that she is suffering from “medical neurosis,” make her an offer so startling, that “Ann sank back in her chair as if stunned. For a moment the doctor seemed to wheel and skid, changing places with the overstacked book shelves, the windows, the fading sunlight.” Has he suggested she kill herself? Become a prostitute? No! She shouldn’t work in the hospital any more! She should take a job in private duty, working for an old friend of his in Florida who is fighting a fatal illness! It’s a shocking, novel proposal, but tough times call for desperate measures, as after all, “Ann was fighting for her very existance.” Apparently she’s quite a fragile flower, and with a constitution this delicate, it’s a miracle she made it past the first bed pan.

So she quits the hospital, packs up her belongings, and hops a plane for Beverly Beach. She’s so entranced by the palm trees that she tells the cabbie to pull over and walks the rest of the way to the old doctor’s house. “You’ve found your home, Ann,” she tells herself. But when she gets to the doctor’s house, she finds he’s been taken to the hospital and won’t be expected to live much longer, so she doesn’t have a job after all. She heads dejectedly back to the airport, but is in such a daze that she tries to go in the automatic out door, which opens before her and traps her foot underneath it. A handsome porter springs to her rescue, expertly binding her foot, and it’s suddenly like they’ve known each other for years.

But then he starts mouthing off about the type of women he doesn’t like: nurses. “They talk smart. They know more after three years of study than a medic knows after eight.” It turns out he’s an intern at Beverly Memorial Hospital, moonlighting as a porter because “I have this horrible nervous habit—I like to eat.” So it’s a good thing nurses are so horrible, because then he won’t want to date one, and he can keep his money for himself. “So I guess I should be grateful to nurses for being such personal creeps,” he concludes. “They’re all so hard. All of them competing for the unmarried doctors. Some of them even after the married doctors.” Then the penny drops, and he asks Ann if she wants to see him throw himself head first off the air tower for his stupid remarks. Ann tells him, “I’ll just accept your word that you’ll do it.”

Naturally, on the next page, they’re having dinner together—nevermind that he’s supposed to be working, and poor. She unburdens herself about her situation, and guess what? He’s got a sickly cousin, Emily, who is between nurses! Emily is a poor little thing—well, actually, an insanely rich little thing—who fell in love with a boy at the age of 17. When her father found out about it, he had the boy beaten within an inch of his life and run out of town. Emily was so upset about this that she drove her car off the road, and now she is paralyzed and in constant pain. Her “caretaker”—and we use the word loosely for the nasty shrew auditioning for Bette Davis’ role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—is cousin Hester, who raised Bruce from the day his parents were killed when he was a young boy. She excoriates him with helpful suggestions like how he’s going to turn into a drunk like his father and how he can’t decide on a specialy because he’s afraid. She tears up checks Emily writes for him and keeps Emily locked away in a room with windows that don’t open. She’s a psychotic piece of work, and almost an interesting character, but she has no real power at all to make her interesting; the curiosity of this book is why everyone lets this horrible woman, who is completely dependent on Emily for a home and financial support, continue in her reign of terror for so long.

So when Ann moves in, suddenly things start to change. Ann opens the windows, insists on giving Emily pain medication when she has a seizure, and has a wooden walkway built down to the ocean so Emily look at the waves and wonder where her sailor boyfriend is today. Hester is looking more and more like she’s swallowed a box of tacks, but for the first time no one pays her any mind. We find Bruce and Ann walking on the beach together one day, and we learn that they are all but engaged. It’s a new twist in VNRNs to play what is usually the climactic scene offstage, and halfway through the book to boot. I have to say it doesn’t work too well, but I guess you have to give Ms. Myers some props for trying something new.

Without a couple to affiance, the story turns elsewhere for something to do, so it has sad, lost Emily, who seemed to be just starting to wake up to the possibilities of a better life, die of an overdose of her narcotic pain medication. Naturally Hester starts screaming that it’s Ann who is responsible, and there’s a trial, and it comes out that Ann was sent to Beverly Beach because she’s got this “medical neurosis” thing, which means she’s just a butterfly net away from the loony bin, so let’s burn the witch!

There is no justice in this book. Ann gets off, of course, and Emily has left her a tidy sum due to the fact that Bruce had told Emily that he was going to marry Ann. Bruce also gets a huge chunk to underwrite his fancy new clinic. But Hester—who had buried Emily’s suicide note and been Ann’s chief accusor—gets a large amount of money as well, and the house by the beach to live in, when it seems to me that criminal charges ought to be filed. The other oddity of this book is that it reads something like a sermon, as about every few pages the characters are getting all shiny-faced and beatific, fervently, and seriously, thanking God for getting Ann’s foot stuck under that airport door so she was able to meet Bruce, who prays, “This is what God in His goodness must have had in mind for me all along!” (For her fire-and-brimstone part, Hester uses God to explain why she withholds Emily’s pain medication, because in crashing her car, Emily broke her father’s heart, and “God’s making her pay for it with a life of pain.”)

This book has a few small surprises, like the star witness who upends Hester’s case against Ann, and the whereabouts of Emily’s long-lost boyfriend. It is stunning how truly cruel Hester is, but there’s no thrill in it; I keep thinking of how fabulous and exciting Florence Stonebraker’s baddies are, and how so very far apart they are from Hester. Maybe because her victim is truly helpless, or because there is absolutely no reason why Hester is allowed to be in a position to torture poor Emily, Hester is just disturbing. But this book does not give you satisfaction in any of its plot lines, so it’s best you just leave this one on the shelf.