Monday, July 2, 2012

Roxanne, Company Nurse

By Zillah K. Macdonald with Josie Johnson, ©1957
Cover illustration by Harry Bennett

When pretty young Roxanne McRae gave up a glamorous post in a large New York hospital to become Assistant Nurse at the Hudson Sugar Refinery—a job with broad responsibility for the welfare of a big company—she did not realized she would be plunged into—
Danger—the hazards of a huge plant where safety measures are few and injuries many and terrible …
Romance—with Anthony Polk, young general manager—handsome, charming, and sometimes infuriating …
Intrigue—when the accident rate at the plant rises suddenly, Roxanne decides to play detective and finds herself caught in a mysterious and frightening situation


“Putting on a cast was surely indicated. And that meant teamwork of the finest kind with the attending surgeon.”

“Men patients always thought they were dying.”

“These new-in-America patients are just children. They can’t wait to rip the bandages off and show the wound, and every dirty finger in the neighborhood starts pawing over it. The idea of asepsis is nil. Never been taught.”

Roxanne, Company Nurse purports to be something of a mystery. The mystery is what the authors were thinking, or if they were thinking at all, when they penned this throwaway. At the book’s opening, Roxanne McCrae is a float nurse at St. Agatha’s hospital in upstate New York, and has just gotten stuck working her third weekend in a row. But then a new patient who works at the nearby sugar refinery is brought in. He’s left his watch on a windowsill at the plant, and asks Roxanne to go and get it for him. So off she trots to retrieve it, and in short order she’s been offered a job there and is working the day shift—no weekends!

Almost at once, as we are alerted by the back cover blurb (above), Roxanne is plunged into a frightening situation … she’s in a basement room of the factory when the lights go out. She hears a swishing sound, and a voice cries, “Let me out!” She panics, flails around, and then, when the lights come back on, runs into Anthony Polk, the company owner’s son. He shows her the way out, and that’s the end of that.

Except it’s not: The book keeps wondering about this scene: what was the swishing sound, who cried out, who turned out the lights and why? Eventually we learn it was a parrot who was speaking, but whose parrot? Then, when we discover (I am sorry to say) several talking parrots, which one is the guilty parrot? Why was it there? Did it drop the cigarette butt that Roxanne found on the cellar floor? Around and around, until you’d just like to bash that bloody parrot’s head in for involving you in this endless navel-gazing.

Would that were the only mystery in play here. Why is the accident rate going up at the plant? Why do most accidents happen at 11 a.m., when Anthony Polk makes his tour of the plant? Why are all the workers thinking they’ll lose their jobs if they come to the infirmary with their bleeding gashes? What does the factory reporter know? Why does the injured worker with the lost watch think something is wrong at the factory? Why is there a rumor going around the plant about “trouble in the Medical Division,” and why is the ten-year-old boy who hangs around the plant referring to her as the “bandit nurse”? (I wanted to know what a fourth grader is doing at a sugar factory, but that is one mystery the book left unscathed.) Even though I just finished reading this book, I can honestly say I don’t know the answer to a single one of these questions.

Roxanne is rather annoying. Early on she spends a chapter worrying that she’s lost the friendship of Mary, the nurse she works with at the infirmary, though I could see no reason whatsoever why Mary would be angry with her, unless all the obsessing was getting on her nerves as much as it was on mine. Roxanne is infuriatingly insecure, endlessly fretting about her abilities. “She herself had a sense of inefficiency and failure. What would she do if Mary and Dr. Nealley decided she had not the brains for the job?” When she’s the only medical staff on duty, she has “a curiously helpless feeling. She was quite alone. The idea that a doctor was not within call worried her.” She’s called to handle an accident on the factory floor, and “for an instant Roxanne’s knees went weak.” She is a far cry from the typical nurse heroine, who is a spunky, confident woman who will do the appendectomy herself if the doctor doesn’t pull himself together, stat!

Another of Roxanne’s irritating habits is that she endlessly poses a paragraph’s worth of never-to-be-answered questions: “Did he really know? Or was he just being kind? Had he guessed her secret?” “What did he mean? Was he just another who did not like Anthony Polk? Did they, too, resent his impulsiveness? And suffer from it? And then she remembered the call from the foreman. What was his name?” If it’s not question marks we’re being inundated with, it’s exclamation points: “Her job was here! Grandmother could drive! She must take that chance!” I expect the plethora of punctuation is meant to engender some sort of emotion in the reader, but all it induced in me was exasperation.

Then there’s her final mystery: What is up with her abrupt, inexplicable, baseless obsession with Anthony Polk, who apart from popping up in the dark room, has had little contact with her at all? Particularly since, at the beginning of the book, she finds him irritating? “If they could just sit beside Grandmother’s fire once more, she might be able to warn him. She might even try to win his affection. She was ashamed to have to own up, even to herself, that she wanted to. Nothing else in life now seemed to matter.” Seriously?

In the end, we discover that someone is trying to drive Anthony out of the factory, and the climactic scene plays a bit like that in The Nurse. Except the bad guy in this case has no gun, and when he tells Roxanne to hand over the incriminating evidence or he’ll have her fired, she actually considers giving it to him (never mind that if she exposes the plot, he’s the one who will be fired, if he doesn’t actually do time): “Her knees went weak. She reflected that his criticism might even prevent her from getting an executive position in any nursing field. He had it in his power, perhaps, to ruin her career! Temptation assailed her. Why should she jeopardize her career to right a wrong that was past, over, and done with?” She’s about to surrender when she realizes that his plot has jeopardized the health of the factory workers, and that the fundamental job of a nurse is to preserve health! So she drops the evidence into a locked drawer, and the bad guy turns and leaves. Wow, my knees are as weak as Roxanne’s after that frightening situation. How about you?

I desperately wanted to like this book, based entirely upon Harry Bennett’s fabulous cover illustration and the fact that it was originally titled Roxanne, Industrial Nurse, which rated pretty high on my camp-o-meter. But there is really nothing to appreciate inside this overlong, annoying book. Just enjoy the cover and move on to something else.

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