Sunday, December 2, 2012

Big Town Nurse

By Patti Stone, ©1965
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

Beth Patton, R.N. left her small-town home for an exciting year in a city medical center—a year which was to shape the course of her entire career. The patients, the surgery, the tense excitement of “big time” medicine, thrilled the young nurse. But before long, Beth was in trouble. First, she disobeyed orders and was lucky not to be fired. Second, two handsome young doctors were romantically interested in her—and Beth knew that a wrong choice would be a disaster to her as a woman and a nurse.


“Her curves do something even for the most shapeless of white uniforms—not that her uniforms are every shapeless.”

“I always did like Georgia peaches—especially blond, cuddly ones.”

“I’ll wait while you put your face on or whatever girls do to look glamorous and efficient at the same time.”

“Keep up the good work, Florence Nightingale. You look real cute and earnest winding a gauze bandage.”

“What a bonbon of a girl you are.”

“Why, what a pretty little thing you are. I would never have guessed you were a nurse.”

“We don’t want a long engagement, but we’ve got to have some time to get to really know each other.”

Beth Patton has been booted from her small-town home in Hooperville, Texas, by her grandfather, and sent to work at the Mallory Medical Center in Houston. (But Houston is not exactly a big town, as billed in the book’s title. Just pointing that out.) They are both of a type: She is yet another orphan nurse, and Grampy is the classic country general practitioner. She won’t be alone there, though, because there’s another stereotypical VNRN character to keep her company: The slightly older boy-next-door, Pete Verbeck, has become a doctor and is interning there, and his twin sister Paula is a lab tech. The pair welcome Beth with open arms: Paula asks Beth to move into her apartment with her and her roommate, nurse Donna Brook, and Pete swoons: “You know, you’re the only girl in the world whose freckles look like gold dust.”

Beth is just irritated by his poetic flattery, partly because she feels he is too frivolous as a doctor. When a bus crashes and the victims are brought in to the ED where Beth is working, Pete breezes in and flirts with one patient: “Have no fear. Dr. Pete’s here.” Beth is infuriated, but “to her surprise the girl looked as if she would have even giggled if she could”—if she hadn’t broken her jaw, poor thing. Pete works tirelessly as a doctor, “but he handled everything so lightly—as if it were a game. ‘Is that all being a doctor means to him,’ Beth wondered. ‘A game—like swimming or golf—something he simply enjoys because he can do it well?’ ”

Instead she is attracted to Dr. Wayne Bega, the grumpy surgical resident. She can’t help but be impressed by him when she hears him animatedly discussing an appendectomy in the cafeteria. “Ruefully she contrasted his dedication with Pete’s breezy manner. ‘Dr. Bega is just what a doctor should be,’ she thought.” But Pete calls her on this: “You’ve been so darned sheltered. It’s made you just a trifle trite, my honey. You put everybody in little boxes. ‘To be dedicated a doctor has to be serious.’ It’s a black and white rule-book world you live in Beth—but it’s no more realistic than a Victorian novel.” But she is unswerving in her devotion to Dr. Bega, and invites him to come home with her for Christmas when he has nowhere else to go.

Raised in a grim, poverty-stricken mining town, Wayne has scrabbled his way into his career, because as God is his witness, he’ll never be hungry again. “To me there’s nothing good about poverty. It’s only degrading,” he tells her, adding that he hardly ever speaks to his brothers, both poor, because they seem contented with their lot. This rubs Beth the wrong way, because she’s lived and worked among poor farmers and fisherman, and knows the dignity of poverty. Pete’s family, on the other hand, is extremely wealthy, and his father runs the Seaview Sanatorium for the well-to-do back in Hooperville, where wealthy women go to recover from their nervous breakdowns and wealthy men from their alcoholic binges. Pete’s got a job alongside his father waiting for him when he finishes his residency in a few months, and this, too, rankles Beth, that he would take such a degrading job.

But Christmas vacation holds a few surprises. Grampy, for starters, thinks Wayne is an egotistical upstart, and Wayne thinks Grampy—Grampy!—is hopelessly old-fashioned. Then Wayne injures his back waterskiing and is ensconced at the Verbeck sanatorium. The ubiquitous epidemic strikes, and Beth and Pete are back in the harness, working themselves to the bone at Grampy’s little clinic. Grampy takes up Pete as his right hand, and Beth begins to afford Pete some very grudging respect. When Pete suddenly becomes mopey and glum after they return to Houston, Beth is suddenly playing the hypocrite: “How many times had she wanted him to be serious and dignified—now that he was—she missed the old Pete more than she had thought possible.” The solemn Pete unburdens himself one evening to Beth: He’s turning down the job at his father’s clinic and is going to work alongside Grampy as a GP. Oh, and will Beth marry him? He’s “one of the best friends she had,” but she can’t imagine marrying him, even if any VNRN reader past puberty can see where this book is headed. And when Wayne proposes four pages later, after a rant about how foolish Pete is to turn down the Seaview job, Beth can’t help but accept. She’s “too dazed to question” when Wayne tells her that “my wife won’t work” and that he can’t wait to buy her a ring because “I want everybody in the world to see that Beth Patton belongs to me.” She has evolved, but only somewhat: “A strange shadow crossed Beth’s mind. No one should belong to anybody else, like a piece of property. But of course, a man in love says things like that. ‘Your wish is my command,’ she whispered.” Well, for now, anyway.

The signs that this match is doomed come fast and furious. A few days later, Wayne tells Beth that he has resigned his residency and taken the Seaview job that Pete turned down, giving up his dream of being a surgeon. Beth is horrified. “You’ll be a—handyman for neurotics and alcoholics and rich women. All your talent will be wasted,” she tells him, but he just talks about all the great stuff he’ll be able to buy with his enormous paycheck. Then when Beth tells Grampy that she’s going to marry Wayne, Grampy freaks out: “You’re a girl raised in the tradition of service. As his wife, your skill and your mind will wilt. I’ll never approve of this marriage—never.” Beth still refuses to see the light, and over the ensuing weeks attempts to persuade Wayne to go back to surgery, but these conversations always end up in “slashing quarrels.” Weeping on the couch one evening, Beth is found by Pete, who gently asks her, “Are you really in love with Wayne—or are you in love with the dream of a dedicated surgeon?” Beth vows she will never confide in Pete again—“That was certain!”

Then Beth and Pete, working the ambulance shift together one day, go to a Mexican tenement to deliver a baby when a gas oven explodes and Beth is trapped by the fire. Rescued by Pete, and wrapped in bandages back at Mallory, Beth realizes who she really loves. When Wayne comes to see her, he tells her that he’s asked for his surgical residency back and will be returning to Mallory in a few weeks. Too late, Wayne is crushed when Beth tells him she’s leaving him for Pete, but Beth consoles herself that “he had found himself able to face things honestly at last. His return to Mallory proved that. And she was sure when the first blow to his ego eased, he would find challenge and comfort in surgery that would make him forget her, even quicker than he thought he would.” She’s probably right, but it still sounds a bit pat.

Overall, this is a very good book. There are enough campy lines from Pete and Donna to liven it up, and the characters are not as facile as I usually encounter in a VNRN. It may well take the prize for packing in the most stereotypical characters and situations of any nurse novel I’ve read, but that doesn’t bother me when the book makes good use of them—the plots of Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice might seem hackneyed, too. Patti Stone recycles plot devices we’ve encountered in her past novels, and stuffs the book with more than 50 named characters, but its worst flaw may well be the inexplicable way Beth turns to Pete after the fire. Nonetheless, these problems are forgivable when the book is as readable, entertaining, and engaging as Big Town Nurse.

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