Sunday, March 24, 2013

Candy Frost, Emergency Nurse

By Ethel Hamill,
pseud. Jean Francis Webb III, ©1952
Attractive, red-haired, green-eyed Candy Frost had set an almost impossible task for herself. Her prescription was to work hard at her mountain nursing post … and never to love again. That was surely the antidote to the deep wound left by Bruce three months before, when she had given up her nursing to marry him and he had jilted her in a strange city.
“Frost, dear, was that a dreamy quiver to your mouth, just then?”
“I’m just a hard-bitten old maid with a face like a mud fence, so what would I know about romance?”
“You look cuter than ever in that silly cap.”
“To prove to herself how sensible she was, Candy sat primly on the edge of her chair and chewed each mouthful of whatever it was she was eating the prescribed number of times.”
“We’ll have a proper date and I’ll behave like a saint in Levi’s and won’t mention loving you once.”
“You’re talking like a half-baked Florence Nightingale. I could set those lines to music.”
Candy (and if this nickname is not unfortunate enough, it’s actually a contraction of her given name, Candida, which is, of course, a genus of yeasts) is not an emergency nurse, really. She is a rural nurse, and as such attends to any health issues at the log-cabin clinic, including emergencies. This means she will, at a moment’s notice, slip out of her nylon dress and into riding breeches, toss her emergency kit over her shoulder, and gallop to the scene on her black mare Rocket, the roads being too undependable for vehicular traffic. She had been working at the clinic for a while when she tumbled for an artist who had set up a studio on the mountain, and had left with him for the big city to marry. But as they had checked in to their hotel, a long-lost flame of Bruce’s crossed the lobby, and when Candy went upstairs to change into her wedding garb, he went out the front door with his ex, leaving her with a dear-Candy letter (and apparently the bill).
Now she is returning to her mountain home in disgrace, but en route experiences an emergency of her own when the bus she is riding on goes off the road and rolls into a ditch. Candy is not injured, probably because the handsome young man sitting next to her flings his strong arms around her to protect her from harm. That’s all it takes for Skip Amherst to fall madly in love with Candy. “Something went zzzing! inside you, just as it did with me,” says the romantic poet. But she’s vowed never to love again, so she tells Skip in no uncertain terms that she wants nothing to do with him. “It’s bad manners to turn down a proposal before the fellow makes it,” he answers. “Gives a sort of impression of overconfidence.”
Meanwhile, there’s a group of resident terrorists that goes around beating the locals and burning down their houses if they try to interfere with the lucrative moonshine business. They are called—and resist the urge to scream—the Pillow Heads, because they wear pillowcases when they’re out for their nightly jaunts. Who could they be, and how can they be stopped? The upside is that they do give the clinic a lot of business, and reason for Candy to go galloping around the mountain on horseback rescue missions, since the clinic doctor, Blanche Thomas, is apparently unfit for the saddle.
When she’s not out and about, Candy takes steps to protect herself from Skip. She has Dr. Blanche write into her contract that she will forfeit a year’s pay if she marries within a year. That will keep her safe! Though why anyone would want to get married less than a year after meeting a new man is a bit of a puzzle to me, and I’m also not certain how a contractual clause against marrying keeps one safe from hot men—you don’t have to buy the cow, after all. Skip is not really convinced, either. “No scrap of paper can keep us apart, Candy, darling,” he tells her. “The only paper that has any real bearing on your future is the wedding license we’re going to take out together.” And he says that she’s overconfident.
Skip has been taken in by the Orr family, whose own son, Ad, drowned in a flash flood that he should have known better than to be caught in. The Orrs have also boarded the new schoolmarm, Lulu Mae, who is a tarty thing with an eye for Skip. Soon gossip is going around town that Skip and Lulu Mae are an item, and Candy finds that she is jealous! She spies on Skip at a dance that she has refused to attend with him and sees him kiss Lulu Mae, and then Mrs. Orr reluctantly tells Candy that she heard him talking to Lulu Mae, saying he’d picked her up on the bus, and that “a girl that’s been tagged with a scandal like that ought to be easy to get.” Now she’s jealous and mad! And when Candy’s old beau, Wayne, proposes, she naturally accepts. So much for that contract.
Candy and Wayne make plans to meet in town to get married, but Skip gets wind of it and kidnaps Candy, literally carrying her off “with a contemptuous ease which suggested he was hefting a not very valuable sack of feathers” when he catches up with her waiting for the bus to town, and I’m impressed at how this sentence implies the sexiness not only of being physically assaulted, but simultaneously of Candy’s dainty physique. And Skip is only getting warmed up. He tells her, “I ought to take you over my knee and spank you right here and now,” before driving her off to a deserted cabin in the woods. “Do you remember saying I couldn’t make you do what I wanted you to do? Rash remark!” he says. When she says she knows that he is carrying on with Lulu Mae, he denies it, but says, “What of it? You’d still be mine—and only mine. And I wouldn’t kiss you again if you came crawling across this room to me on your knees. And you might do exactly that, you know.” His prediction is close to right—when he storms toward her, looking as if he’s going to beat her, she collapses in tears into his arms, but he “flung her from him” and crashes out of the cabin, guarding the door to keep her from escaping until the bus has gone. Candy “settled down on the hard bench to wait. He was master here.” It’s a monstrous scene in so many ways, rendering Skip completely detestable. But that’s never bothered a VNRN heroine before, and it certainly doesn’t slow Candy’s pulse, either.
After this, all the back stories fall into place. There’s a complex scheme that, when brought into the open, explains Skip’s kissing Lulu Mae, the remark Mrs. Orr overheard and relayed to Candy, who the Pillow Heads are, Ad Orr’s untimely death, and the Pillow Heads’ raid on the Orr farm. All this might leave you gasping for air, but Jean Webb has a real flair for plotting, so the entire story seems completely plausible, and it’s also unfolded in such a way as to be not indigestible. Furthermore, his writing is still among the genre’s best. We get tasty morsels like, “The hinged door flattened with a faint pneumanic gasp,” and, “The late moon still swam above them, but her reign was ending.” I am a devoted fan of Mr. Webb’s, who has garnered an A- average in the three other books of his that I have read so far (Aloha Nurse, A Nurse Comes Home, and A Nurse for Galleon Key). Unfortunately, Candy Frost, Emergency Nurse does not meet the standards set by the others: It is short on camp, the hero is utterly despicable, and the heroine is a bit of a moron. Even if Skip had been a stand-up guy, this book doesn’t have much else to recommend it. So while anything Jean Webb writes is worth reading, Candy is not his most delicious.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Doctors

By Clara Dormandy ©1959
Cover illustration by Edrien King
Now, at last, the dream was a reality. They were doctors! Throughout their training, these three young women had been inseparable, but the knowledge of eventual separation had always been with them. For Anne Clive, Fleur’s leaving for her far-off home was a wrench, but the great hurt came with Susie’s surprise engagement to George Wyndham, brilliant surgeon and teacher. Not only did Anne fear that George Wyndham would do little to encourage his wife in her chosen career, but there was the inescapable fact that Anne herself was in love with the handsome Dr. Wyndham!
“You prepare yourself for a party as if—as if you were applying some complicated surgical dressing.”

“He’s not bad for a biochemist.”
“You must never be afraid of disagreements even if you feel that you might be wrong. It’s your only chance of finding out.”
“Who ever heard of anyone expecting a marriage to be exciting?”
“It must be horrible having a self-supporting wife.”
“Men clear out the moment they discover that a girl has a mind of her own. They seem to have some sort of vague idea that if a girl has intellect she can have no feelings.”
“There are rights which it is difficult to carry through and wrongs which seem easy, but every person must decide for himself which he chooses.”
Both the book’s title and back cover blurb (see above, in italics) lead the reader somewhat astray. While the outside cover leads you to think the story is going to be about three young women (the illustration might even make you think it’s about a male and female doctor), in truth it’s almost all about Anne Clive, who as the book opens has just graduated from medical school with her two roommates, Fleur Tallien and Susie Martin. Fleur, a scholarship student from South Africa, is discouraged by Susie’s brother David’s lack of attention to her and so promptly debarks for her home country, and we hear nothing of her again until the last few pages of the book. Susie shows up at the graduation party her wealthy parents are throwing for her and announces that she is marrying one of her instructors, Dr. George Wyndham, which comes as a complete shock to her two best friends. “He’s not a complete Philistine, you know,” Susie gushes to Anne after the party. “I told him that I liked French painting, so when I went to see him at St. Agnes’s he talked about impressionism and the romantic movement all through two hernia operations and one gastrectomy. And as he was cutting open the specimen after the operation, he suddenly turned to me and asked if I would marry him.” She couldn’t possibly have turned him down after such a romantic proposal.
Susie’s engagement, far from broadening her horizons, sharply curtails them. Her family is affronted by her abrupt decision to marry, and she’s dropped by her old medical school friends, who are busy planning their careers as she worries about flower arrangements and bridesmaid’s gowns. Even her good friend Anne is avoiding Susie, partly for throwing away her career and partly for living up to the stereotype: “People talked such a lot about women in medicine—saying that they kept men out of hospital jobs, and how their education was wasted because in the end they got married anyway and settled down to family life. Those who called themselves more ‘broadminded’ admitted that medicine was all right for a certain kind of woman­—the masculine type, the hard and resolute type, or the studious type like Anne, but for such delightful young things as Susie Martin, it was a waste of their own and everybody else’s time.”
To give Susie partial credit, she does have a conversation with George, asking him if he will “let” her, or at least give her his “moral support” as she tries to find a job after their honeymoon. But, he tells her, “It would be impossible for you to organize your time according to my time-table.” Susie answers, “Has it never occurred to you that I don’t like ‘organizing’ my time according to anybody’s time-table?” So George trots out the old saw: “I should like to have you all to myself, Susie,” he tells her, as if she were a toy boat or a cookie jar. “I want my wife to remain always the pure happiness and joy of my life. You see, Susie, my great love for you makes me selfish.” This seems to settle the matter; Susie says no more of it and soon has two young children and what appears to be a serious case of post-partum depression.
But I’ve skipped ahead: Back to Anne, who lands the plum job as assistant to Dr. Wallis that everyone had expected to go to Susie, so her auspicious career is nicely underway. She decides to go to Vienna on vacation, and while there is introduced to a virtuoso violinist, Kristof Bardy. The man is a cad and a fop—he has named his walking stick Polyder, and “he considered modesty merely the art of letting other people find out for themselves how good he was”—but she enjoys their evening together.
Then it’s two years later, and Anne has won a major medical prize for her research on “blue babies.” She still sees Kristof from time to time; when he’s in town for a concert he sends her tickets to his performances and then takes her out to dinner. She asks him why he likes her, when he has so many beautiful women chasing him. “Adulation is boring,” he says, and the next day he is off to Barcelona. In thinking things over, Anne wonders if, of the three friends, “her life had not turned out to be the happiest of the three. There might be something missing—but was it worth all the sacrifice and heart-burning that seemed to accompany it?” Oh, we come to the age-old question: Is a life without love worth living? But don’t you worry about Anne. Because George is now working alongside Anne at the hospital, and late one evening he takes her in his arms and kisses her—and then Anne realizes that her resentment of Susie’s marriage was due to the nauseating fact that she’d been in love with George all the time and just hadn’t realized it!
And then it’s four more years under the bridge, and Fleur has married David after all and they have a daughter, and she is in London visiting her old friends. George is so much more “lighthearted” than he ever was, Susie tells Fleur, and this has improved her own happiness, but Fleur realizes that “something had gone out of Susie.” Anne has been offered a two-year research post in a California university, but isn’t sure she wants to take it—she’s still involved with George, who is trying to persuade Anne that he should divorce Susie and marry her, but she won’t have it. She has another date with Kristof, who has a “brilliant” idea: He is about to go to South America for an 18-month tour, so she should go to California and they should get married! “We wouldn’t have to make sacrifices,” he explains. “We would each follow our own particular course right from the beginning. I think it would be a glorious idea, an excellent marriage. Just imagine two people not constantly falling over each other.” Anne rejects this notion, curiously.
She goes to see Susie, whom she has ignored since Susie’s marriage, to tell her—and George, now arrived home—that she’s decided to go to California. As Susie is out of the room ringing for tea, Anne tells George, “We would never be able to persuade ourselves that it was the right thing we had done.” After she’s gone, George turns to Susie and suggests that she go back to work—thinking, but not telling her, that this is like Anne’s earlier suggestion to Susie’s bored daughter that she take up stamp collecting so as to have something to keep her mind busy. “I can’t think how I could have gone on living as I have these past several years,” she answers, full of relief and unspoken reproach for George, who kept her out of her profession for so long only to give it back to her after all these unhappy years. “And if there was a note of sadness in his voice, she was too happy to notice it.” He tells her that he came home early to tell her this idea of his—but I can’t help wondering if he’d really come home to tell her of him and Anne, and that Anne’s ending of the relationship put him off that track.
At home that night, Anne calls Kristof, and he immediately decides that she has changed her mind about marrying him. “She kept silent, knowing that this silence would affect her future,” and then says yes. “After Anne put down the receiver, she stood as if paralyzed, gazing at the thing. Then very slowly she lifted her shoulders. It was almost a shrug, and something that was almost a smile came into her eyes. Who knows? Perhaps the fates did not intend man to shape his own destiny according to his coolly balanced intellect.”
So what are we to make of this? Fleur has the man she always wanted, but she is the most minor character of the three and goes back to Europe after reappearing for a few pages at the end with her beautiful baby. Susie has got her self-respect and her career back, though her husband is a deceitful, condescending ass. Anne, easily the most successful career-wise, has had a lengthy affair with a married man and then decided, almost on a whim, to marry a silly peacock whom she is scarcely going to see for the next two years. I can’t see this working out very well, for some odd reason. But there it is.
This book is not at all a conventional VNRN, between the jumps through time, the two or three lead heroines, and the unconventional marriage at the end. If Anne’s motives and ultimate fate are not very clear at the end—has she decided that marriage even to a fool is better than remaining single?—it’s a thoughtful, interesting, and quiet story, and well worth reading.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Emergency Nurse

By Anne Lorraine, ©1955
Cover illustration by Jack Harman

Love and a career, ambition and security, often pull in different directions, and it is not easy for the young to sort out their claims. It was particularly difficult for Nurse Gina Delham, haunted as she was by the thought of her parents’ unhappy marriage. How was she to choose between the different paths set before her?
“Nothing is more infectious than highly strung nerves, you know, and I want you to be a rock to your patients, not a nettle. Let them rest on you, rely upon you—and take good care they never get stung, either by your tongue or your brisk efficiency!”
“She’s a woman. Surely you can’t expect her to view mangled bodies with no more emotion than she would inspect a squashed insect? All women are highly strung, emotional is the word you use, I think.”
“Bless you, Gina. You’ve given me something to look forward to at last. Life has been pretty ghastly all round. But on Wednesday at seven-thirty life will begin again in all its old glory! We’ll have fun, my sweet—I’ll bring the chariot to the hospital gates, and mind you have shoes that fit well, for you won’t be home by midnight, and we don’t want any glass slippers left on the highway!”
Gina Delham is our eponymous nurse working in the English version of the ED, the Casualty Department, which is headed by the aloof Dr. Simon Brayford. She’s been told by the Matron early on that she’s not a career nurse: “Like most girls, if the offer of marriage came along, and was sufficiently tempting, you would have no more hesitation in throwing over this work than a child offered a cream bun would hesitate to throw away a slice of bread and butter.” Gina wants desperately to be serious about her career, but she’s afraid that the Matron is right. Her heart throbs for Simon Brayford, but it’s a lost cause—or so she thinks—because “nurses are, to him, just so much necessary hospital equipment, about as absorbing as a jar of swabs, and not nearly as useful!”
But in spite of her professed admiration for the doctor, she can’t possibly tumble for him because he’s poor and driven and hopelessly devoted to his work, and her parents—you guessed it, killed in a car accident when she was younger—had been driven to hate each other, and the children that bound them together, by the deep poverty they could never escape. So she’s going to marry a rich man, like this here patient, Garrick Peters, who will lift her and her two younger siblings into the good life. Garrick, recovering from a serious car accident and instantly smitten with Gina, seems ready to oblige—a dozen roses with an unsigned card arrive at her door—and Gina is so confident of her future as Mrs. Garrick Peters that she snubs an unprecedented date with Simon. But at his discharge, Garrick is heard telling a woman who turns out to be his fiancée, the duplicitous cad, that he’ll be glad to leave his beautiful blonde nurse behind, saying “The poor kid is making a bit of a nuisance of herself.” Then it’s all over the hospital, her “humiliation, searing, soul-destroying,” that “she had loved him,” she of the frigid, money-grubbing heart.
But on the upside, now she’s free to take up an offer by Simon, who despite her disinterest in him, still wants her to be the chief nurse of the new Casualty Department he’s creating at Barneford Hospital. And she’s still free to continue her paradoxical crush on Simon: “If only the doctor would admit that she had some other use than as a competent ‘mate’ on the job!” she sighs. She seems to vacillate wildly in her points of view, one day wishing madly that Simon would notice her, then insisting tearfully that as God as her witness, she’ll never be hungry again! Mostly, to the reader’s growing boredom, the latter. There are, of course, the usual vague hints that Simon does have feelings for Gina, to which she, as a dense VNRN heroine, is completely oblivious.
Then, while out on an almost-date with Simon—coffee after an ambulance run—they bump into Garrick, who tells Gina that he loved her all along. Yippee! Except that Simon then tells her that he loves her too, and wants her to stay with him. “She must be strong now. […] No foolish heart must be allowed to persuade her to throw aside all her resolutions.” Simon, citing the growing success of Casualty, hires a young nurse he knew years ago, in a past that he never discusses (though she bites Gina’s head off when she says that with hands like his, he surely must have done some surgery at some point). Betty Newent is the most scatterbrained nurse ever, always dropping trays of pills and going to pieces when an accident victim is brought in—not the most logical choice for an ED nurse, but she and Simon are determined to whip her into a successful nurse, with Gina assisting at the lash. Gina, of course, instantly jumps to the conclusion that this is because Simon and Betty are planning to marry, though Betty seems mostly afraid of Simon and he seems mostly worried about her. With this leap of poor logic, Gina realizes that she herself is in love with Simon, and never did love Garrick. But she still can’t go quietly into that good heartbreak: “Simon represented everything against which she had turned herself, years before. He was everything that her husband must never be—a poor man, offering insecurity and constant striving.” It’s maddening, I tell you!
She’s going to soothe her aching heart with a heavy work schedule. “It’s the only way to forget things that have to be forgotten,” a maxim that she shares with both Simon and Betty, though it’s not clear to Gina why, if Simon and Betty are soon to be united in wedded bliss, they should both be so darned mopey. Then Garrick proposes and Gina accepts, even though they have a frank chat about the fact that she doesn’t love him. Simon makes a proposal of his own, that Gina come with him when he leaves Barneford Hospital to start a clinic back where he comes from. She responds by freaking out, yet again: “I’ve been afraid of poverty because of what it can do to people—and if I can’t have my family with me now, do you think I’d consider, for one moment, a job where I still could not have them with me? I want a real life, with security, and freedom, and fun—” So, curiously, when Garrick insists that Gina quit her job after they are married so she can better attend his frivolous and boring cocktail parties where, “hour after hour, the talk was only of frothy trivialities,” she tells Garrick that she will not give up her work.
That fight is tabled for the time being, as they are en route to see Gina’s younger brother and sister and gladden their hearts with promises of college and riding lessons. But lo, Alan doesn’t want to go to college and has arranged a position for himself at the local garage, and little Jennifer is working at the horse barns in exchange for riding lessons, so they’re all set, thank you very much. Then, as the final straw, Aunt Katie, who has raised the little Delhams, tells Gina that her parents really did love each other madly, and those fights that Gina overheard were just words of the moment: “They fought like cat and dog at times, but it was all good fun,” Katie tells her—ha, ha. It turns out that Katie, who had been in love with Gina’s father, had fostered the idea in Gina’s mind that her parents didn’t love their children or each other as a sort of nasty revenge. Katie has to tell Gina the truth now because Gina is marrying a man she doesn’t love, and Katie wants Gina to have the kind of love her parents had for each other. Curiously, Gina responds to this shocking revelation by flinging herself into Aunt Katie’s arms and having a good cry. I myself would have, at the very least, slapped Katie silly, but I’m funny about that sort of treachery.
So Gina decides she can’t marry Garrick after all. “He offered her fun as another man might offer her eternal devotion, and fun wasn’t enough for her. She wanted so much more from life; she would welcome hard work, idealism, sacrifice—anything which life with a man such as Simon might demand, which life with Simon must demand.” She is so dazed by this realization that she wanders as if senseless through town—which she tends to do after a crisis, such as when she overheard Garrick talking to his then-fiancée—and is run over by a bicyclist. Like any good nurse, she shrugs off the headache that becomes increasingly ferocious over the next few days. When she’s finally felled by the pain and the story of the accident comes out, she’s sent for tests and discovered to have a large clot on her brain, and only the most promising brain surgeon can help her—three guesses as to who this turns out to be!
As she’s lying in the hospital, she learns the truth of Simon’s past: He and Betty were engaged once, but she dumped him for his best friend, and then on their honeymoon the pair were in a car accident, and the groom injured and brought to Simon. But the young man died despite Simon’s best efforts, and Simon was obliged to flee the gossip that followed him, suggesting that he had deliberately allowed the man to die. Now he’s just trying to help Betty get back on her feet and get over her dead husband; the two feel only friendship for each other. Gina, seeing her clot as a golden opportunity for the man she loves, refuses to have anyone else do the surgery. Does she die on the table? Does Simon feel he can resume his brilliant career as a brain surgeon? Does Gina agree to marry Simon in the end? What do you think?
This book is a bit of a mess, with a lot of dead ends. The identity of the man who sent the roses—you can’t help but suspect that it was Simon, not Garrick as Gina assumed—is never revealed. Simon notes in passing that he has two adopted children who are “parked”—his word—with his sister, and whom he has never mentioned or visited in the months that make up the story. He says he loves these children, and loved their parents, who are now deceased, but this is all we ever find out about them. Several times Gina is accused as being overly demanding, and we are treated to a flashback in which her mother tells her, “You are so greedy, my dear—you make more demands on those you love than they can ever hope to meet.” Later on, a minor nurse character also tells Gina, “You demand so much of people that you scare them away from you.” But we have no evidence of this at all; rather, the opposite is true: Gina has a tendency to be so closed up that she suffers from not knowing what she herself wants, let alone making demands of others. So what’s that supposed to be about?
The endless waffling on Gina’s part about whether she should feel hurt that Simon doesn’t love her or pursue Garrick for his money becomes more than a little frustrating. Also, pretty much everyone in the book—Simon, Betty, Gina, Garrick, and even minor characters like the Matron and the hospital librarian—have secret pasts or past secrets that they allude to constantly, and usually tearfully, while refusing to discuss them outright. “Do we have to talk in riddles all the time?” Garrick asks Gina at one point (after she’s learned the truth about her parents’ relationship but is clearly not going to share this with her betrothed, just mawkishly presses their love letters to her cheek). It’s a really excellent question. This book would have been a whole lot shorter than 191 pages if anyone could have just had an honest conversation. And I might have liked it a bit better, and had more respect for Gina. As it happens, the only enjoyable character in the book is Garrick, who regularly drops foppish remarks like, “I’m Garrick Peters, remember? Your very dearest, most precious patient—who fell in love with you when in a state of deep unconsciousness on a marble slab.” But unfortunately, he doesn’t pop up enough to make the book worth the time, and none of the remaining characters are so attractive or interesting that you should spend an afternoon reading about them.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

River Nurse

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1963
Cover illustration by Bern Smith
‘Helping Hands,’ in its quiet riverside backwater, must be the most unorthodox hospital in Australia, thought Maggie when she arrived there fresh from the clinical efficiency of Southern Cross Hospital. But she soon found that its methods—and its doctor—were none the less effective for all that.
“You’ve the main requirements needed of a button seller. You’re young and pretty.”
“Twenty-two wants action. It also, and Maggie admitted this rather ashamedly to herself, wants its own cash.”
“You have never understood the heart apart from what’s revealed to you through your wretched stethoscope!”
There are plenty of Harlequin nurse novels out there, but I have to say that I generally don’t reach for them (in case you haven’t noticed). They’re long, for starters, and I don’t mean just the page count—I seldom find a VNRN of more than 126 pages (the standard length) that deserves to be. The covers are also generally fair to middling, so they don’t entice, either. But I had enjoyed another of Joyce Dingwell’s books—Nurse Smith, Cook—so I picked up River Nurse with less trepidation than some. And I found it worth the time, almost meriting 192 pages.
Maggie Chappy has just graduated from nursing school in Sidney, and she is a rare breed in that she graduated quite at the bottom of her class. (Which reminds me of the joke: What do you call someone who graduates at the bottom of their nursing class? A nurse. Ha! Ha!) Having made it through three years of school, the school matron tells her, “You are no longer a completely feckless, stupid, ignorant girl. My training has seen to that.” Phew! Yet she is now planning to abandon her promising career to move to a backwater town accessible only by river to keep house for her uncle, who raised her (she is yet another orphan nurse) and paid for her nursing school. The rub is that there is a convalescent hospital in that town, run by the sister of the nursing school matron, that needs a nurse. Fortunately for Maggie, when she arrives in Jonathan Town, she finds that her uncle, who has been doing nicely for himself for the past three years, is not interested in having her keep house for him, so off she is packed to the hospital.
She arrives on the same day as Dr. Jude Caulder, who has been sent to this godforsaken backwater for a three-month stint before he joins his father at a more prestigious practice in the city. He’s a grumpy Gus about it, and is X-ing off the days on his calendar before he gets to leave. He’s the only doctor in the house, and indeed the only white male in sight who is not a patient, so there’s really no question about who Maggie is going to fall for.
It’s a slow, meandering ride through three months of adventures with patients, livestock (Maggie delivers a calf in one sweet scene), administrators who want to close the place down, and even natural and man-made disasters (a flood and a hiking accident, respectively). The plot isn’t really the thing in this book; it’s more the gentle humor, the well-drawn characters, and the pleasant pacing that make this book worth reading. It’s not at all campy, or even really laugh-out-loud funny, but it is amusing. At one point Jude walks into a kitchen overflowing with comestibles for a party and delivers a short lecture on the role of saliva in digestion. Three pages later, it’s tea time, and “the pleasant business of starch-splitting ferments began … bother that man! … the morning tea began.” This kind of simple pleasure pervades the book, even through to the ending, which is a reference to a long-running joke that what the hospital metes out best is tears—meaning sympathy—and sponge cake (Matron Dora is quite the baker). It won’t be the best, or the most memorable nurse novel you’ll read, but it’s definitely worth your time.