Sunday, April 21, 2013

An American Nurse in Paris

By Diane Frazer
(pseud. Dorothy Fletcher), ©1963
For years, pretty private nurse Norma Scott had dreamed of a European vacation. And when she was offered a special case which would take her to Paris, she had her dream on a silver platter. Europe—first-class, all expenses paid! But, on the day of departure, Norma’s aging patient, Mr. Whittaker, did not arrive. In his place, aboard the deluxe airliner, was his handsome son Thorne. Norma was outraged. Had she been deceived by the rich young man with whom she was Paris bound? But Thorne was persuasive and Norma’s heart found him hard to resist.


“You don’t have to make plans for Paris, Miss Scott. Paris makes plans for you.”

Norma Scott is a nurse and a good girl. We know this about her because of one scene early on when she “quickly became aware that his eyes were focused on her legs. She hastily smoothed down her skirt, resolving to let it down an inch when she had the time. They were making them shorter and shorter these days. You could scarcely blame a man for … but oh, these Frenchmen.” So when she is lured into a two-week trip to Paris with the promise of an aging businessman patient and then finds that it’s the gentleman’s son, Thorne Whittaker, who seeks her company in other professional ways, she is outraged!

On their first night in Paris, before she has figured things out, he takes her out on the town, and soon finds her to be “very young, very untouched,” and decides that he really cares for her and has to tell her the truth. But once the cat is out, she refuses to have anything to do with him, though he swears over and over he will never lie to her again. She checks out of their chi-chi hotel near the Arc de Triomphe and into a pension, and gets a job at the American Hospital, where she immediately starts dating Dr. Bob Hoyt. “Yet her blood pressure remained at its usual level; there were no delicious little chills running down her spine.” And her thoughts continue to turn to that scamp, Thorne.

Soon she is involved in caring for the young son of a French friend of Thorne’s whom she had met before their parting; the boy, born in Algeria and now depatrified with the Algerian independence of 1962, has been injured while making a bomb. She is tipped off that the police are planning to search the family home, so she asks Thorne help her dispose of the boy’s illegal pistol. After scolding the boy into behaving himself from now on, she and Thorne set off on a very long date, which includes a meander through the Bois de Boulogne, espresso and Dubonnet on the Champs Elysée, and dinner and wine at a bistro on the Ile St. Louis. As they sit on the banks of his Seine—he’s spread his handkerchief on the cold stones for her—he apologizes and kisses her. She resists, saying “I wish I could believe you’re really a decent man and that never again will you try to trick me, be deceitful, that you’re not a playboy.” He just laughs: “If you don’t mind, Miss Scott, I don’t want to talk small talk,” so they stop talking for a while, and then Norma breathlessly says she’ll never doubt him again. Crossing the Seine, she suddenly remembers the parcel! “He laughed lightly. ‘I got rid of it,’ ” he says, admitting he dumped it into a trashcan hours ago. “Of all the low and dirty tricks!” she exclaims, and that’s the end of it.

This book is a throwaway. I adored the cover, and Paris as a backdrop had promise, bien sûr. Florence Stonebraker could have worked something better of the slightly risqué setup with half a typewriter, but in the end this is fluff with a paradoxical ending. Perhaps it’s meant to be amusingly ironic that Thorne’s latest trick is revealed after Norma has forgiven him for the last one, but I found her response only irritating and bewildering. And so you might want to leave the American nurse in Paris and try rather for some other exotic locale.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nurse in the Tropics

By Peggy Dern 
(pseud. Erolie Pearl Gaddis Dern), ©1958
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik

To Martie Howell, a nurse accustomed to routine duty, the assignment to accompany Lisa Long back to her Haitian home and to stay with her during her convalescence from pneumonia seemed like a heaven-sent voyage to enchantment. Nor did the picturesque country, with its brilliant vegetation and its colorful natives, disappoint her. But she was also exposed to Haiti’s darker side—to its voodoo rites and its age-old superstitions. These were frightening when seen at a distance; when used to break up the romance of Lisa and a young doctor, and also to alter the course of the nurse’s life, they inspired hysteria and near-panic.


“I’m a nasty little cat. Why don’t you spank the livin’ daylights out of me?”

“Killing a love like ours calls for a lot of brutality. But then I don’t suppose murder is ever easy.”

“I don’t know who designed the first nursing uniforms, but whoever it was certainly did a fine job! They make a pretty girl beautiful and even a homely girl pretty! Though I don’t believe, now that I think about it, I ever saw a homely nurse!”

“I have to get back to the bananas.”

“I never dreamed there’d be a time when I could laugh and joke with a doctor. I’ve always had a great awe of them.”

“A nurse’s uniform is the most becoming costume any woman can wear.”

“I’m not afraid of evil spirits or any other kind of spirits—except the kind that come out of a bottle and are consumed inwardly.”

“They want to throw a party for us, Martie, to welcome us, but it won’t be a voodoo affair, so don’t be frightened.”

I can’t help but pick up a book about a nurse in a third-world location with dismay, anticipating the patronizing attitudes I will shortly encounter. Peggy Gaddis has already proved herself a benevolent racist elsewhere, in works including Big City Nurse and The Nurse Was Juliet, so it was just a matter of time before we’d hear about the natives who address the white folk “with childlike affection,” who are “capering” “anxious children afraid of punishment.” “They—well, they’re like children!” Martie exclaims when she travels to a village in the mountains. At the same time, we are told several times that “it’s almost impossible for anyone to understand who has not spent many years here and mingled with the natives.” Curiously, VNRN heroines don’t seem to find similar situations in Paris or Monaco.

We also get to look down on voodoo with all the condescension of those who follow the One True Path of Christianity. An old “witch doctor” who visits a patient in the hospital is forcefully ejected and threatened with jail “because he’s breaking the laws against voodoo and all its weird and nasty practices.” Martie herself finds herself “only a few inches removed from terror of the old man,” an emaciated barefoot waif with “wicked” eyes. It is odd that the white characters, who regard voodoo as a silly superstition, are so regularly struck with complete horror by the two voodoo practitioners in the book.

Martie Howell is accompanying her snotty patient, Lisa Long, back to her home in Haiti. Lisa is far more childlike than any Haitian we meet, and flirts with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, slapping Martie one minute and then, a moment later, flinging herself at her nurse and clinging to her, crying, “Martie, don’t leave me!” Martie responds to Lisa’s tantrums by threatening to “paddle” her and otherwise treating her like a two-year-old: “She’s feeling very sorry for herself because she’s tired and excited,” she tells Lisa’s jilted beau, Dr. Evan Carter, who they encounter on the boat carrying them to Haiti. Lisa and Evan are still in love, but not allowed to marry because the domineering aged family matriarch, Donna Luisa, has decreed that Lisa will marry next-door neighbor Hugh Balcom, so as to unite the two estates. When Martie meets Hugh, she is dismayed to find that he is “spectacularly good-looking,” so it seems pretty clear how things are going to stack up at the end of the book. Indeed, it isn’t long before Hugh and Martie are kissing, but she attempts to squelch the blossoming romance by telling him, “A mere casual kiss is considered no more important nowadays than a cordial hand-shake.” He is understandably cool toward her after that.

Martie soon discovers that Lisa owns the estate, which Donna Luisa is managing on her behalf, and that Lisa will take control of it on her 21st birthday. Luisa has been hiding this fact so as to exert her power over Lisa, as Lisa under the impression that she is living on Donna Luisa’s largesse and “owes” it to Luisa to marry Hugh. Martie informs Luisa that she is going to spill the beans, so Luisa attempts to fire Martie but suffers a stroke before she is able to complete the deed. When Hugh hears of this, he blames Martie for Luisa’s stroke, as does the local medico, Dr. Eaves. Madame Clélie, a local voodoo witch, arrives to nurse Luisa, and Martie decides she will move to the hospital and work with Dr. Eaves until she can leave Haiti. While she is packing, however, she finds a tarantula in her bed, and though she squashes it flat, she is convinced that Madame Clélie is trying to poison her. She is so spooked by the idea that Dr. Eaves agrees with her plan to leave Haiti: “Once this voodoo stuff gets under your skin, you can easily imagine yourself into a nervous breakdown.”

But the boat isn’t due for a few weeks, so she has time to work with Dr. Eaves at his hospital. The next news from the hacienda is that all has been set to rights: Hugh has thrown Madame Clélie out of the house, Lisa has called Dr. Evan to care for Donna Luisa, and Luisa has started to recover and now approves of Evan. So the very same group of people who looked upon Martie with disgust after Luisa’s stroke are now telling her that Luisa’s stroke was “the best thing that could have happened.” Before you know it, Luisa is hosting a dinner party with Martie as the guest of honor, and apologizing to Martie for her atrocious behavior. All we need to do is throw Martie into Hugh’s arms and wade through several nauseating paragraphs—to wit, “She was trembling from head to foot, and in her heart there was music so glorious, so unutterably perfect that she could only listen in awe and ecstasy”—and then we can put the tropics behind us. Though the question of how Martie, who previously couldn’t get out of Haiti fast enough, is going to manage life there is left unanswered.

This book is not worth reading as an interesting story or even as an armchair travelogue. The characters are not particularly attractive; even Martie is disdainful to her patient and the Haitians, overly hysterical about voodoo, and pathetically wide-eyed with Dr. Eaves and Hugh. Really the only interesting person in the book is a talented Haitian surgeon, who is viewed as somewhat tragic, as some white folks (Donna Luisa among them) won’t allow a black man to treat them. But he doesn’t seem too upset by that fact: “ ‘I am of the black people, Mam’selle Martie,’ he said and there was no trace of humility in his voice. Instead there was a pride that bordered on arrogance.” After enduring 160 pages of these ugly Americans, I can’t say I blame him for being glad he is not one of them.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Town Nurse—Country Nurse

By Marjorie Lewty, ©1970
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

After a disastrous love affair, Kate had felt she never wanted to live in the country again, and firmly turned herself into a town girl. So when her dental surgeon boss suggested that she help out, temporarily, a colleague of his in a small country town, she was determined to stay there no longer than was necessary…


“You can’t do it. You simply can’t tell anybody, in cold blood, that you don’t love the country.”

“Hugo’s white panther of a car leapt on the miles and devoured them with a kind of satisfied, purring sound that I imagined a panther would make.”

“The kitchen was enormous, about as half as big again as the front room, with a stone floor and great cupboards and a dresser all along one side of the wall. There was a modern electric cooker and a washing machine, but the table where Chloe was shearing neat slices of bread off a huge cottage loaf was the solid white deal kind that needs scrubbing every day. She looked up and smiled. ‘Primitive, aren’t we? John’s going to get the kitchen converted for me one day, when there’s time to get around to it. You know, thermo-plastic tiling on the floor, stainless steel sink, Formica tops—the lot.’ ”

“Mr. Pill was peering at me with his eyes half-closed, as if I were a new shade of emulsion paint that he wasn’t quite sure whether he approved of or not.”

“Any crisis, major or minor, must be an occasion for making tea.”

“ ‘She pushed me—’ He pointed an accusing finger at Rosemary. I was wholly on Rosemary’s side. We girls must stick together, I thought, and besides, she really did look angelic in that little pink dress.”

“How easy it was for a nice man to have an absolutely horrid daughter.”

“I shall be calm and placid, like a vegetable marrow.”

Kate Moorcroft is actually a dental nurse. She’s not a hygienist, though, and doesn’t do any actual work in anyone’s mouth; she just assists the dentist with his more complicated procedures, so I think this still qualifies her as a nurse, and therefore this book as a VNRN. But it does skate up to the technical line.

The first part gimmick of this book is that Kate despises the country. She was born and raised there, and had intended to marry a farmer, but when her father died, her beloved told her that he didn’t feel he could take on the family farm’s huge mortgage, and he’d mostly wanted to marry her because her father had offered to take him on as a partner. Since wising up to the realities of the deal he’d signed up for, he’d decided he’d really rather go off to Australia, and alone at that. So she’d moved to London and worked hard to floss every hayseed from her teeth. That was three years ago; now she’s dating the wealthy, attractive, and debonair bachelor Hugo Whipple. Things are just starting to heat up with him when her boss sends her off to aid a close friend, Dr. Ben Holland, who has a small practice in—gasp—the country! 

But she grits her teeth and off she goes, to camp at the house where the doctor lives with his sister and her husband. Kate, not being the complete ignoramus that so many VNRN heroines are, quickly realizes—“with a feeling that I’d been punched hard in the middle”—Dr. Holland’s brother in law is a farmer! This is supposed to make her sojourn to the country even more “painfully nostalgic,” but soon she’s over it, and wrestles a lamb trapped in a hedge and a day-old calf about to be kicked by its mother, who is freaking out during a thunder storm. But she’s decided that she’s not going to tell the doctor that she’s from the country, lest she have to go into the story of her sordid past. That’s the second part of the gimmick; Kate has to go around pretending that she doesn’t know that hay shouldn’t be out in a rainstorm or how to operate a kerosene lantern. It’s not going to hold a lot of water, but this book isn’t pretending to be Tolstoy, so it mostly works.

Meanwhile, back at the office, she and the good doctor, who seems less than appreciative of her efforts, spar regularly, as Kate is far too spunky a gal to lie down and take it when he snaps at her. Despite his animosity, she can’t bring herself to actually dislike him: “This Ben Holland had magnetism—loads of it.” Unfortunately for Kate, he has more than just magnetism; he also has a lady friend, Val, a smooth, possessive customer whom Kate dislikes at first sight. “Most unreasonable, but there it is,” Kate admits. “Whatever Ben Holland’s shortcomings, he didn’t deserve a girl like that.”

Eventually it turns out that Ben thinks Kate’s been sent down by her employer to convince him that he should abandon the country and go into practice in the city. Kate, of course, knows of no such plan, and his suspicions are revealed when she demands to know why he’s being such a cold ass, just not in those terms. He’s forgiven after he humbly apologizes: “To be on the receiving end of a smile that packed so many volts was very disturbing,” she says. More than just a potential boyfriend, Kate finds two good girl friends in the country: Ben’s sister, Chloe, and Ben’s new nurse, Celia. These two characters are well-drawn, and their friendships with Kate, if they do move a bit fast, feel real. It’s a really heartwarming—if I dare to use such a schlocky word—aspect of the book, but I mean it. “It’s wonderful to fall in love and it turns your world upside down, but lately I’ve thought that there’s something that’s just as good, though not so spectacular,” says Celia, “just making friends.” I got a little verklempt at this point, but I am known to sob at the long-distance commercials.

So now Kate and Ben can get along on better terms. But Val schemes to get Kate packing back to the city, moving into the farmhouse to take her spot there. It doesn’t work out, however, for anyone: Back in London and out with Hugo, he maneuvers her to his new apartment and propositions her, not for the first time, and she finally realizes that he’s a cad, and that the city-slicker persona she’s put on since leaving the country has misled him. “I’m only playing at being this sort of girl, a dolly girl, out for kicks. I’m really a country type, a cabbage. I need the—other kind of life,” she tells Hugo, and then, when he tries to force a drink on her, she very belatedly realizes “Hugo was much, much older than I’d ever supposed. The lines round his eyes were deeply engraved; there was a slight looseness about his chin.” This spells 
t-h-e  e-n-d for Hugo, but he’s gracious about it and calls her a cab. (Though I’m not certain what he had to be gracious about, and what was his alternative, assaulting her? As if that would have been acceptable under the circumstances?)

Then Kate is called back to Ben’s establishment: Val has up and left, and the house is in a shambles. Kate appears, puts everything and everyone to rights, and she and Ben end up kissing—but then he says that though he finds her attractive, he can’t be with her. Val has witnessed this scene through the window outside, enters the room after Ben has left it, and proceeds to tear Kate a new one and then smack her across the face. But as she rides off in a fury on her horse, she slips on a wet bridge and falls into the river. There’s no one around to save her but Kate, so she shouts at a little girl to go get help and hoves herself into the current, where she’s got one hand on a rapidly loosening willow and the other on the unconscious Val’s chin, to keep it above water. This selfless heroism, of course, is just the thing to bring Ben around, after Kate has been properly rescued and dried off. “Tell me you don’t really want that smooth fellow with the vulgar great car,” he says to her, admits that he loves her, “and he proceeded to demonstrate.” When all is straightened out between them, he chides her for pretending to be a city girl. “What should I have done?” she retorts. “Disappear through the stage and spring back, clad in blue gingham, with a hay-fork in one hand and a pail of buttermilk in the other, crying, ‘Surprise, surprise, here I am, your very own rustic village maiden?’ ” Touché.

This is only the second VNRN I’ve read that’s been written in the first person. (The first, Bush Hospital, also a Harlequin, wasn’t as good as this one). It helps that Kate is a strong character with a sense of humor, guts, and humanity. She also has a rare commodity in a VNRN heroine: intelligence. When a situation is unfolding that any sensible reader could see right through, well, so can Kate. “I wasn’t going to pretend I didn’t know what he meant. I’d lived in London for three years,” Kate says when Hugo hints that he could spend the night in her hotel room. (She kicks him out.) But when she doesn’t pick up on something—like the fact that she’s fallen for Dr. Ben—she speaks about it as if she realizes that she should have known: “Even at that point, I didn’t know,” she says, after Ben gets snippy when he runs into her when she’s out with Hugo (the night he propositions her). I don’t mind a touch of blindness when the heroine recognizes that she is. She’s also self-aware: Toward the end, when Ben is watching her cook with an approving smile on his face, she feels an appropriate level of cynicism: “Domestic scene, I thought, with a whiff of self-contempt. Little woman in home setting. Bah!” And so my satisfaction with Kate Moorcroft was complete. This is a playful, amusing, enjoyable book. It has its flaws, no doubt, but these are easily overlooked when you’re hanging out with a great gal like Kate Moorcroft.