Saturday, July 27, 2013

Eve Cameron, MD

By Ann Rush
(pseud. Sara Jenkins Cunningham) ©1957

Dr. Eve Cameron, just graduated from medical school, came home to the small Georgia town her family had ruled for generations. There, she took over her uncle’s big country practice—determined to devote her life to the poor. But young, red-headed Matt Sanders, son of an overseer and now superintendent of the paper mills, told her she was only playing doctor. He knew Eve was the glamorous heiress of the Cameron fortune and he couldn’t believe this spoiled girl would persevere in her desperate battle against poverty, disease and vice. Eve Cameron thought she didn’t care what Matt Sanders said. She had no interest in either men or love—
“Mighty few people really make the bed they lie in.”
“The kind of courteous you have to try to be is usually worse than out-and-out rudeness, don’t you think?”
“Other girls sat in the swing and talked to boys; she went out and set bones.”
“She felt relaxed for the first time, felt more like a girl than a doctor.”
“As for my killing off your patients, I’m doing it so that you’ll get some rest when you get home.”
“You’d be a real inspiration to any man to get well. Or to have an illness that went on and on.”
“I wouldn’t want to marry Bob if I was going to be horrid looking for the rest of my life. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“I guess I’ll have to teach you about adjectives. You certainly scatter them about with a careless hand.”
In the great VNRN tradition, wealthy and beautiful Eve Cameron is returning to her tiny home town of Quiet Harbor after having been jilted by Dr. Smoke Jones, who dumped her for a plain, freckled nurse with “a vacant stare.” She’s planning to lie low for a bit and knit her broken heart back together again before moving on to a glamorous job in the city. Arriving home, she discovers that a paper mill has been built in town by her uncle Peter, and it blankets the town in a horrible sour smell—but has also brought jobs and money to town. She also discovers that Matt Sanders, a former grade-school classmate who was “a whiz at arithmetic,” is now the plant supervisor and seems to be carrying a mighty big chip on his shoulder toward her and her well-heeled family. But she doesn’t have much time to think about that opinionated, self-satisfied young man, because her Uncle Rufus, the town doctor, suffers a heart attack and is now out of commission for a couple of months. So she picks up his black bag and starts ministering to the populace.
Matt, meantime, is trying to get a clinic started at his mill, and condescends to ask Eve for her help. She advises him regarding the supplies he’ll need and where to get the best bargains and how to find a good nurse to staff the clinic. The two run hot and cold with each other, one minute all friendly and the next minute flaring with insults, so you can clearly see where that’s going. Curiously, the relationship causes Eve to develop an inferiority complex, and she regularly worries that she is overbearing when she tries to improve the lives of some of the poor folk around her, which her uncle calls “just plain bossiness.” She compares herself to the nurse Matt’s hired, who is “purry and utterly feminine,” and worries that “Matt Sanders hadn’t said she was a woman. Perhaps he didn’t even think of her as one. He was probably one of those dodoes in his thinking who considered a woman who didn’t sweep and wash dishes and iron and cook three meals a day to have forfeited her womanhood. He probably thought of her as—as— She couldn’t think of the word she wanted, but she was sure it wasn’t complimentary or feminine. Darn Matt Sanders anyhow. She’d show him. When he got back she’d show him who was a woman.” She starts fretting about the fact that Matt isn’t going to like her, and at a meeting with him about the clinic, she bursts out, “Do you think I’m unfeminine, unlikable, because I butt into other people’s business, because I try to manage their lives?” Matt sputters in surprise, and she stomps out, humiliated, and vows to leave Quiet Harbor posthaste.
I’ve always had a difficult time with the word feminine. It purports to equal female, but it also includes all the stereotypical ideas of what a woman is supposed to be—delicate, pretty, gentle—all of which are completely artificial and an identity that others have forced on women. So the minute I come across it, up go my hackles—and when its opposite, bossy, is trucked out at the same time, look out! Are men ever called bossy, or is it just in women that initiative, drive, and executive abilities are considered a bad thing? I’m surprised that a woman as smart as Eve Cameron doesn’t see through the paradox she is creating for herself with her anxieties: If she were meek and mild, she certainly could not succeed as a country doctor, so her determination to be more timid so that Matt will like her seems completely at odds with her desire to be a great doctor, not to mention contrary to her very nature. It’s true that, a few pages after her confrontation with Matt, after she’s set up one girl in a poor family to go to nursing school and another to secretarial school, she feels pretty pleased with herself. “It was a good way for a country doctor to be, even if it wasn’t feminine. She’d be careful and try to be tactful in her bossiness, and if no man ever came along that appreciated a woman who wanted things better—well, she’d be a bachelor like Uncle Rufus.” But it’s not a complete victory, as she still feels she has to try to soften her ambition to make it more palatable to potential husbands. And in the end, the issue of her ambition is left unresolved when she and Matt finally hook up and he never weighs in on this central theme.
Overall this is a pleasant book, well-written and entertaining, but not really offering any especial jewels to put it above the madding crowd. Eve is a good character but not a great one, and her anguish over her gumption is irritating to a modern reader and never satisfactorily put away as silliness. I enjoyed following Eve on her rounds and watching her work, performing surgery and delivering babies, and if the back-cover blurb (see above, in italics) was erroneous both in its depiction of her character and of the plot, I think it’s a better book than what we were set up to expect.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Leap in the Dark

By Rona Randall, ©1956
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Jeanne Cleary’s eventual destination was the nursing school in London, but on her own for the first time she felt an urgency to sort out the mysterious circumstances of her birth. Born to an aristocratic French woman who had married against her family’s wishes, Jeanne had been left an orphan when her parents died during the war. Now, having just discovered the existence of her French grandparents, Jeanne was determined to have at least one look at her mother’s ancestral home. But Fate was not to be satisfied with just a far-away glimpse. Before she could turn away from the imposing Château de Clémenteaux, Jeanne would become entangled in a series of lies which would bind her to another’s identity … an identity which would keep her from the man she loved, and prevent her from unmasking the imposter who said she was the real Jeanne Cleary.


“As for his sister, one could forgive her for being a novelist—that was deplorable and unfeminine, of course, but could be overlooked.”

“We do not know just what we are capable of until we actually do it.”

“Women, like flowers, were meant to be decorative and pleasing. But they were of greater service than flowers. He could enjoy them and make use of them at the same time.”

“Oh, Anne, not you—not you, of all people wearing trousers!”

For starters, let’s begin by clarifying that this is not a nurse novel. Jeanne Cleary, fresh out of the orphanage—and not just any orphanage, mind you, but a convent orphanage—is on a train in France en route to a nursing school in London when the train pulls into the abandoned station in Vraipoupon. Completely on impulse, Jeanne grabs her small, cheap suitcase containing the handful of meager possessions that are all she has in the world and hops off. She starts walking, and comes to a grand estate. Guess what? It happens to belong to her grandmother, the Comtesse Clémenteaux, whom she has never seen because her mother, after eloping with the English soldier John Cleary, was disinherited by her parents! Even more coincidentally, the cook Emilée, rushes up the path, grabs her, and pulls her in, insisting that she is the nurse Hélène Dubois, who has arrived to care for the blind Comtesse.

Once she claps eyes on the sweet old lady who is her only living relative, Jeanne cannot bring herself to tell the truth and so poses as the nurse—fortunately for her, she’s really more of a companion than a nurse, so not even Dr. Paul Antoine suspects the truth. Naturally Jeanne takes to life at the estate like a duck to water, and she and the Comtesse become as one in spirit. But suddenly, in through the grand entrance marches Anne Cleary, accompanied by the Comtesse’s attorney Jacques Bergerot, who claims Anne is the real granddaughter and heir to the estate! What to do, what to do?

Well, first off, Jeanne falls like a ton of bricks for the suave and shady Jacques Bergerot, the innocent little dope. She has to fall for someone, I guess, and the doctor just finds her irritating from the word go—though we all know what that means. When Jacques kisses her and looks into her eyes—“his commanding and hers submissive,” if you can bear to know—she believes that he is going to marry her. In truth, however, Jacques is cavorting with Anne, who turns out to be the real Hélène Dubois, and a seedy tramp. We know this because she finds life in the country boring, she doesn’t like the Comtesse, and she’s rude to the servants. So Anne is as shocked to encounter Jeanne as Jeanne is to encounter Anne. But of the two, Anne is a lot more resourceful, and she soon searches Jeanne’s room and discovers the documents and photos that prove Jeanne’s real identity and secrets them in her own room—save the passport, which she tosses in the kitchen stove one night when Armand the gardener is too sick to sleep there, as he usually does.

So now Jeanne seems to be completely out of luck; all she will have is Jacques and his love to keep her warm. But as fate would have it, on the night of the big ball when Anne is to be announced as the Clémenteaux heir, Jacques and Anne announce their engagement!!! Jeanne is devastated, of course, but fortunately the good doctor is there to help buck her up, and in witnessing her despair, he realizes, “Damn the child—I am in love with her!” (He is right to describe her as a child; she is 17, and he is in his 30s.) But all is quickly set to rights: The Comtesse declares that she hopes Anne will wear the Clémenteaux family ring, which Anne has never heard of. The Comtesse becomes quite upset over this, and to comfort her, Jeanne slips her hand into the Comtesse’s—who quickly realizes that Jeanne is wearing the ring! Now all we need is for Emilée the cook to show up bearing the passport, which wasn’t actually burned up, and for Paul to declare, “I think I should warn you, Comtesse, that I have decided to marry this troublesome girl at the first opportunity, irrespective of who, or what, she is.” Jeanne doesn’t get to dance at the ball, because she almost fell through the rickety drawbridge fleeing the house when things looked black for her, but that’s a small price to pay.

This book is utterly predictable, but it’s nonetheless entertaining. The story is told from many characters’ points of view, which makes it a bit more interesting, since Jeanne is far and away the most vapid of all the characters. (When Paul’s sister wishes, “If only Paul would marry some nice girl who had no literary or medical ambitions, who wanted nothing in life but marriage and motherhood!” we know beyond doubt, much to our dismay, that Jeanne fits this bill precisely.) So even if the heroine is a bore and the storyline is ridiculously obvious, this book is still worth reading. Now if only it were an actual nurse romance novel.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Probation Nurse

By Gertrude E. Mallette, ©1941
Cover illustration by Freeman Elliot

A nurse’s duty is to serve—to obey orders unquestioningly—to respect her superiors—to follow the rules at all costs. But if the cost is a human life—and she believes her superiors to be wrong—should she take it upon herself to disobey? With only three months to prove she could be a nurse, Sabra Dunning had to choose between a patient’s life and her own career. To whom did she owe allegiance? The very rules which forced her to a decision cut her off from the only man she could turn to—her fiancé, Dr. Galen Trent. Alone, Sabra made her choice …


“I thought you’d sworn off thinking.”

“There’s an isolating quality about a personal disaster. It sets everything off from you, so you can see what you are and what you aren’t.”

Between the lame cover illustration and the title, I secretly hoped that this might turn out to be one of those seedy nurse novels, this one perhaps about a hard-boiled RN who had strayed off the virtuous path and had to do objectionable things with a slimy blackmailing doctor to keep her past hidden. Alas, no such luck. This is in fact a story about the wholesome Sabra Dunning, who has just been accepted to nursing school. Probation nurses, which I have met in many other nurse novels but never quite understood, are apparently student nurses on their first probationary months of nursing school. If they don’t pass muster in the first three months, they are kicked out.

Unfortunately for us, the first three-quarters of the book take us on a real-time crawl through Sabra’s classes. We learn how to make beds and spend a good chapter watching the young nurses practice. We fold linens, take pulses, practice our printing, shake down thermometers, fold bandages, learn how to walk quietly and how to bathe patients, and tour every single ward and closet in the enormous hospital. I bore all of this fairly patiently, right up until “they spent a few moments learning about hot-water bottles. Boiling water was never used, they learned. They were surprised to hear that even with the cover on, and with the water well below the boiling point, a patient could sustain a severe burn from a hot-water bottle.” Innocuous as this passage may seem, it was the last straw.

But fortune finally smiled upon me, as this was something of a turning point in the book, when we at long last heard the barest rustle of a plot under the hospital sheets. A frightened man on Men’s Medical keeps asking Sabra if all the women in the ward are nurses, and tells Sabra that she’s lying when she insists that they are. Miss Burke, another nurse just six months ahead of her in training, used to be a court reporter and hints sneeringly to Sabra that she knows something about the patient’s criminal past. What exactly this is, she won’t reveal, but Sabra now spends chapters gnashing her teeth in the most Jeanne Bowman­–like manner about how the patient is too frightened to get well, and how she ought to speak to the nursing supervisor about it so as to get Miss Burke removed from the ward so the poor man can relax and get better again. Eventually she does speak to the nursing supervisor, but won’t reveal who the nurse with the goods on Mr. Landow is, and Miss Burke, not surprisingly, firmly resists Sabra’s urging to identify herself. The situation eventually sorts itself out when Mr. Landow jumps out the window one night, hails a cab, and dies in the back seat en route to the pier. And that is all we will ever learn about Mr. Landow; indeed, apart from his daily paranoid exchange with Sabra, we never even hear him speak.

But with this grave mark on Sabra’s record—not to mention the time she got caught in the linen closet pressuring Miss Burke when she should have been answering call lights, and the time she dropped a bedpan, and that her uniform apron got really dirty one day—Sabra knows that she’s going to get kicked out of the program when she is called to Miss MacLaren’s office the day before the probationary period ends. She also believes that the nurse’s cap now resting on Miss MacLaren’s desk had been relieved from the poor ex–night nurse who had been on duty when Mr. Landow fled the premises. But things are never that bad for virtuous nursing students, so if you will not be surprised to find out where that nurse’s cap ends up, you will be relieved that it means the book is over.

The writing itself isn’t bad, but this book is mind-numbing, uninteresting, without any story to speak of, and at 192 pages, much longer than it needed to be. I suspect Gertrude Mallette is capable of better, but this Probation Nurse should never have graduated.