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.


  1. I'm delighted to find this blog! I love romance novels in general, but am right now reading a lot of current Harlequin medicals and have been doing a little research into the history of medical romance. In fact, I just wrote a post summarizing a few interesting points from an unpublished dissertation om medical romances that you might potentially find of interest. I love your reviews. Thanks for this labor of love.

  2. Thanks! I would love to see your dissertation! Where is the post you wrote?