Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ship's Nurse

By Rosie M. Banks
(pseud. Alan Jackson), ©1961
Cover illustration probably Robert Maguire

When her aunt, the ship’s senior nurse, breaks her ankle, Cathy volunteers for duty. There seems to be more than the usual shipboard intrigue—the ship’s doctor drinks tea, secretly laced with rum, to forget painful memories. His young assistant yearns to leave the ship to start his own practice. A stowaway—on a last fling before settling down to responsibility—is discovered. A raucous Texas dowager drinks too much and her gigolo-husband has a roving eye. Cathy herself if faced with an oversupply of admirers. An innocent flirtation and sudden tragedy make Cathy realize the depth of her dedication to nursing—and where her heart is.
“I want to see you married and have children, but in fairness to them you should bring them some knowledge other than what the inside of the Twenty-one Club looks like.”
“He thought not that the world was his oyster but that he was the pearl within it.”
“A nurse is always a philosopher.”
“A stowaway! It sounded romantic—like an MGM movie. He might be carrying some dread contagious disease, and she would be the nurse and cure the patient, and—since it was an MGM movie—she would marry him. That brought her back to reality. She would have to see him first.”
“Perhaps he was a writer. They were the nutty ones.”
I can hardly contain my excitement about having discovered the identity of the Alan Jackson who penned this novel: A Princeton grad, former Saturday Evening Post editor and Paramount Picures story editor, Mr. Jackson (1906­–1965) also penned Perdita, Get Lost and a breakfast cookbook under his own name. I know I’ve gone on and on about the joy I take in the fact that this pen name was stolen from a P.G. Wodehouse novelist who wrote torrid romances, but really, I just love that.
Anyway, Cathy Jerrold, a freshly minted RN, is taking a celebratory ten-day cruise to Bermuda onboard the same ship that her aunt, Mary Jerrold, will be working as head nurse—but before the ship has left the harbor, Mary falls and breaks her ankle and is shipped ashore to the hospital. Cathy carries on with her cruise, and volunteers to help the two remaining nurses cover their shifts—and is rewarded with the midnight-to-4-a.m. shift. No good deed goes unpunished, clearly.
But this leaves her days free to fend off advances from a veritable army of men: Alan Richards, a suave gadabout who doesn’t really love her, just the pursuit of her; Arturo Verdi, aka Turo Green, the Italian husband of an oil widow who is 25 years his senior; and both ship’s doctors, the old widowed one who drinks spiked iced tea all day and pops tranquilizers to boot, and the young one who is planning to leave the cruise line and set up shop on Nantucket.
The cast of characters also includes Tim O’Leary, the shiftless boyfriend of one of the nurses, who stows away to be with her and also to see Bermuda. When he is discovered, he is rescued by Turo Green, who puts him up in a first-class cabin and gives him his own clothes to wear. Turo’s wife, Vinnie, is a loud, brassy Texan appealing only for her bank account; she also drinks excessively and is flirting with death as a result of it. The closest thing to a plot the book has centers around the question of whether Vinnie will die soon, leaving Turo to (openly) pursue Cathy, and if Turo’s grace toward Tim stems from a desire to use him as an alibi should he decide to hasten his wife’s impending departure for the pearly gates.
In truth, it must be said that the book does not deliver much in regards to story. Though the plot takes an unexpected swivel from the direction I thought it was headed with the Greens, the ending is somewhat perfunctory, when we are told rather than shown that all the characters have grown from their experiences on the ship. For her part, Cathy makes several heretofore unsuspected decisions about her career and marital status: “I have seen a person come of age,” thinks the ship’s captain at book’s end. “That is Cathy Jerrold.” Good thing he clued us in, else we might have missed it.

No, the real reason to read this book is for the writing. In the event that you have missed my prior reviews of Alan Jackson’s works (that would be Navy Nurse, Surgical Nurse, and Settlement Nurse), Mr. Jackson is an intelligent and witty writer who gives us sly passages such as, “The orchestra continued its determined fortissimi,” and, “Before he was able to resume the tenor of his conversation which she had interrupted like a tornado, she again took the lead.” He tackles this story with an angle seldom seen in a VNRN, from the perspective of the omniscient foreshadowing the story’s direction. We get hints such as, “These were the people who were to make trouble for the ship.” And, after one character declares they will have a wonderful vacation, we are told, “She was wrong.” In most instances this is fun, but it does get a bit heavy-handed, overly doom-and-gloom about the import of events that then come across as fairly ho-hum, as in: “So there sat Cathy, the catalyst, the element which changes others and does not itself change. Cathy, unconscious that at her table were four men who because of the mere sight of her were deciding to alter their plans and their mode of living. A complicated situation, at best, and a potentially dangerous one.” But this is a minor quibble, and in general his descriptions and characterizations are vivid, and I enjoy watching these people come and go. If this isn’t the most brilliantly plotted book, it’s still an easy, breezy afternoon’s companion, and if you are encamped in a steamer chair with a chilled martini at your side when you take it in, all the better.

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