Saturday, December 27, 2014

Nurse of the North Woods

By Ellen Randolph, ©1967
“I never knew how much you meant to me,” said Dr. Ralph Parton quietly. Nurse Nancy felt a glow of pleasure at his words, yet she tried not to let it show. She knew it wouldn’t take much to make Ralph openly declare his love for her. Then what would she do? Tell him the truth? She wasn’t sure she had the courage.
“You’re a pretty girl. Much too pretty for a nursing supervisor. I thought they were always old maids with thick glasses.”
Nurse Nancy Rusk has been working in a small clinic about 40 miles from Fredericton, New Brunswick, for about a year. She had been working in Montreal, but “she had hurriedly decided to leave,” because “she had a secret that must be kept hidden and any relaxation on her part could mean she would have to flee from this new-found security and seek safety elsewhere.” She also plans to keep her secret from us, the readers, yet reminds us every five to ten pages of its existence, so by the end of the book you’re just so damned sick of her stupid secret that you can’t wait for her to spill the beans to her boyfriend and have it all tidily resolved in two paragraphs.
The man she has her eye on, Dr. Ralph Parton, likes her too, but she’s afraid to get involved with him because of her secret, of course, but also because of his sister Isobel. A stereotypical old maid at 42—right down to the gray tweed suit of mannish cut, flat-heeled brown walking shoes, and dour expression on the wrinkled and liver-spotted face—42 lying practically at death’s door—Isobel guards Ralph jealously, and Nancy is afraid that the ugly but intelligent woman will uncover and expose her infamous secret. Yet she doesn’t seem to resist all that much when Ralph offers to take her to dinner or on a drive alone, and certainly not when he kisses her in chapter three.
On the side, though, Nancy has to fend off the advances of the lumber mogul’s dissipated son John, who becomes increasingly predatory when she tells him she’s not interested in him. “I think we could have a lot of fun together if you’d only be reasonable,” he says when she turns him down for a date, and follows this up with a casual mention of the fact that he’d met her in Montreal. She continues to insist she is not interested, and he persists: “I’d think you would be,” he says, adding that he will see her later in the week, basically refusing to accept her refusal. After John drops by the house where she boards and tells her landlady that he’s written to Nancy’s “friend” in Montreal, Nancy finally decides to come clean to Ralph, because “it was possible she might need his protection.”
After she and Ralph power through a couple of serious medical emergencies, they’re relaxing in his office in the middle of the night when she finally tells all: There had been a scandal involving a car accident in which she was falsely convicted, but the real problem is that her then-boyfriend, the actual culprit who had gotten off by blaming her, has been pursuing her relentlessly ever since; he’d ended by making a scene at the Montreal hospital where she was working and shouting that he would kill her if she didn’t come back to him, forcing her to quit and go on the run. Now that she’s finally confessed, though, all her problems are resolved in one fell smooch. Given the public awareness of the issue of abuse in the current day, it’s hard for the reader to dispose of Nancy’s stalker so easily, and the relentless pounding we’ve taken about her secret becomes all the more irritating for its quick dismissal now that she has a new man in her life. If her problem were this easy to solve, why didn’t she just take care of it in the first chapter? I would rather have seen her just whip out a tiny silver derringer and put a bullet between the bastard’s eyes in a Florence Stonebraker-esque flourish, but it’s the very rare VNRN heroine who is guilty of even justifiable less-than-saintly behavior. Too bad, because it would make for much better reading, and this book is no exception.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Washington Nurse

By Tracy Adams
(pseud. Sofi O’Bryan), ©1963
Nurse Amy Loring considered herself the luckiest girl in the world. She loved living in glamorous Washington, D.C., where her brother was a rising politician. And she was in love with—practically engaged to—young Doctor William Tabor. But then she met Congressman Bob Ainsley—handsome, dynamic and so ambitious that everyone knew he’d get whatever he wanted from life. And Bob Ainsley wanted Amy. Soon the young nurse found herself swept helplessly along by the passionate force of his personality. It was impossible for Amy to think of Bob as the ruthless opportunist others labeled him. After all, she reasoned, in Washington every gesture was suspect, every act a matter of intrigue. But how well could she reason when she wasn’t really certain if what she felt for Bob was love or just romantic infatuation?
“Anyone tell you you’re not good for heart patients?”
“Will Big Brother be chaperoning or should I bring my wolf license?”
“There is always a reason for a cocktail party.”
“Obviously I am not dying of a broken heart because I can eat.”
“Gossip is to a hospital what sun is to a flower.”
When we first meet nurse Amy Loring, she is trying to elude a herd of 20 reporters camped on the hospital steps, all hoping for news about Senator Matters, who is a patient. But “to expect twenty reporters from the Washington press corps to ignore a stunning redhead in blue nurse’s cape, trim white figure and legs that were whistle bait even in flat heeled white oxfords, would have been treason.” So she is pestered for news, which she happily provides: “My patient did have a B.M. yesterday,” she giggles. What a joker!
Amy loves Washington because “it had the feeling of a universe on the move. Even the thousands of secretaries who are lured to Washington each year stay on, despite the man shortage, despite the few and rare invitations to glittering events, because there is always the feeling that one is listening at a keyhole, is on the verge of putting a finger on the pulse of the world, is taking part in the shaping of history.” She happens to be the sister of Representative Hugh Loring of Indiana, so she is a little closer to the inside than some, particularly since they share an apartment. She’s dating resident William Tabor, but is a little unsatisfied: “Maybe that’s the whole trouble, he’s too dear and nice. I wish … well, what do I wish? That he was a brute, masterful?”
Cue Bob Ainsley, junior representative from Florida. He gives her a ride home from work, and she is mesmerized by him: “He had an aura about him of impatience and of forcefulness.” So soon she is dating him, too, and finding that “even the way he kept his hand lightly on hers now, looked at her in a deep, personal way, made her heart jump as though someone had pumped adrenalin into her.” His ambition and arrogance, discussed by everyone who knows him, make him a somewhat suspicious character, but he seems genuinely smitten with Amy.
Hugh comes down with hepatitis—must have been the canapés Amy served at the cocktail party—and has to take six months to recuperate, so his appointment to chair of the house finance committee seems almost certainly quashed. A newspaper columnist accuses Bob Ainsley of angling for the same spot, and of having bought his seat in Congress to boot! Bob, furious, calls up Amy and tells her he is going to dispute the charges on the house floor tomorrow and wants her to be there. “A man can’t afford not to fight,” he explains to her. “You can’t understand that. You’re a woman.”
Amy switches shifts to be present when Bob takes the floor and explains that he did indeed take money from his constituents—loans for his education, which he is repaying with interest. Furthermore, he says, he proposes that the chair of the finance committee be given to Hugh despite his illness with an interim appointment to someone else until Hugh is well enough to assume the role. He receives a standing ovation, of course, Amy herself “applauding long and hard, tears in her eyes.” Bob also makes another proposal, in private, to Amy: “I didn’t count on a redhead with soft lips and a way of eluding me that is driving me bats. I have work to do here, Amy, important work, and I can’t let my mind wander. I want you to marry me so I can get on with what I have to do.” The flattering dog.
It never rains but it pours: Dr. Bill gets a big grant that is going to enable him to set up the lab he’s always wanted. He proposes, and in what may well be a first in a VNRN, tells her that she has to keep working because he won’t have enough money to support them both. “I wouldn’t give it up anyway, Bill,” she answers. “I can’t. I spent too much time studying to be a nurse to give it up and sit around a house.” The author gets a lot of points from me for this scene alone. Unfortunately, Bob walks in just as Bill is kissing her fiercely, and Bill storms out. Now Bill is pressing her for an answer, and insists that she give it to him tonight, at dinner, after a cocktail party he has to attend to meet Senator Phelps and before his 10:00 appointment with someone else. The fact that her answer to his proposal is sandwiched between so many other appointments helps Amy determine her answer, but unfortunately she decides to give it to him over the phone. Then she grabs her bag and runs off to the airport to catch up with Bill, who is going home on holiday before he starts working on his lab. It’s actually a sweet ending, better than most.
This is the second of Tracy Adams’ books I’ve read, and I have to say that Washington Nurse is an improvement over Spotlight on Nurse Thorne. It’s well written, with occasional spots of humor and archaically interesting scenarios (such as when Amy realizes she has forgotten to set out cigarettes for the cocktail party and thinks this could be interpreted as a deliberate snub to the tobacco industry, or when another guest reacts in horror that Hugh isn’t married and has only his sister to act as hostess for him). If it is more than a bit obvious, well, there are worse crimes in a VNRN, and overall this is a generally entertaining book.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Nurse Nancy

By Jane Scott
(pseud. Adeline McElfresh), ©1959

Special-duty Nurse Nancy Davies thought her case with Angela Crayton, the famous actress, would be a dream. She lived with the beautiful star in her summer home where Angela kept open house for all her Hollywood and Broadway friends. But Nancy soon learned that these men and women had a code of easy morality which said, “live for today, forget tomorrow.” Beautiful, young Nurse Nancy faced the sternest test of her professional career—could she be true to her own standards as a nurse—and a woman—in this glittering world?


“She’s so sure she’s going to die on the table, I wouldn’t be surprised if she does.”

“Everyone knew that Lee Saltonsbie was counting the days until he would go into private practice and ‘get started on my first hundred thousand.’ ”

“Clay’s future in politics had nothing whatever to do with their growing apart. If they had, she thought. No, it was her career—her dedication to it—that was causing the trouble.”

“Angela was improving. Or seemed to be. Sometimes, with these mental things, you couldn’t tell.”

Nurse Nancy Davies is one of those sad VNRN heroines engaged to a man who not only is unfortunately named Clay Randall but who is not the man she thought he was when they met in Maine last summer “on a glorious vacation of sunswept days and moon-drenched nights. They were a bronzed god and a laughing nymph alone in the enchantment of their love,” if you must know. Unfortunately, however, these deities were obliged to go back to work, and now she’s desperately trying to convince herself that her fiancé doesn’t have feet of Clay—and there’s only so much of this a reader can take before you’re ready to pummel Nurse Nancy right upside the head. “She didn’t hate Clay; she couldn’t do that. But did she love him? She had at first—of course she had! she told herself sternly. Surely that surge of happiness, the wonderful, exciting, different happiness, had been love! She wasn’t the type of girl to fall lightly in love and then out … and yet …”

See what I mean?

Clay, it turns out, is ambitious for a career in politics, and so Nancy must quit her job when they are married. “Why couldn’t he understand that the hospital and her work there were such an important part of her that without them she wouldn’t be the Nancy Davies he had fallen in love with? It didn’t matter that as Mrs. Clay Randall she wouldn’t have to work for financial reasons. She wanted to do more with her life than head committees and have lunch and play golf at the country club.” Why would anyone continue to entertain the idea of marrying this man through 100 pages, even when from page two “Clay’s kisses had become just kisses” and the man is clearly making her miserable—and would only make her more so if she actually went through with it? Have I mentioned that I find this plot device patronizing, idiotic, and lazy?

Anyway, the central plot is also somewhat patronizing, at least to faded theater star Angela Crayton, who once was the queen of Broadway but after three successive flops about a decade ago has holed herself up on the shores of Birch Lake, Indiana, and is showing depressive—bordering on suicidal—tendencies. Dr. Bartlett Howard, her physician, needs a nurse to pose as a secretary for Miss Crayton. “If Angela Crayton finds out that her doctor thinks she’s borderline mental the fat might be in the fire,” explains Dr. Paulson, the chief of surgery at Nancy’s hospital, when he urges her to take the position. It’s not evident that Nancy is the right person for the job; as Dr. Howard is filling her in on the details of the case, “Angela Crayton didn’t need a secretary or a nurse, Nancy thought. She needed a keeper.” Psychiatry, when viewed through the myopic lens of a 1950s-era VNRN, is horrifically stunted and frequently sexist. Angela “was being driven, something over which she had no control was lashing her into a frenzy of despondency,” we’re told—and Nancy’s next thought is, “Poor thing. Lonely, and getting old, hating the crow’s feet and wrinkles—” It’s a wonder all women don’t kill themselves at 45.

So the book is mostly a tennis match between Nancy’s distaste for her fiancé and her work as a typist and spy, noting every despondent look and midnight drive of Angela’s, and doing absolutely nothing about it. Eventually Dr. Howard strikes on the idea of having the local theater group stage the play that was Angela’s greatest triumph and asking her to reprise her starring “rôle”—and have a Hollywood director offer her the leading part in a movie. Just the thing to shake off the crow’s-feet blahs!

As Angela naturally improves under this thoughtful treatment, she eventually fires Nancy, telling her that she’s known all along that Nancy is really a nurse—her shorthand was terrible! Angela suggests that Nancy continue to stay on at her house, though, and take a job at the little hospital nearby, working for Dr. Howard. Now we have another trite device: A tornado whips through town, and Nancy is busy patching up victims—and breaking up with Clay, who shows up during the crisis to drag her by the hair back to his cave while she’s giving Mary Claudion another cooling bath and alcohol rub. Curiously, Clay is on his way out of town—empty-handed, of course—at 90 mph when he wraps his car around a tree, so now he’s back at the hospital, this time as a guest under Nancy’s care. Ordinarily this leads to some sort of epiphany or understanding between the couple, even if it’s just to agree they’re not right for each other and part as friends. But in this book, Clay is admitted, Nancy pours him a glass of ice water, and then three pages later she’s dropping him off at his law office and he’s stomping angrily up the walk on his crutches.

Back in Birch Lake, where Nancy has decided to stay permanently, everything is neatly wrapped up. Guess what happens with Angela? Guess who kisses Nancy next? You probably won’t actually guess there’ll be yet another calamity to attend to, with Nancy fervently urging, “Oh, Bart, hurry!” or that the final page will include the death of a minor character for Nancy and her new beau to smooch over—one of the more unusual endings I’ve come across—but these small surprises give not pleasure, only bewilderment.

This is a pedestrian, automatic, stupid book. It’s not badly written, and its most irritating aspects—its views on psychiatry, and Nancy’s reluctance to give up a man she doesn’t like and a future she will despise—can in part be chalked up to the archaic attitudes of the times. But the book is lazy, and the heroine who cannot acknowledge the dichotomy between adherence to sexist attitudes and the complete abandonment of logic and reason that these positions require is not worthy of our time. No one—especially not nurses, who are by definition strong, independent, smart, and capable—should be a willing victim. While I’ve certainly read nurse novels that are far worse than Nurse Nancy, I find after a couple hundred VNRNs under my belt I am becoming increasingly intolerant of stupid heroines, and so I cannot suggest that you stop and visit with Nurse Nancy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Resort Nurse

By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1969
When lovely Elizabeth Spencer, R.N., made up her mind to escape the narrow confines of hospitals and see for herself what went on in the outside world, she never expected anything like her job at Key Sud—the luxury Florida hotel where female attributes seemed more important than nursing qualificiations. She also never expected to be working with a doctor as handsome as Kimball Brown—nor with a nurse’s aide who was a very rich, very pretty, seventeen-year-old hippie with much too grown-up ideas. But the biggest surprise of all was James Scott Haldane, the savagely good-looking author who threw Elizabeth the curve of her life … and forced her to wonder whether she was ever meant to be a nurse at all.
“With her legs pressed together, she was feeling uncomfortable in the overly short uniform the management had insisted even the hotel nurse should wear.”
“You’re an intelligent girl, Elizabeth, and very, very attractive. I’ll be surprised if you remain a nurse for very long.”
“It was her eyes that fascinated him—those glorious, golden-brown, slightly slanted eyes. He had seen Eurasian girls with eyes shaped like that, but with most Eurasians there was an impenetrability behind them. These eyes were different—vital, utterly feminine, and full of changing expressions. And they were wholly American.”
“Women should only hide their eyes behind sunglasses if they have very pale, mean, blue eyes. Or if they have a squint.”
“You’re still a kid until you marry.”
“Rita was rather a plain girl with mousy hair and pale blue eyes, but she was cheerful and efficient, and beneath her mini-skirt she had perfect legs which, as far as the men on the staff were concerned, more than compensated for her face.”
“She was twenty-five years old, and she supposed it was time she thought of marriage with the right guy. But how did a girl go about finding the right guy? At one time she had thought that if he were tall, dark, and handsome, and two or three years her senior, that would be sufficient. But now she knew that this was not enough. A lot of other things came into it. Love and marriage should be for keeps, and that meant a great deal more than just physical attraction in a man.”
“I don’t believe any drug can put into the mind what isn’t there. The impulse must already be present, whether the addict knows it or not. But he or she has been told that this is what the drug will do, and, because they want to feel that particular way, they take it, and suggestion does the rest.”
“A doctor friend once told me that the difference between an heroin addict and an alcoholic is that the alcoholic gets high and goes home to beat his wife, but a heroin addict goes home and his wife beats him.”
I don’t pick up a Diana Douglas/Richard Wilkes-Hunter book with any eagerness whatsoever, and Resort Nurse is yet another reason why. They—and this—are superficial, stupid, patronizing, and perfunctory. And a little creepy; the heroines are usually ridiculously beautiful with “slim, high-breasted figures,” and in the case of Elizabeth Spencer, R..N., brains and personality—or so we are told, though we see little evidence of either in any of the pages that follow. Exhibit A: Elizabeth has left her job at a hospital because she’s decided “to escape the narrow confines of hospitals and to see for herself, for a while, a little more of what went on in the outside world. Life owed her that, she had decided, and this had been the argument she had used to escape, no matter how briefly, from discipline and routine. She had tried private nursing, at first, but had found the patients demanding and irritable.” So right off the bat, Elizabeth comes across as a lazy whiner.
She’d seen an ad for a nurse at a resort in Key Sud, Florida, and now she’s in Miami, being subjected to an unnerving interview with her boss, who insists, “When we’re alone, call me Marvin. That’s one thing you learn in the hotel business. People in high places come to detest formality, Elizabeth. They have too much of it in their work. Success is a lonely thing. It’s made me a lonely man. That’s why I want you to call me Marvin.” Next thing he’ll be telling her that his wife doesn’t understand him. When she finally shakes him off, she can’t get a cab, and when a handsome hotel guest offers her a ride in his “powerful white sports car,” she hops right in. It turns out that her escort is James Scott Haldane, a very successful novelist. She immediately dissects his latest play, which she didn’t like at all, and when he drops her off, “she had been ready to refuse an invitation to dine with him—or at least to go out with him again. Now she felt frustrated and angry: He hadn’t asked her at all. He hadn’t even bothered to ask her name!” So when James Scott Haldane calls her later to ask her out for a drink, she gets all pissy and hangs up on him. The next day she heads to the beach for an early swim and is “indignant” when he doesn’t show up, angry when he doesn’t call her. “Not that it mattered, she told herself, because neither did she have the slightest interest in James Scott Haldane.” Clearly.
But while in Miami, she inadvertently stumbles into a club for a cup of coffee and finds out it’s a drug den, with a couple of stoned teenaged hippies dancing in the back. Now we get a pages-long lecture about how evil LSD is and how it causes genetic defects and “leukemia-like symptoms of cell abnormality” (it doesn’t). Ham-handed foreshadowing is a specialty of the author, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s still irritating.
Once Elizabeth reaches the hotel, she is working with Dr. Kimball Brown, who “was not at all like James Scott Haldane.” Their biggest medical concern is Mrs. Connell, a pregnant woman with a heartrate of 42 and hyperemesis gravidarum, which the good doctor tells the patient, is “primarily caused by a neurotic influence, so you see how important it is for you to try to control your vomiting and not worry.” He asks her to “help us by trying not to expect to be ill every time you eat something.” His treatment is bed rest in a darkened room, codeine for sedation, and—the obvious treatment for someone who is bradycardic and vomiting excessively—fluid and diet restriction. He tells Elizabeth privately that hyperemesis gravidarum is “one of the toxemias”—an older term for pre-eclampsia (it is not)—and that “left untreated it could have led to dehydration,” so again, one does wonder why the doctor has ordered fluid restriction. Elizabeth is also told to position Mrs. Connell in bed “so she can’t inhale any vomitus while she’s under heavy sedation.” God help this poor woman, because the doctor obviously won’t.
After Mrs. Connell is soundly mismanaged, the next person to walk into the clinic is a 17-year-old girl in a “brief mini-skirt, a white sweater that accentuated her young, pert breasts, and she wore the pale makeup that kids seemed to find attractive.” And so I recalled with further dismay that Wilkes-Hunter never described a woman without mentioning her breasts. Sharon Miller asks about the “dangerous drug cabinet”—where could that possibly be going?—and then, “How much of a drag is it? Learning to be a nurse, I mean.” Elizabeth quickly assures the teen that “nurses have boyfriends they go out on dates with, the same as anyone else,” and adds, “I guess one of these days I’ll get married and that will be the end of my nursing career.” The more this book progresses, the less I like Elizabeth Spencer, R.N. Sharon asks if she can help out in the clinic, “as a sort of nurse’s aide,” to decide if she wants be a nurse in the same mold as Elizabeth: “Where I worked wouldn’t matter as long as I don’t have to be ‘dedicated.’ I could work until I got tired of it or wanted to marry some guy.” The ugly mirror Sharon is holding up to Elizabeth passes, needless to say, unnoticed.
It isn’t long before Sharon asks Elizabeth to “give me one of those pep pills,” and helpfully suggests amphetamine, or, when Elizabeth balks at that, “benzedrine then.” Elizabeth gives her a lecture instead, but decides Sharon’s interest in drugs “was not important,” and assigns Sharon to sit up all night with and dispense medication to pregnant Mrs. Connell, who is vomiting, hopefully while positioned on her side, despite the codeine. Poor Mrs. Connell’s prospects of surviving her medical treatment are growing increasingly dim.
Outside of work, Elizabeth is just full of bright ideas: She goes on a date in Miami with her lonely boss, Marvin, and between the two of them they consume a magnum of champagne. Amazingly still consious after this, she has him drive (!!!) her back to the seedy club for coffee, where they spot a girl who looks like Sharon Miller, apparently the same hippie stoner Elizabeth had seen gyrating wildly the last time she’d dropped in. Rather than try to chase the girl down, they convince themselves that it isn’t really Sharon and drive back to the hotel, Sharon’s head “pillowed carelessly on Marvin’s shoulder,” and nevermind the four or five times she’s hoped he wasn’t going to make a pass at her; she gives him an “almost sisterly kiss.” At this point I am wondering if the author wants us to hate Elizabeth in particular or if he hates all women in general. (Actually, I’ve read enough of his books to believe it’s the latter.)
One can only hope it’s a massive hangover that impairs her judgment and not her basic lack of sense when, the next day, Elizabeth asks Sharon to count the drugs in the drug cabinet. You will be shocked to find out that some amphetamines go missing—as does Sharon, who had gone to Miami for the evening. Does the penny drop? Not for our idiot heroine. She innocently asks Dr. Brown if someone might have stolen the drugs, but he is outraged at the insinuation that Sharon might have taken them, no doubt because he liked the tiny little bikini Sharon wore when he went surfing with the teen earlier.
Now Elizabeth is called to the penthouse suite, only to find—James Scott Haldane! Who finally gets around to asking Elizabeth’s name! She tells him about the missing drugs and kid, and he convinces Elizabeth that the two might be related: “She’s in the age group with too much money and too much freedom to do as she pleases. On top of that, she’s bored with her parents and is ripe for all that talk about middle-class Freudian hang-ups, indifferent parents, escapes, and so on.” The man missed his calling; he should have been a psychiatrist. So the pair climb into his powerful white sports car and head back to the club, where they chat with a groovy lad wearing a red-and-blue-striped coat and a stovepipe hat, who tells them Sharon has run off with a heroin addict named Roger. Hot on their trail, Elizabeth and James Scott Haldane find their dilapidated hideaway, break in, kick open bedroom doors, shine a flashlight around although the hall light had worked perfectly well, and find Sharon, buck naked and unconscious, on a blanket with needle marks on her “white thighs—which, along with her breasts, contrasted vividly with the rest of her suntanned body.” Next scene, it’s a few hours later and James Scott Haldane is inviting Elizabeth up to the penthouse for a drink and a little conversation, which entails his ordering her to quit her job and come to his ranch in Nevada with him, after they’re married in Miami. Ugh.
The constant references to women’s breasts; Elizabeth’s unbelievable stupidity and shallowness; the obvious, overly moralistic plot; the automatic and distasteful marriage proposal on the penultimate page—this book’s faults are many and egregious. It’s frankly insulting that the author should think Elizabeth is a heroine that we should like, although to be fair, there really isn’t one single likeable character in the book, so maybe he hates everyone—though his particular disrespect for women is quite apparent. As it happens, the book’s readers will most likely be women, and it’s usually a bad idea to insult your target audience. And so I suggest you refuse to allow Wilkes-Hunter to talk down to you and decline to open his books.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Doctor Jane

Book 2 of 6
By Adeline McElfresh, ©1955

Lovely, dark-haired Jane Langford had but one dream—to become a doctor. Orphaned, penniless, she fought her way through her internship in a big, tough, city hospital. A brilliant career lay before her. But tall, handsome Lance Hart—ambitious and socially prominent young lawyer—wanted Jane to renounce her dream, to belong to him alone. This is the story of a beautiful young woman forced to choose between a life of luxury and the stern rewards of her dedicated profession—of her daring quest for the truth which led her into a bitter battle against powerful and evil forces.
“That beautiful head of yours is as empty as the gourds I used to use for birds; nests when I was a kid. You could have a husband and a couple of kids—half a dozen, if you wanted them—but here you sit, waiting to go chasing off in an ambulance or to be called to Emergency.”
“Don’t go clinical on me, Dr. Langford. I don’t enjoy kissing a test tube.”
“I don’t see any royal carpet. Are you sure they’re expecting you?”
“I’m sick! Quick, someone, call me a beautiful doctor!”
I have seldom been more disappointed by a VNRN than I was when I finished Dr. Jane, Interne, the debut novel in this series about Dr. Jane Langford. I am pleased to say that this follow-up novel does much better, and I have to admit that the cliffhanger is an effective way of propelling you on to the next installment in a series.
When we last left Jane, she had agreed to give up her most fervent dream of being a surgeon at City Hospital to join the staff of one of those posh and distasteful convalescent hospitals for rich neurotic patients. It’s smooth Lance Hart, the object of a schoolgirl-like crush, who has persuaded her to do so, as he had been unable to convince her to abandon medicine altogether, and this seems like the next-best he can do. She had also agreed to marry Lance, whom we know is completely wrong for her. As I said, it was quite an upsetting conclusion for our otherwise strong, dedicated, brilliant, and honorable heroine, and I remain upset that Jane tossed her career in surgery away without any apparent regret, particularly after the extreme dedication and hard work toward that goal we witnessed in Dr. Jane, Interne.
As this book begins, Jane is a year into her tenure at the convalescent hospital, and she is still not married to Lance. She’s not happy, with Lance or her career, but neither does she seem sure she wants to give either up. Furthermore, her emotional growth has been nonexistent, and she agrees with Lance that she would want the word obey included in her wedding vows—though she has gotten where she is today precisely because she has refused to obey, fighting the bromides of the medical establishment about what women should be. She decides to take the weakest form of action, a leave of absence, and goes back to the small town where she grew up poor and orphaned and miserable. Dr. Ed Johnson, the Old Doctor, begs her to temporarily step in for him so he can have the first vacation he’s had in decades—three months, the lucky guy. She agrees, and soon she’s making house calls and seeing patients—and Lance, who drops by from the city to sneer at the small town and make Jane swoon in giddy lovesickness that I should have become somewhat inoculated against after the first book, but no such luck: “Don’t let me go, Lance! her heart cried. Don’t ever let me go!” You see what I mean.
Soon, though, she’s entangled in a scandal, after the wife of the son of the owner of the town’s major enterprise, the box factory, runs over a small child in the street. Jane is the only eyewitness, and swears that the driver, Mrs. Lola Morton, never even swerved or braked as she sped through town. Lance turns up, now an attorney hired by Mr. Morton to hush up the incident and keep Lola out of jail, and begs Jane to drop the case. Though weak in the knees from Lance’s kisses, Jane clings with the barest of fingertips to her conviction and refuses to drop her accusations. Soon the town drunk turns up as a “witness,” clearly bribed to swear Lola did indeed try to avoid the child, and Jane’s patients, whose livelihoods depend on corrugated cardboard, stop showing up for their appointments. Jane is convinced that Lance is behind all this, and the pair stops seeing each other.
Next door, however, is Minister Bill Latham, a calm, dependable type whom Jane likes immediately. He is always supportive of her job, never objects when she has to cancel a dinner date, and even runs helpful errands for her. She’s slowly falling for him, but there’s the small matter of that photograph on his desk of a young woman signed, “With all my love …” God forbid she just ask the man about it.
Most of the book is about Jane’s work with the townspeople, and this works out well for us readers. Jane is quietly humorous, serious, and never foolish, outside of her relationship with Lance (though to her credit, her increasing distaste for him speaks of a similarly increasing maturity in terms of her love life). Her growing love for Bill feels neither sophomoric nor frivolous, the way her feeling for Lance does. Though it’s obvious from the word go how Jane’s decision to leave town for good when Dr. Ed returns from vacation is going to play out, the book overall is so gentle and pleasant that I didn’t mind a little simplicity of plot. So while the opening salvo of the Doctor Jane series had me a bit worried, with this next all is forgiven, and I look forward to Calling Dr. Jane—though if the series stretches on for four more books, somehow I expect that Bill is doomed.

Alternative cover

Dr. Jane, Interne

Book 1 of 6
By Adeline McElfresh, ©1966
Jane Langford was the only woman in the new crop of interns at City Hospital. She soon found that the great Dr. Gillian, Chief of Surgery, hated women doctors and was using all his power to keep her out of the medical profession. The young male interns watched. Loyal Dr. Clem Bartlett gave her encouragement. Dr. Peter Farley pretended to cheer her on, but hoped she would fail so he could have her to himself. Conniving, cynical Dr. Hal Normal was frankly her enemy … But what of Dr. Tom Waycross—handsome, moody, fanatically dedicated—who stirred such dangerous new emotions in her untried heart?
“The average woman had neither the physical nor the emotional stamina for the often long, long sessions at the operating table; she wasn’t psychologically constructed to dissect, to slice away at human tissue, to saw through bone, or nibble it away with a rongeur.”
“No woman has any business becoming a doctor. More specifically, I feel that no woman has any business becoming a surgeon. Women have neither the physical nor the emotional stamina that Medicine and Surgery, especially surgery, too often demand, even in training, and because they do not possess that physical and emotional strength and stability, they too often expect the way to be made easier for them because of their sex.”
“Hal isn’t such a bad sort, when you forget he’s a louse.”
“I’m sick! Quick, someone, call me a beautiful doctor!”
“The prescription in a case like yours is one glass of water dashed in the face.”
“Don’t kiss me again, not like that, not now—not when I’ve got to go back and do a skull series.”
Dr. Jane Langford is just starting her (guess) intern year at City Hospital. She’s wanted to be a surgeon since she was a wee lass, and much is made throughout the book of the hard road she’s had in getting to this point: Her parents died when she was in high school and she’s had to work a number of odd jobs to finance her education. Which means that she’s had exactly zero time to cultivate her personal—or love—life. And which explains her rather schoolgirl crush on Dr. Tom Wayford; she pines to hear his name called over the intercom or catch a glimpse of him up on the pediatrics floor. And when they do finally get together, her joy is boundless: “She was locked in Tom’s embrace, and that was all that mattered—all that would ever truly matter, she told herself.” It’s a little unsettling to see a woman who has dedicated so much to her career thrust it so quickly to the back seat once she kisses a boy.
But her relationship with Tom is fairly peripheral to the story, and though we are reminded from time to time of her excited infatuation, the bulk of the story is about her travails as she passes through the various specialties in the hospital. Though it must be confessed that her travails are more social—a long-time doctor friend, Peter Farley, is always calling her “honey” and kissing her in public, though she feels nothing more than friendship for him (apparently, just telling him to stop! never crosses her mind), and the gossip mill is whirling with the idea that the chief of surgery, Dr. James Gillian, hates women doctors. (One nice touch is that as the book progresses, the story of why he feels this way gradually becomes increasingly embellished through the grapevine, and we’re never quite sure how much of this growing legend is actually true.) Her medical exploits are always exemplary and without fault: She saves a patient in surgery by administering a precordial thump (the two senior surgeons with her at the table apparently forgetting this potentially life-saving gesture), diagnoses a ruptured brain aneurysm in time to save a rich young man, and takes call for days on end without dropping. I do wish she weren’t such a superwoman; you don’t have to be perfect to be a great doctor, even if you are just a woman.
Her big struggle is to convince Dr. Gillian, when she finally ends up on his service, that women can be not just doctors but surgeons, and very good ones, and that he should accept her as a surgical resident next year. She is slowly succeeding at this endeavor, natch, but in the meantime, long hours at the hospital are cooling her ardor for Tom. Then, lo and behold, she meets wealthy Lance Hart, who is almost the only man in the book neither a doctor nor a patient. He’s a lawyer, and he sweeps her off her feet with flowers and candy, and instantly Jane is “acting like a sixteen-year-old with her first corsage”—meaning exactly as she did toward Tom when he first caught her eye. She’s swooning over Lance in a familiar and sickening way: “Oh, Lance, Lance! her heart sang, over and over again. Kiss me again, Lance darling! Don’t ever let me go!” Jane may be a great doctor, but she is a little kid in affairs of the heart.
The rub is that Lance is not wild about her being a surgeon, and is pressing her to dump surgery and join his mother’s convalescent hospital, where wealthy women go to take a little break. Jane has serious doubts: Could she give up her dream “of helping people who needed her desperately because, too often, there was no other doctor to attend them, or a doctor who cared? Could she be happy working with patients who didn’t need her, who didn’t really need any doctor?” In the last chapter, Dr. Gillian admits he was wrong about women doctors and offers Jane a spot in surgery under him next year—as we knew all along he would. Tom has dropped out of sight long ago, and now all she needs to do is wangle a ring from Lance to make her life complete—which he is suggesting she will only get if she takes the job at the convalescent home.
To author Adeline McElfresh’s credit, she never pretends that Jane is anything but immature in her feelings toward her men. With Tom, “falling in love with him, or thinking herself in love, had been natural.” And nothing changes when she and Tom drift apart and she tumbles for Lance. “It was easy to forget that she had thought herself just as deeply in love with Tom Waycross as she was, now, with Lance. It has been different between her and Tom. This was real,” McElfresh writes, and we can feel the sarcasm in the words. My beef, though, is that both relationships and Jane’s feelings are handed to us on a platter: We witness few conversations, shared activities, or anything that would show why Jane feels as she does. But perhaps that’s part of the writer’s plan, keeping us minimally invested in these relationships to help us feel that neither man is truly right for Jane.
The ending is the most shocking I’ve encountered in a VNRN, but this is the first in a series of six books chronicling the life and loves of Dr. Jane Langford, so we can only assume that Jane gets herself straightened out in Doctor Jane, the next installment. The writing is steady, if not particularly stylized or amusing or campy, and the story is good enough. Again, it would have made for a more thoughtful book if Jane hadn’t been Superman in a dress, and nothing in the story stands out to make this a great book. But it’s an easy, pleasant read, good enough to make me interested in finding out what happens next.

Calling Dr. Jane

Book 3 of 6
By Adeline McElfresh, ©1957

She was in love with her future husband, and Doctor Jane Langford eagerly prepared to join him at his remote African medical mission station. But then Doctor Paul Hamlin arrived to take over Jane’s busy practice. And as they worked side by side, the darkly handsome young doctor made no secret of his growing desire for Jane, his determination to keep her for himself. As Jane’s warm but errant heart responded to Doctor Paul she was faced with the greatest challenge she had ever known … Against the background of the busy, hectic world of modern medicine is told this challenging story of a young, beautiful woman’s search for truth and honesty.


“Being short and dumpy may have its compensations but I don’t know what they are.”

“So long as there is one person in the world, there will be senselessness.”
“There ought to be a law against you.”
Having spent very little time with Dr. Jane Langford and Bill Latham, her fiancé, in Doctor Jane, I had hoped we might get to see them together in Book 3 of the Doctor Jane series. But no—on page one, Bill has been in Africa doing missionary work for the past three months. Back in Halesville, Indiana, Dr. Paul Hamlin, a refugee from New York, has stepped onto the scene, and is supposed to take over the practice from Jane, oh, about now. But Jane just hasn’t yet bought that plane ticket. And now Bill is getting letters from Jane, and “something was there, between the lines.” Oh, no, Mr. Bill!
Jane starts off by protesting too much—and soon she’s up to her schoolgirl-crush usual, swooning over Paul. And then, before too long, Jane is kissing him and picking out a new house for them to live in after they’re married, the fickle wench. Meanwhile, there are strange goings-on: An unnamed doctor refused to see a woman with appendicitis because she was poor, and the woman nearly died … a strange, overly wired man barges into Jane’s office looking for Paul … later that same night, the local druggist is bashed on the head and killed, but all his money is still in the drawer … someone is prowling around outside Jane’s house at night, looking in the outbuildings …
For the most part, this book is incredibly delightful. The writing is amusing and interesting, and the little, sharp details that Adeline McElfresh tosses in almost off-handedly create a brilliantly realistic picture; at times I wondered if certain passages weren’t an actual diary of someone’s day rather than a fiction story, they felt so true. Most of the time we are out and about with Jane, through the various hospitals and homes and doctor’s offices, meeting a fairly substantial population of named patients and hospital staff. In some books, these hordes of characters can become overwhelming, but here, we get enough story about some patients that we easily remember them when they pop up again later, while others drop quietly away, serving as a quiet demonstration of Jane’s reach throughout the community and its importance to her.
The problem, as has been with the first two Dr. Jane books, is Jane’s utter lack of maturity when it comes to her love life. She falls like a ton of bricks for men we’ve barely met, and even after she’s engaged to Paul, we still don’t get to know him very well. Rather, what sticks is the quick observations of the things Paul doesn’t like, which also happen to be the things Jane loves: “Paul said they were medieval not to have an office nurse, as well as a secretary,” “Paul frankly admitted that he had no idea country doctors got out and around so early,” “he thinks we’re pretty small potatoes,” “no wonder Paul found Halesville dull sometimes.” These little droppings never bode well, and you won’t be surprised to learn that they weren’t wrong here, either.
The mystery of the book is not at all surprising when it eventually unfolds—which it does in two lightning-fast pages at the end, too fast to follow easily—and the red herrings that had been so convincing as they appeared are just as convincingly disposed of. Adeline McElfresh is a top-notch writer and a real joy when she is at the top of her game, as she is here. It’s just Jane’s lack of any sense whatsoever when it comes to a pretty face that misses the mark. I keep hoping that as Jane gains more experience with boys—she’s now had four beaux—she will wise up some, but so far, no such luck. Let’s hope that her next stop, Africa, proves she’s learned a trick or two.