Thursday, January 23, 2014

Down East Nurse

By Sylvia Lloyd 
(pseud. , ©1965
Cover illustration by Martin Koenig
Also published as Dr. Walkers People
Lovely, city-bred Claudia Snowden came to Maine to nurse her aging aunt—isolated in a remote New England village. Expecting to find an old-fashioned doctor using outmoded methods, Claudia found herself working instead with young, handsome Dr. Adams—who was as dedicated as the top-notch physicians she had worked with in the city… so dedicated that Claudia apparently could not tear his attention away from his work to herself. Should she abandon all hope of ever reaching this aloof doctor and say yes to the man who really needed her?
When we first meet Claudia Snowden, she’s standing in her rich great-aunt’s over-decorated living room in Reachwood, Maine, evaluating the contents for its monetary value (she doesn’t find it) and wondering, “Where was the Snowden money?” She’s been dispatched to this godforsaken backwoods to care for old Elizabeth Snowden, an aging spinster with pneumonia, by her widowed mother in the hope of securing a prominent position in the old bag’s will. But Claudia is not the best option for a special nurse. Upon graduating, she had decided that “she wanted no more of bedside nursing” and had gone to work for an upscale specialist where patients pass quickly through, and “there was no feeling of involvement of responsibility.” She is full of scorn for the country doctor who has not admitted Elizabeth to the hospital, particularly because “when she met a man for the first time, she took for granted that instantaneous spark of interest and admiration in his eyes”—and the look the good Dr. Adam Walker bestows upon Claudia is rather one of scorn. Indeed, he dresses her down for criticizing his treatment plan, telling her that “Miss Libby” has refused hospitalization.
So Claudia is stuck in Maine, caring for Aunt Elizabeth. The only friend she has in an unctuous unsuccessful self-proclaimed artist, Chase Carpenter, though “the challenge of capturing Dr. Walker’s interest still remained.” Chase is entertaining, but Claudia has her doubts about him: He leaves his two boys, ages 7 and 8, at home alone; he refuses to pay Dr. Walker’s bill when one of his sons was ill; he shows no compassion for the poor. But when he finally kisses her, she is “astonished” to find that she enjoyed it. “Had she fallen in love at last?” Uh, no, dear. That’s just your glands talking.
She’s certainly not impressed with the townsfolk, who, though they regularly drop by with a bucket of milk or a cold ham for Miss Libby, aren’t warm and embracing. Indeed, Claudia finds them taciturn and coldly aloof, narrow-minded and insular. So when Aunt Elizabeth is clearly on the mend, Claudia is about to blow town when Chase falls out of the loft where he paints and shatters his leg, requiring surgery. He refuses to go to the hospital, however, unless Claudia stays with him morning and night. To get him to go, she agrees, thereby cementing his idea that she is in love with him, loudly proclaiming to every patient and healthcare professional that Claudia is “his girl,” much to her chagrin. Oddly, however, she doesn’t seem able to correct him on that score. But at the short-staffed hospital she helps out when she’s not rubbing Chase’s back, and manages to make herself useful, even coming to feel attached to a few of the patients.
Then comes the unfolding of a commonplace plot: Adam is cold to Claudia because he thinks she’s engaged to Chase, and she can’t bring herself to tell him—or Chase—that she’s not. It’s one of the more idiotic turns, because it seems utterly ludicrous that she can’t just open her mouth and start talking. But the book is largely redeemed by the way it presents her gradual unbending into a less grasping and materialistic individual into a caring, conscientious professional and human being. I also appreciated that Adam is always depicted as an admirable person; his initial disdain for Claudia is well-deserved and we know it, so we are spared another VNRN convention that I cannot stand, the complete ass presented as a dreamboat. The ending hits a small rough patch, though, with a dark secret from Adam’s past revealed but never really resolved. If the writing gives us nothing for the Best Quotes category, it goes down easy, and overall this is a pleasant enough book.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Hurricane Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis ©1961
Cover illustration by Harry Bennett
Betsy Stockwell had been taught in nurse’s training to maintain an impersonal attitude toward her patient. Only then could a nurse do her job efficiently. But when the patient was your own father, though, how could you be anything but deeply, personally involved? For Betsy’s father, the beloved Dr. Cal, had had a heart attack and after his treatment in the hospital it would be up to Betsy to see that he made a full recovery. Postponing her plans to marry young Doctor Paul Norbert, Betsy accompanies her father to Florida. They are met by a handsome young doctor who practices medicine with a cool competence that both amazes and infuriates Betsy. What is a man like Mark Everett doing in this Florida wilderness? As Betsy begins to learn the answer, she finds that her interest is more than a professional one …
“Funny thing, how all you fellows beat your brains out and wear yourselves to a nub, trying to heal the human race of ills it’s not a bit anxious to lose. So why? The whole world’s about to go boom any day, so why bother to keep people strong and healthy?”
“A really top-notch nurse is half the battle in any operation.”
In the first chapter, Nurse Betsy Stockwell is desperately in love with Dr. Paul Norbert, and they are planning to marry in a few months and move to northern Georgia, where Paul will become a small-town GP in order to pay off a school loan. But then Betsy’s father, surgeon Cal Stockwell, drops of a heart attack after finishing a complex kidney transplant, and has to go somewhere dull for six months to recover, and Betsy insists on going with him. Her separation from Paul is all devotion and sorrow: “I love you very much and couldn’t be untrue to you, ever, not even if I took lessons and tried for years and years,” Paul swears; for her part, Betsy vows, “It’s like that with me, forever and ever and until the day after!”
You’ll never guess what happens next. Upon arrival at Blue Heron Cay, Betsy meets Dr. Mark Everett, and the pair takes an instant and deep dislike to each other. This is, of course, a standard VNRN device, but to her credit, Ms. Gaddis meets this head-on. “Love and hate are such terribly strong emotions and only a hair’s breadth separates them,” explains Donna Pruitt, a young hussy who brazenly chases Mark, “and quite often when you think you hate somebody to pieces, you wake up some morning and realize you don’t hate him at all. In fact, you’re nuts about him!” (Betsy responds that it will be a cold day in hell when this happens, and Donna says what we’re all thinking—“Famous last words!”)
Betsy attempts to take Donna under her wing and educate the poor misinformed lass about the proper way to win a man: “You can’t win a man by pursuing him that way. Keep him guessing!” she says. Betsy belabors this philosophy through several chapters and repeated sermons: “I think you’re scaring the poor man half to death, going after him as shamelessly as you are. I have a hunch that he’s a man who likes to do the pursuing.” Donna remains blithely unmoved, and it is only Betsy who squirms as Donna links her arm through Mark’s.
Then the advertised hurricane strikes, and Betsy and Mark work tirelessly to operate on a four-year-old girl. In their fatigue afterward, Mark holds Betsy’s hand and calls her darling, but surely that’s the lateness of the hour talking! No, Mark insists, they’re in love and must marry, he says the following morning on the beach after the storm has blown itself out. Betsy trots out the specter of Paul, who is no longer described in the adulatory terms we’ve grown accustomed to. Now it’s all obligation: “Paul was counting on her. Depending on her,” she thinks. “She had given Paul her word, and she would live up to it as selflessly and surely as she had lived up to the Florence Nightingale oath.” Again, Ms. Gaddis seizes this metaphoric bull by the horns. “None of which is worth a damn, if you’re not in love with him,” Mark declares. “No man wants a wife who is secretly in love with another man. To go on with your marriage to him would be a wicked, outrageous thing.” But before he has time to carry the point with another smooch, who pulls up to the beach in a battered boat but Donna, and when Mark helps the petrified seadog ashore, Betsy is inanely convinced that Mark will marry Donna.
Suddenly Dr. Cal is well enough to leave the island, and Betsy bravely marches back to her job at the hospital, “as though she was walking toward some dreary future.” But she needn’t worry—before too long she catches Paul in the diet kitchen with another woman! She declares herself relieved to be free of Paul, but is still convinced that Mark is going to marry Donna, based on absolutely no evidence apart from Donna’s dogged ambition. Then Donna shows up in Atlanta, shopping for her bridal trousseau: She’s engaged, but—get this—to another man!  Now, however, all Betsy’s lectures to Donna about “chasing” men come back to haunt her, and she tells her father that it would be “too humiliating” to tell Mark that she wants to marry him, after all. Furthermore, “her sense of duty” to a patient she is specialing, a wealthy teenager recovering from a drunk-driving accident, now makes it impossible to visit Mark; why she can’t telephone or write a letter is not explained.
But one evening she discovers that the old watchman has allowed her patient’s friends to sneak into the hospital. Totally out of character, Betsy explodes, telling Larry not just that she will have the watchman fired though he is unlikely to ever find another job again, given his advanced age and ignominious behavior, but also that the young father and husband that Larry smashed into was burned to death in the accident, a little fact that Larry’s parents had meant to keep from him. Larry becomes hysterical, and Betsy, with “icy coolness,” “without remorse that she had told him the truth,” shoots him up with a sedative that knocks him out for the rest of her night shift. “She was still blazingly angry at those spoiled brats who broke laws for thrills,” we are told, as if this somehow justifies her brutality. The next morning Larry’s mother lets Betsy go, but for reasons unrelated to her shocking unprofessionalism. This frees Betsy to fly to Blue Heron Cay, where she finds Mark roaming the beach and confesses, “I’m a shameless woman! I’m pursuing you relentlessly!” She tells him that “as soon as I could get myself fired by the patient I was tending, I came straight down here,” as if her scene with Larry was a deliberate, manipulative act meant to free her from her own responsibilities. Now, she decides, “from that moment on she would do whatever was his will.” I wonder what she will do when she decides that obligation is no longer convenient.
I was quite pleased with this book up until Betsy’s sudden transformation into a brutal enforcer of punishment to rule-breakers, even more troublesome when juxtaposed with her own “joyous” flouting of a social “rule” that she herself has repeatedly beaten Donna with. Betsy undergoes no reflection on her past attitudes that indicates any growth of character or explains such hypocrisy, and the scene of her unapologetically abusing Larry is actually shocking, offering nothing to the plot but a puzzling glimpse of cruelty in our heroine.
Until this point, however, this is a crackerjack book. We get sparkling characters like the quintessential sassy girlfriend, and Mark is a self-assured hero whose initial dislike of Betsy stems from her own snobbery of the island, not from the author’s wish to make him an ass one minute and devilishly attractive the next. The writing offers a self-awareness that is unusual in a VNRN and a welcome change, and we regularly meet enjoyable passages such as, “The boat moved like an elderly lady after a day’s hard shopping, determined to get home but not seeing the necessity of hurrying too much lest she wreck her dignity.” I will even dare to say that I found Mark and Betsy’s crucial scenes to be exciting, which is an extreme rarity in this genre. So though it has a serious flaw in the end, I can still heartily endorse this book as one of Ms. Gaddis’ best.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 VNRN Awards

I don’t think anyone is more surprised than I am to find that I have actually made it to the fourth annual Vintage Nurse Romance Novel Awards. I’m not sure what it says about me that 220 nurse novel reviews later, I’m still putting along; I just hope it can in some way be construed a good thing.

Rules of the game: Winners are chosen from the VNRNs I have read this year (42 books by 35 different authors). The Best Authors category includes all the VNRNs reviewed for this blog, but only authors with more than one review are included; the One-Hit Wonders category is reserved for the best books by authors with only one review.

1.       Town Nurse, Country Nurse, by Marjorie Lewty
2.       Visiting Nurse, by Jeanne Judson
3.       Nurse Tennant, by Elizabeth Hoy
4.       Nurse Greer, by Joan Garrison
5.       Woman Doctor, by Alice Lent Covert
     1.       Northwest Nurse
1.       Northwest Nurse
2.       Eve Cameron, M.D.
3.       Luxury Nurse
5.       Nurse from the Shadows

1.       “Would you like to go down by the river? There are benches, and I promise to behave outrageously.” Jennifer Jones, R.N., by Norman Daniels
2.       “She wished frantically that she were back in some nice safe operating theatre where the worst thing that ever happened at tables was that people died on them.” Nurse Tennant, by Elizabeth Hoy
3.       “Oh, Anne, not you—not you, of all people, wearing trousers!” Leap in the Dark, by Rona Randall
4.       “The marvels of artificial limbs, Lisa, can never be overestimated.” Luxury Nurse, by Peggy Gaddis
5.       “ ‘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.” Town Nurse—Country Nurse, by Marjorie Lewty
6.       “She jerked open the car door and saw the blood gushing from his chest. Instantly she stepped out of her half-slip and started tearing it in strips. I’m glad I wore a cotton one, she thought.” A Nurse Abroad, by Marion Marsh Brown
7.       “ ‘People don’t grow up until they’ve had some banging around,’ he observed.
‘Well, bang me around then,’ she replied. ‘I might like it.’ ” Five O’Clock Surgeon, by Dorothy Pierce Walker
8.       “It’s bad manners to turn down a proposal before the fellow makes it. Gives a sort of impression of overconfidence.” Candy Frost, Emergency Nurse, by Ethel Hamill (pseudonym of Jean Francis WebbIII)
9.       “He’s not a complete Philistine, you know. I told him that I liked French painting, so when I went to see him at St. Agnes’s he talked about impressionism and the romantic movement all through two hernia operations and one gastrectomy.” The Doctors, by Clara Dormandy
10.    “Even at the risk of destroying some beautiful image you might have of us Norberts, I must confess that we still have an ample supply of vermouth.” Island Doctor, by Isabel Cabot (pseudonym of Isabel Capeto)

     1.    Faith Baldwin (3.8 average, based on 4 reviews)
     4.    Marguerite Mooers Marshall (3.7 average, based on 2 reviews)
     4.    Jeanne Judson (3.7 average, based on 2 reviews)
     4.    Patricia Libby (3.7 average, based on 2 reviews)
     7.    Ethel Hamill (3.3 average, based on 3 reviews)
     7.    Helen B. Castle (3.3 average, based on 2 reviews)
     7.    Joyce Dingwell (3.3 average, based on 2 reviews)
     9.    Rosie M. Banks (3.2 average, based on 4 reviews)
     9.    Phyllis Ross (3.2 average, based on 2 reviews)

ONE-HIT WONDERS: Best VNRNs by authors with only one review
1.       “K”, by Mary Roberts Rinehart
2.       A Challenge for Nurse Melanie, by Isabel Moore
3.       Surgical Call, by Margaret Sangster
4.       Nurse Pro Tem, by Glenna Finley
5.       Walk out of Darkness, by Arlene Karson
6.       Nurse at the Fair, by Dorothy Cole
7.       Woman Doctor, Alice Lent Covert
8.       Nurse Greer, by Joan Garrison
9.       Nurse Tennant, by Elizabeth Hoy
10.    Town Nurse—Country Nurse, by Marjorie Lewty