Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Village Nurse

By Joanne Holden, ©1964

Lorena read it in Deke’s glazed eyes. He had lost his battle to clean up River Street. And failure could mean an epidemic. As Deke’s office nurse—and the woman he loved—Lorena had to help him. There was just one way. The one who could save him was Beat Wetherill, the richest man in town. Lorena would go to him—and plead. But she was asking for trouble. Beat Wetherill—once Deke’s friend—was now his enemy. And he was irresistably attractive …


“You’re what is known as a natural dancer. I ought to have gotten the message from the way you cross the office floor.”

“I wasn’t born with a thermometer in my pocket. I’ll date anyone I please.”
“You add a decorative touch to this plain office.”

“I’m sorry you felt it was necessary to mix your threat to me and your proposal to Lorena in the same breath.”

Lorena Loring is a rare nurse with a blot on her record. Of course, it’s ill-deserved: She was once sued for assault and battery for having given a patient a blood transfusion despite the fact that the patient refused it on religious grounds. It’s actually an interesting story, from today’s perspective: An unconscious man, brought to the ED, had been ordered blood. When he came to, he told her to stop it, but she was unable to reach the doctor who ordered it. All she could do was “tell the patient once more she could not stop the transfusion except by doctor’s orders.” It’s curious in that, at least in this fictional event, (1) the doctor’s orders superceded the patient’s, (2) Lorena could not bring herself to at least put a hold on the order until the mess was straightened out, and (3) the patient didn’t just rip the IV out of his arm. I certainly hope this sort of thing didn’t happen even in the long-ago ’60s.

Anyway, she moves back to her hometown of Laurelton, in the Berkshire Hills of (presumably) Massachusetts to escape the ignominy, and quickly winds up working alongside Dr. Derek “Deke” Collingwood. There are other men on her horizons, too: the unfortunately named Beat Wetherill, the heir to the paper mill owner. This “exalted being,” as Lorena describes him, was the object of an alarming high school crush; Lorena had spent her time “lurking near the entrance to the Wetherill driveway, hoping to catch sight of Beat Wetherill. She had even been successful a few times and, as Beat flashed by in his sports car, had felt her heart jump in her throat.” What goes around comes around, though, as now she’s the object of an obsession: former casual beau Clyde Furness is convinced she’s returned to town just for him, and can hardly wait for her to marry him and quit nursing. “I’ve going to have you for my own,” he tells her. “Go on and play at being a nurse, and I’ll be waiting when you come back.”

Dr. Deke wades into the action when he tells her, “I’m not going to make a practice of this, but I’m going to kiss you, and nothing you can stay will stop me. Relax.” I can only hope this never really passed for romantic, because today it’s just creepy. Nonetheless, “Lorena did as she was told and thrilled to his kiss,” but not wanting to get into a relationship with her employer, pulls away and offers him a sandwich. Having disposed of him, she now has to fend off Beat, who walks in off the street and kisses her hard as she struggles to get away. Discovered by Dr. Deke, “Lorena was furious: with Beat for his thoughtless attentions; with herself for not anticipating his actions; and with Deke for having picked that moment to come out of his laboratory.” Curious that she blames not just her attacker but herself and the one who helps her fend him off, even if he is pissy about it, though it’s unclear whether he realizes she was being assaulted.

Naturally, Lorena is soon dating the insufferable Clyde and Beat as well, perhaps just to prove Clyde wrong, who has told her that Beat would “never look at a village girl” like her. Their first date is curious, from a sociological standpoint: Out on a picnic by the river, he puts his arms around her and tries to kiss her, “but she slipped away” and started setting out lunch—and then “silently scolded herself for putting him off so abruptly.” Then she brings up the name of a young woman in town who is putting the moves on Dr. Deke, suggesting that Beat would rather have brought her to the picnic. Beat becomes annoyed, telling her, “You’re a spoiled brat. If you weren’t such a beautiful spoiled brat, I’d be tempted to spank you as you deserve.” She, for her turn, becomes upset by his “resentful attitude” when she had brought up this other woman, and wonders if she should “plead a headache and ask to be taken home.” All these headgames brought me back to junior high, yet Lorena doesn’t seem to mind them and continues to see Beat.

Deke, meanwhile, is busy mounting a crusade against the slum that lines River Street, all owned by Clyde Furness. Sure enough, a small epidemic of German measles breaks out, claiming the child of the local handyman. Clyde’s own nephew Eddie is also a slum victim: There’s a cute little rumble between the River Rats gang and the slightly less imaginatively named Bridgers of nearby Bridgerton in which several boys are injured with antiquated weapons including switchblades, a skid chain, the antenna from a car, and a zip gun, and Eddie is the only fatality. Clyde responds to this personal tragedy by stating that he will publicly (and falsely) accuse Deke of malpractice and expose Lorena’s past unless Lorena marries him and Deke leaves town. Deke agrees to go, and Lorena is furious, calling him a quitter for abandoning the poor and the effort to improve health conditions in town. Deke argues that the next doctor will pick up the effort, and that if he didn’t succeed, he furthered the fight. “I don’t feel as if I’d failed, or that I’m running away from the problem at all,” he says, though he clearly has done both. Lorena, relieved, hurries off to make instant iced coffee.

Over these refreshing beverages, Deke tells her he’s going to take a research position in New York and he wants her to marry him and go with him. Her main objective accomplished, she’s suddenly tepid: “She had thought she might be in love with him. Yet now she felt curiously detached, as if they were casual co-workers.” Her main concern, it seems, is that, “suppose he ever wants to talk to me about his work? It would be another language as far as I am concerned. A nurse doesn’t deal in abstractions or theories. All nurses deal with people.” I’m not quite sure I follow this at all, but Lorena’s landlady renders the argument moot when she points out that “you would give up nursing anyway and start to raise a family.” The ending soon follows, a tidy resolution to all Lorena’s problems, including that pesky career, as her fiance (and you knew there would be one) tells her, “I’d expect a home-cooked supper” every night. Phew!
Lorena is a curious character. On one hand, she is feisty, often ready with the snappy comeback, and not afraid to tell people off. Yet throughout the book we are given example after example of her bizarre motivations and self-defeating decisions, and the two sides of her character seem incompatible. In the end I am just puzzled by the whole book, and the nauseating ending just confirmed the feeling. With the slums about to be revitalized (and you knew they would be), the poor families are summarily dealt with in a way that the healthcare team could have accomplished themselves, had they thought for five minutes about the problem. Furthermore, Clyde’s defense of the slums still echoes: “Suppose I fixed up those houses and charged the people a fancy rent—could they pay it, when they can hardly pay the pittance I ask? How many houses are there in Laureltown where these people could go, if it were not for me? Where would they live, if not on River Street?” Now that the slums are going to be torn down, and the developer emphatically telling Lorena that he plans to make money on the deal (Lorena answers, “You deserve to make money when you do something as fine and necessary as cleaning up the River Street pesthole”), it seems that all that really mattered was that the poor folks be relocated somewhere else so their blighted neighborhood could be eliminated. Both professionally and personally, Lorena has accomplished her missions, and we can all rest easy. Unless you’re one of those poor families about to lose their homes.

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