Saturday, August 20, 2016

No Escape from Love

By Bennie C. Hall, ©1968

Linda Harland, R.N., fled from Boston’s Riverview Hospital when an emotional holocaust threatened to engulf her. Dr. Greg Arnold, the man she secretly loved, had announced his engagement to another woman. For self-preservation, Linda had to give up nursing and the life she knew in the States, and accept an invitation to visit her father, a mining engineer, in Liberia, West Africa. With much to remember and much to forget, Linda threw herself into a new life on this strange continent and even let herself enjoy the attentions of wealthy playboy, Chris Osborne, and young medical researcher, Dr. Paul Arnold. With them, Linda suddenly became conscious of herself as a desired and desiring woman, only it was the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong man! Linda found there was no escape from her solemn pledge as a nurse and no escape from love, no matter how fast she ran, nor how far she went.


“Jet lag is one of the hazards of the space age we happen to be living in.”

“You’ll probably be changing your name any day. Pretty girls, I’ve noticed, are allergic to single harness.”

“Don’t tell me you’re a nurse? How dumb can I get? I should have recognized the symptoms: patience, fortitude, interest in medical shop talk.”

“I’m sure you have any number of good qualities. Of course, you do like to shock people, but that seems to be the thing nowadays. It’s a kind of emotional sickness, I suppose.”

“I never drink anything stronger than bourbon.”

“She managed to convey with her eyes a scathing indictment that no proper Bostonian would dream of putting into words.”

“Is it you—or am I on one of those LSD trips?”

“Nurses were strictly for healing, not feeling.”

“The medico who can fool a staff nurse is yet to be born.”

“How could any man in his right mind let a wonderful girl like you escape? If he’d had the sense of a half-wit, he’d have locked you up.”

“I have no notion of freaking out.”

“She resisted a housewifely impulse to straighten out the mess of papers and close the desk drawer, fearful of displacing something vital to Research.”

“Already we’ve shared just about everything from witchcraft to war, not to mention a tropical rainy season.”

Linda Harlan has been working with Dr. Greg Arnold for two years, and the pair were an unstoppable team—but entirely platonic, much to her chagrin. When he suddenly announces his engagement to a society woman, Linda feels there is no choice but for her to flee this “emotional holocaust” (a term that seems a bit hyperbolic, given that her relationship with Dr. Arnold would remain completely unchanged if he did marry this other woman). So she reaches out to her estranged father, now living in Liberia, and when he invites her to visit him and his second wife and stepdaughter, she quits her job and hops a plane. There, despite the ubiquitous shortage of nurses, she prefers to spend her days in a social whirl among the wealthy white set of West Africa, despite the urging of Dr. Paul Raymond, a young medico intent on saving the world from tropical diseases. So she flits from party to party and decorates the house for the Christmas holidays.

What takes me one paragraph to relay fills more than half the book, so if you choose to begin at Chapter Nine you won’t have missed much. At this point, Dr. Arnold writes to Linda to let her know that his wedding has been cancelled, and subsequent missives start building up to what Linda feels certain will be a marriage proposal. How she feels about this is unclear: She puts the letters in a box and thinks about all the promises she’s made to various people, chiefly to Paul Raymond to work for a few months in his very rural clinic.  

Maybe you should start at Chapter Ten, in which Linda heads off into the bush. Once at the clinic, she works hard caring for sick natives and in the research lab with Paul. Months pass. It rains a lot. OK, so let’s make it Chapter Eleven, where Paul tells Linda he’s in love with her. Then they bicker for the rest of the chapter. There’s an incident with a woman who is convinced that her baby is hexed, and Linda is excessively worried about this thorny problem, which smacks not lightly of racist overtones, eventually insulting the native aide with a patronizing tirade, but the baby is fine, and Linda is sorry afterward that she was cross and hateful. You might want to skip that part, too.

In Chapter Twelve we learn that “trouble hovered over the rainforests.” An unexplained civil war breaks out, seemingly triggered by nothing but the weather. And Paul is pissed! “Wouldn’t you just know they’d drum up a ruckus at a time like this, right when I’m on the verge of coming up with something important? I no more than start making plans of my own when bedlam breaks loose, and I’ve got to start grubbing all over again,” he grouses to Linda. Those Africans are just so darned inconsiderate!

In the last chapter, Linda freshens her makeup and goes to the lab to watch a midnight dance with Paul, but it’s so frightening that “the most dedicated Peeping Tom was reduced to goose pimples.” Linda, therefore, winds up with her face pressed to Paul’s shirt, and marriage is proposed. In the ensuing two pages, the fates of men and countries are summarily wrapped into neat bundles, perfect for the upcoming Christmas wedding! And that’s the end!

The other VNRN of Ms. Hall’s we’ve toured, Redheaded Nurse, was a simple yet sweet little book. This one, I am sorry to say, is more dumb and less enjoyable. It feels as if it were a chore to write, because it certainly is a bit of a grind to read. The characters are flat and have little importance to the story; in fact, major events such as war seem to have little importance either. The writing can be campy at times, but that alone is not reason enough to venture past the horrifying cover illustration. Add the tinge of racism (though not as egregious here as it is in some VNRNs), and this book is best left on the shelf.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Ellen Matthews, Mission Nurse

By Ralph E. Hayes, ©1966

There were many reasons for Ellen’s decision to give up her position at Chicago’s City Hospital and join Father Clousseau at his African mission—not the least of which was a chance to forget her recently broken engagement to Dr. Richard Creighton. The unspoiled beauty of the Masai Plains and the simplicity of its people allowed the young, auburn-haired nurse to sort out her emotions. This was an opportunity to contribute something of value to mankind, as well as a chance to find herself. But that was before she met rugged, self-assured Craig Adams. Suddenly her emotions were once again in turmoil. Could she trust her strange new feelings? Could she be in love with a man she hardly knew?


“We brought the Africans into our dining quarters shortly after their independence. It made a good impression on them, and they have behaved very well here. They are learning.”

“The woman in Africa has not had equal status thrust upon her. She walks several discreet paces behind her man when they are in public together. She cooks his food, builds his fires, tends all his needs. She wants it that way.”

Ellen Matthews has given up her man, Dr. Ralph Creighton, who is a 33-year-old chief psychiatrist and out to make her both his long-term patient and his stay-at-home bride. Because a breakup is so much more effective when you’re a continent away, she has packed herself off to Kenya to join a mission hospital in the country. The mission is run by Father Clousseau, with occasional drop-ins by Dr. Peter Smith-Talbot for three days of marathon surgery. The good doctor is married, however, so it’s up to Craig Adams, local game hunter, to provide the love interest for our auburn-haired heroine. At first sight, Ellen is less than impressed with Craig, because he is somewhat scornful of her ignorance of how medicine is practiced in the bush, without all the modern conveniences. But “he was, she had to admit, very handsome and very masculine.” So we can see the writing on the wall, even if he admits to some crudeness: “I don’t get much practice in how to act around white women,” he explains.

Life at the mission hospital involves a lot of tropical diseases, and occasionally witch doctors invade the hospital, kidnap the patients and murder them. This makes attracting patients somewhat difficult, needless to say. To help fill the time, Ellen goes out on various expeditions into the bush with Craig, who captures animals to ship to zoos all over the world. This he considers “conservation” work, especially when he is lucky enough to nab an endangered species. Ellen isn’t entirely won over by this argument, but still comes along to admire Craig’s skill and perseverance while running down baby giraffe.

Most of the book revolves around Ellen’s conflicted feelings for Craig. She does treat a few patients now and then, but her work is mostly backdrop and few real patient stories are given to us. The big adventure at the end involves Ellen going with Craig and Father Clousseau to treat a village overcome with sleeping sickness and helping to move the population to a less-susceptible location. As Ellen is on the brink of admitting her love for Craig, she gets a letter from Dr. Richard, who urges her to come back to him, as he is a shell of his former self. Curiously, both she and Craig frame this as if she would be going back to marry Richard, “whether she really wanted to or not,” she thinks, because she felt obligated to help him. It’s a bit of a failure as a crisis of her relationship with Craig, because she’d have to be a complete moron to do something like that. Even if these idiotic impulses are routinely considered by VNRN heroines, it doesn’t make them any more compelling. Then Craig has a close encounter with a leopard in the jungle, and it turns out that Ellen, who despises hunting, has actually done a fair amount of it back home in the Midwest, and is a crack shot. Now that Craig needs her help too, her choice becomes a lot more clear, especially after he tells her that he’s taken a job as game warden and is hanging up his nets and dart gun for good.  

Of all the nurse novels set in Africa, this one is easily the best in terms of armchair travel: Its descriptions of the countryside are well-drawn and vivid, allowing you to really believe while you are immersed in its pages that you are not in any American landscape. Ellen demonstrates more independence in her actions than she does in her interior monologue, and unfortunately the author does not demonstrate the chops to make the dichotomy work, much less acknowledge its existence. But if the story is facile and the conflicts simplistic at best and baffling at worst, it’s still worth reading just for the scenery.