Sunday, July 28, 2019

Paper Halo

By Kate Norway, pseud. Olive Norton, ©1970
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

Nurse Toffy [sic] collected men-friends easily, while her friend Nurse Clare was shy and fastidious. It was unfortunate that, because of a misunderstanding, the one man who attracted her gained the very opposite impression of Clare—and disapproved of her accordingly.


“That’s the trouble with men: you have to watch what you ask for, because they’re only too ready to be little gentlemen and supply it.”

“I smiled at the front-row patients to show them I had them well in mind. Two of them smiled back; the rest went on studying my shoes in that disconcerting way they have.”

“I’d long since learned not to be surprised at the speed with which the grapevine assimilated facts, like an insect-eating plant gobbling up its prey.”

I started this book and then had to put it down for a bit when I went on a long hiking vacation, and when I came back to it I couldn’t remember much of it, so I started over. How lucky for me that this is such a truly superlative book!

Nurse Clare Kennedy has actually been out of school for enough years that she has amassed a truly impressive body of experience. We watch her expertly staff a busy clinic and serve in a role more like that of a PA in the ED, making diagnoses, suturing wounds, and initiating treatment plans with complete skill, accuracy, and aplomb.

The only issue she has is that she is not impressed with the opposite sex. She’s had a couple of run-ins early on with boys who assaulted her in the name of love, and it’s left her pretty cool. Her roommate, Torfy, who is a more freewheeling type, tries to explain that kissing boys is perfectly acceptable, a hobby indulged in by “ordinary people. Like you and me, for example. Just people who enjoy petting in cars, that’s all. And a lot of perfectly ordinary and quite nice people do, you know. In fact they always did.” Clare is not buying it, however, especially after she is mauled again after the big nurse’s dance. “I’m not odd,” she tells Torfy, who clearly thinks otherwise. “But I just don’t want them to take it for granted that if I’m nice to them it means I want them to paw me.”

The only man she’s ever had eyes for, and the only gentleman she’s ever met, is Dr. Neil Sargent, who escorts Clare home after the big dance. But after their one brief drive, she doesn’t see him again for years. When they do next meet, he’s popping down to the ED to see a patient she’s requested help for from the covering doc—not realizing it’s her old heartthrob—just as Dr. Kenyon Fiske is pinning her down for her fourth assault. Clare manages to beat Ken away, but Neil, walking in as it is transpiring, thinks she’s pushing the doctor away because she’s embarrassed at having been caught in the clinch. He then looks with suspicion—a little too much, methinks—on her every interaction with anyone of the male persuasion. Clare’s a friendly person, too, so there’s always a copper sitting down to a cuppa in the ED after he’s hauled in an assault victim, or a resident to have lunch with at the end of a long night shift.

You know how it’s going to play out, and it does delightfully. The writing here is sharp, as in, “Sister folded away her smile,” and, “She slid a look at Torfy.” It’s written in the first person, and has a very amusing sense of humor, so at first I thought this book must have been written by the Marjorie Lewty, who gave us the excellent Town Nurse—Country Nurse, and though this book could be a sister to Lewty’s, it is a different author, but one who also penned another winner, Factory Nurse. I appreciated the realism of the hospital setting, such as when Clare “switched on the kettle and fetched the milk from the blood fridge”; the nurses I’ve known do enjoy serving popcorn in a bedpan. Clare is easily one of the most intelligent heroines I’ve ever met, and this book was sweet, smart, and much too short. Olive Norton has firmly established herself on my list of best VNRN authors, and I look forward to more of her books.

Monday, July 22, 2019

White Doctor

By Celine Conway, ©1957

Here is a hospital story with a difference, for it is set on a Burmese island where one white doctor and two nurses, with a native staff, waged a ceaseless war against tropical diseases, parasites and an utterly exhausting climate. Pat found it hard going in any case … but much more so when she fell in love with the doctor whose only feeling for her seemed to be intense irritation.


“Your bed always looks like the aftermath of a dog-fight.”

“Marriage is still a good career, you know. Not so good as nursing, in my opinion—but the next best.”

“It is only the open heart that lets in magic.”

“There’s a lot to be said for having a nitwit for a wife. I married her because she was too dumb to know a tea-plant from a banana. I wouldn’t have her different;  keeps me amused and gives me a good opinion of my own mental equipment!”

“You’re cold and composed and very efficient, and I ask for nothing more in any nurse. But on the inside you’re still a bit of a woman, and that’s what it is that gives you headaches.”

What do you do with the racism that is sometimes indigenous in a nurse novel written more than 50 years ago? In the past I have given it a disgusted snort, maybe even tacked up some passages in the Best Quotes section, not because they are best but because they are so ludicrous that they deserve to be ridiculed alongside campy exhortations that the nurse check what she’s done to the patient’s heart rate. But something happened to me as I read White Doctor, a book I expected to blow off with that same sneer. Maybe it’s the climate we’re living in lately, in which national political figures express similar sentiments (and only occasionally in more veiled language), where children are stolen from their families and locked in jails without adequate supervision, much less diapers or food. The distressing racism in these books is not antiquated as I had once naively thought they were, but are violently alive and thriving. I’ve decided that from now on every time I read one of these horrible sentences I will make a donation to an organization that combats racism. I’m starting off with a $100 donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I’m going to have to be careful about which books I read too far out from payday.

The odd thing is that White Doctor is actually a sweet book overall, one that snuck up on me. It opens at a small hospital in what is now Myanmar, where two nurses—our heroine, Patricia Millay, age 22, and veteran RN Lisa Collett, 35—are working alongside Dr. Vincent, who at 50 is on the brink of jungle-induced collapse. He’s being replaced by Dr. Mark Bradlaw, a 34-year-old bachelor, who blows in like a thunderstorm, all full of fire and shouting.

Pat is barely out of her student days but applied for an overseas position in an attempt to outrun the heartache of being dumped after a year of dating by a young MD who out of the blue told her he was engaged to marry a woman he’d met on vacation a few months prior. “And here she was, after three months, studentship quickly forgotten because she had been accepted as assistant to Nurse Collett, and they were the only two white women in Molang.” She and Dr. Mark immediately get off on the wrong foot when he scolds her for being too friendly with one of the two white patients they have, a young man who was temporarily blinded by an explosion. After that, the two spar fairly regularly, if they do have some occasional friendly chats in his quarters. “She gave me back almost as good as she got, so I piped down,” the doctor recalls his and Pat’s early days together to a friend.

Soon Lisa starts with a cough, and then rapidly starts to dwindle in the best Ali MacGraw tradition. We should not be surprised, because after eight years in the tropics she is “ravaged.” But Pat suspects there’s something else underneath it, and as her feelings toward Mark inexplicably sweeten, she thinks she knows why. She tells Mark that Lisa is in love with Dr. Vincent and is pining away now that he’s returned to England. As Lisa’s case looks increasingly hopeless, Dr. Vincent turns up and installs himself at Lisa’s bedside, determined to make her well and take her back to England as his bride. At the same time, an old girlfriend of Mark’s, Fane Dering Ernston, turns up. She had been a nurse who had dumped Mark to marry a wealthy patient who had promptly died, and now she wants her old beau back. Because they are so short-staffed with Lisa being ill, Mark hires her, and now Pat becomes more depressed, torn as she is by jealousy.

It’s not hard to see where this book is headed, but overall it meanders there in a gentle, sweet fashion. Most of the book is spent following Pat around the countryside as she visits friends, and if not consequential or brilliantly written, the book is pleasant and enjoyable. The biggest problem I had with it—apart from the endemic  condescension toward the local folk—is that I never got over my initial dislike of the blustering, domineering Mark, who continues to be rather mean all the way through; on page 163 we are told, “However kind his tone there was hostility somewhere underneath it, even today.” This is a common problem with VNRNs that initially present the love interest as a jerk and then have the heroine slowly warm to him; seldom is the writer skilled enough to illustrate a plausible change in the man’s character or misunderstanding of it by the woman. I didn’t like him at the start, and hadn’t changed my mind at the book’s end. We are told that Mark’s ongoing meanness to Pat stems from his own jealousy of her, but how are we supposed to get past the fact that he has never been nice? Apart from this, however, White Doctor is surprisingly worth reading.  

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Reluctant Nurse

By Anne Lorraine, ©1959

Nursing is a splendid career—but it must be chosen for the right reasons. A girl who is not suited to it, however hard she tries, might lead a more useful life elsewhere. That was Carol’s problem. Was she a born nurse? Should she return to dancing? Or would love and marriage provide a third way out?



“You look so lovely when you’re annoyed, darling!”

“That is the  beauty of this life—you can always be pretty sure that, whatever your problem is, hundreds of other people are going through the very same trouble.”

“Whenever Doctor Foreday visits our hospital, pet, half the nurses run temperatures!”

Carol Lloyd is the daughter of a very successful doctor who is kind of an asshole. He’s always brushing Carol off for more important things, and he makes it plain that he prefers her younger brother Stephen, who is destined to become a doctor the minute he was born sporting a penis. Carol, then, becomes housemaid and secretary to the pair, and studies dancing. The opening chapter, she’s performing a dance she has created herself (she even wrote the music, which includes violins, talented gal), and she’s sure to finally convince her father that she needs to pursue a career in dancing—but an emergency calls the doctor and Stephen from the audience—and then they suffer a car crash en route to the hospital. Pulled from a cafĂ© where she’s was just offered a chance to be a big star by Kevin Knight, a talent scout who’d been in the audience, she flies to the hospital and finds Stephen already dead and Dad on his way out. On his deathbed, he forces Carol to promise to carry on the family tradition and go into medicine.

Bizarrely, she decides to chuck her big chance at success as a dancer and go into nursing, even though she’s terrible at it and hates it. Far too many pages of indecision ensue—should she drop out of nursing? How could she break her promise? Did Dad always think she would make a great nurse, but never mentioned it until that fatal moment? Kevin keeps popping up to take her dancing and pressure her to quit nursing, and also to marry him, because “I’m in love with the real Carol—the girl who danced her way into my heart.” Through it all everyone is reminding her how bad she is as a nurse, and she’s always dropping kidney basins and breaking thermometers. So she decides that she’s going to drop out after exams and go back to dancing, which somehow satisfies her promise even if she passes the exams—which she does, apparently by the skin of her teeth.

Except now—you guessed it—she’s back to waffling again: “Surely, by proving that she could be a nurse, she had more or less committed herself to fulfil her promise to her father to its ultimate end?” Meanwhile, she’s become sort of a sounding board to Dr. Alan Foreday, who likes to talk out his medical cases with someone who can’t contribute at all to the conversation. When he’s not blathering on while Carol silently listens, he’s snapping sharply at her on the wards for all her terrible gaffes, like speaking to him. “To her shocked amazement he frowned at her, and his voice, when he spoke, was curt to the point of rudeness.” Miserably for her future patients, she’s decided to forge ahead with nursing and give up dancing forever when the man who was driving the car that smashed into her father’s is brought in, and he needs a brain surgery that’s only been attempted once—by Dr. Foreday—and he’d failed—and it was on a woman he was in love with—

Foreday is about to refuse to do the surgery when Carol overcomes her hatred of the man and begs him to try, and completely out of the blue Dr. Foreday tells her he loves her, though he has not heard her speak more than ten sentences, and most of those were, “Yes, Doctor.” She then suddenly recognizes that she loves Dr. Foreday: “Now, with the knowledge of Alan’s love for her, and hers for him, she knew she wanted only one thing from life … to be with Alan, and to do what pleased him!” After that horrible scene, Carol is even more committed to being a bad nurse. Until Alan tells her that he really wants her to go back to dancing, because apparently that’s really what her father wanted her to do all along, he just had never mentioned it and had been incredibly patronizing about her dancing to her face. Alan just wants her to be happy: “I want you to be yourself—because that’s how I love you.” Next thing you know, a major producer is on the line offering her a part that will make her a permanent show biz legend! Slow curtain, the end!

It’s a pity that I read this book immediately after I finished Make up Your Mind, Nurse, because they both have the same formula, and it’s not a good one: The nurse is being forced to do something she doesn’t want to do, but should she keep with it? It’s not interesting, it’s not suspenseful, it’s not enjoyable—it’s just irritating. Right from the opening pages I wanted to smack Carol Lloyd upside the head, and there are 192 in total to wade through. If Carol was reluctant to become a nurse, you should be more reluctant to read this book.