Saturday, October 26, 2019

Doctor down under

By Anne Vinton, ©1964

When Nurse Kate Norwich arrived in Australia to marry her fiancé Trevor, she found him suffering from amnesia, and the wedding temporarily off, so she took a job as assistant to Doctor Rick Howleigh of the Flying Doctor Service to tide her over. But always she was conscious of Trevor, hundreds of miles away, keeping her to a promise she now wondered if she should ever have given.


“Jan was so plain and homely of countenance that she was resigned to never being a bride herself.”

“Apparently she had never heard of the word ‘love’ except as something which appeared in pop songs and rhymed with above.”

“I thought she was terribly courageous; that red hair and a red hat. It takes some doing.”

“I would have thought it pretty expensive to risk turning a pretty little filly like you loose and unlabeled among the herd.”

“Children are always getting infections and babies are insistent about coming into the world. You won’t lack employment.”

“To regret events is to regret life.”

“Nurses were so desirable as wives; their training had not only developed in them a deep and practical sympathy for afflicted souls but made them into warm personalities pre-destined to be good friends and sweet lovers.”

Nurse Kate Norwich has fallen in love with former patient Trevor Gallyard, but he’s gone off to Australia to start a new life with the plan for Kate to come join him there after he’s gotten established. Right out of the gate there’s trouble in River City, as Kate’s best friend does not like Kate’s beloved, thinking him “a bit wishy-washy”—and Kate herself, after being separated from him for a while, is forgetting his finer points. “Of course when they met again it would be wonderful once more.” Famous last words!

On the day that her ship sails for Australia, she gets a letter from Trevor saying that he doesn’t have the money to support her yet and she should postpone her voyage, “but nowadays the rules were not so rigid and couples managed to be happy sharing both the bread-winning and the running of a home.” (Of course, even today, both spouses might work, but it’s still the woman who’s doing most of the running of the home.) And Kate’s a feisty lass, to boot, so off she sails. The trouble is that she immediately meets Dr. Rick Howleigh, and they are naturally attracted to each other—but after she tells him about Trevor, his friendship cools, much to her disappointment: She finds herself “craving for Rick to look at her again as he used to do, his deep brown eyes speaking compliments which thrilled the woman in her. Now his gaze was cool, polite and impersonal. She could scarcely bear it.” She asks him why he’s changed, and he points out that she can’t eat her Rick and have her Trevor too, but then subverts his own argument by kissing her until she’s so weak-kneed she has to beg off dancing. “‘It was only animal attraction,’ she told herself somewhat desperately, ‘sex rearing its ugly head. Only—’ she turned uneasily in the bunk—‘it wasn’t at all ugly. Why didn’t I struggle, I wonder? I could have—should have struggled, at least.’”

Arriving in Australia, there’s another wrench in the works when she’s met by Trevor’s manipulative but rich aunt, who tells Kate that Trevor’s been in an accident and developed amnesia, and doesn’t remember her at all! Rather than take the next boat home, she decides to accept a job working with Rick in the outback, and stupidly agrees to honor the engagement for six months to give Trevor’s memory time to return. So off she and the good doctor go, driving and camping for days in the heart of Australia to join a crew of eight in the flying health service, delivering medical care by airplane to the European settlers in the far-flung regions.

Before 23 pages have passed, though, Kate realizes “I’m in love with Rick,” and then their plane develops engine trouble and they crash in a remote valley, stranded for days. “There are certain basic desires which, though kept decently sublimated in society, roar with a sense of urgency when man-made rules are even slightly relaxed,” Rick tells her. “If we stay here, like this, in three days it will have happened … we must move heaven and earth, if necessary, to get out of here.” Interestingly, Kate’s not in complete agreement: “The supreme capitulation, the giving and the taking, the act of love between a man and a woman. Was she supposed to be terrified? He would probably find her more than willing three days from now.” However each of them thinks of it, they are rescued with Kate’s virtue intact, and Trevor turns up to act the part of the relieved fiancé, kissing her passionately in front of Rick—and now she’s the cold one who’s forgotten the other. “Trembling with shock and mortification,” Kate “turned to look at this stranger who had dared make that show over her in public.” She decides, however, that “it would be cruel at this stage” to tell Trevor she does not love him—no, better to wait for his memory to be restored or for him to fall for her again before doing the obvious—and right—thing.

She and Rick work on side by side for a while, until Rick decides he’s had enough and resigns his contract. But then Trevor gets his memory back and Kate also leaves to fulfill her promise to marry Trevor, but fortunately Trevor with memory is not as dumb as Trevor without, and he quickly realizes that Kate does not love him, and that Rick really is her man. They end the charade on friendly terms, and Kate decides to stay on in Brisbane to work in the hospital there rather than return to England—but tell Rick she’s free? “What is a nice girl to do? No matter how much she loves somebody she has to wait to be asked.” Fortunately, Rick immediately turns up and in a disappointingly treacly paragraph they close up the book, but at least that part is done quickly.

Overall this is a pleasant story with interesting characters, only slightly weighed down by those contrived, lazy “obstacles” that force the star-crossed lovers apart (an engagement that cannot be broken, an inability to convey the news of its termination). This is one of the more frank VNRNs I’ve read on the topic of sex, which here is portrayed as something that normal, nice girls want to do, even if they shouldn’t—a unique point of view. Early on the book has a sense of humor, which sadly fades as the it progresses, and if not the most sparkling, the writing is good, and no one loves a plot line involving amnesia more than I do (a predilection that comes from years devoted to TV soap operas when I was a teen). This enjoyable book is worth an easy afternoon of armchair travel.   

Monday, October 21, 2019

Nurse’s Journey

By Helene Chambers Schellenberg, ©1967

Pert, red-haired Carole Henderson, R.N., was thrilled with the opportunity of visiting the most exciting cities in Europe. Each spot seemed to offer new surprises, as well as another young man eager to assist her and her eight-year-old patient on their journey. But Carole could not ignore the deep sadness that enveloped her whenever she thought of the eye operation that awaited little Diana on their return. Nor could she ignore her growing attraction for Diana’s recently widowed father, James Wheatley. Suddenly her logical nurse’s mind had become muddled with doubts. Was she merely confusing compassion with love? And if not, was she foolishly giving her heart to a man still in love with the memory of another woman?


“Poor Cathy! She would spend months in that body cast.”

“Dinner on the Tiber River! Just wait until I tell the girls back at the hospital about that.”

“Now take one of these little pills and stop crying.”
“You certainly have a way with children.”

If anyone ever described me as “pert,” as poor nurse Carole Henderson is here, I’d sock them in the jaw. Carole doesn’t even really deserve the epithet, as she is mostly just anxious and dull. She’s been hired to care for eight-year-old Diana Wheatley, whose corneas were somehow damaged in the car crash that killed her mother. Despite being in a  coma and nearly dying in the hospital—and saved by quick mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by our heroine, though I’m not sure how this could have brought on a return of spontaneous circulation—little Diana seems to have no other lasting repercussions apart from grief. But this is a major barrier to her undergoing a cornea transplant: “We can’t possibly think of operating on her eyes until she’s made the proper psychological adjustment to her loss,” the doc says. In an attempt to heal the child, Diana is packed off to London with Carole to visit Diana’s maternal grandmother, Henrietta Archibald. It’s curious that everyone thinks sending a nearly blind child to a foreign country with a strange woman to visit her dead mother’s family, whom she’d never met before, is going to be helpful—especially since it appears that “any jar to the head could result in irreparable injury to the already scarred corneas of Diana’s eyes.” Then again, if they’re already going to be replaced, what difference does further damage do? Perhaps you are already sensing that this booked is packed full of maddening little illogicalities like this.

In London, Henrietta, reveals that a very dear friend of hers is Dr. Otto Hans, one of the world’s leading eye specialists, who resides in Heidelberg. Though Carole feels it is “most unethical” to take the case away from the San Francisco surgeon who is currently managing Diana’s care, the child’s father is convinced that a consult with the Herr Doctor would be a good idea, so off the three females go. They start out on a ferry to Calais, during which short journey Carole picks up a Texan named Joe Spencer who squires the trio around Calais and takes Carole dancing. There, Carole, rents a car and drives them to Heidelberg to meet Dr. Hans and his hot nephew Fredrich, and now there are two young men mad for Carole, but Fredrich is a faster worker and takes her to visit the Heidelberg Castle, where he proposes. And did I mention that Carole has a fiancé at home, Jeff of no last name, of the usual mold of fiancés who are domineering and inconsiderate? When the suave Fredrich puts the moves on, “she should go immediately. Still she lingered—as though Fredrich had put a spell on her.” Is it love she’s feeling? “Carole’s heart was beating hard. How sure he was of himself—as though all he had to do was to appear to have girls fall at his feet. Men, she thought. They are all alike. Time, nationality made no difference. There was Jeff practically ordering her home. And the boy from Texas had been so sure they would meet in Paris. And now here was Fredrich telling her she would stay in Heidelberg.” Despite her disdain for the gender, she’s simultaneously musing, “Could they be happy together after all? Could she be happy as his wife?” while snapping, “I’m dedicated to my career!” He laughs, as he should, at her hypocrisy—in two pages she’s making a date to spend Christmas with Joe Spencer and wondering, as they set off to meet Diana’s father James in Rome, “Who would she meet? Perhaps some tall, handsome Italian sportsman who would drive her through the city is his very expensive sports car.” Meanwhile she pouts that “there had been dead silence” from Jeff after she dumped him, and sulks when Fredrich spends time chatting with a French woman at a party.

En route to Rome there’s a very bizarre episode in which the trio befriend a pair of American women travelling by motorcycle—and promptly witness the pair nearly get killed in a crash in the Alps. Carole, needless to say, saves another life, but in one sentence they’re following the ambulance to the hospital and in the next they’re pulling into Rome. Every relationship Carole has is fleeting and inconsequential.

After meeting Diana’s father James at the airport, Carole is now free to become a limp noodle. Her navigating a  car from Calais to Rome via Germany is viewed as a miracle—“even the rent-a-car representative was impressed. You should have seen his face when I told him a woman had done all the driving. He actually turned pale!” James laughs. Ha ha. “It made such a difference to have a man along,” Carole thinks, “someone to take over the struggle of trying to make oneself understood in a foreign land. How nice it was to enter the hotel dining room with such a good-looking escort; a man who knew how to order with finesse.” She can drive 1200 miles and save lives left and right, but can’t order her own dinner in Italy. How do you say ravioli?

Finally we’re back in San Francisco, Diana’s corneas having suffered no further damage despite her world tour, and now we learn that Carole “had cut herself free from one unwise romantic entanglement only to become involved in an even unwiser one.” Who could the feller be? Not any of the men she’s strung along up til now, but it’s James she’s suddenly in love with. “The important thing is to end it,” she tells herself, so she moves in with the Wheatleys and nurses Diana through her first cornea transplant, with another to follow in a few months. “I’ll leave at the first opportunity,” she firmly decides. Months pass. Then the book ends perfunctorily, and about par for Carole, she insists to James, “I’m not ready to give up my career,” and two paragraphs later decides, “Whatever he wanted her to be, she would be.”

I don’t mind a book being nonsensical, but you really need to get the impression that the author intends it to be a farce. Here you feel that Ms. Schellenberg is either incredibly sloppy or can’t be bothered to get the details right, such as when James says he learned Italian from being forced to learn Latin in law school. For all the armchair travel we do here, the book is more focused on Carole’s string of lame infatuations, and anyway the author doesn’t have the skill to make even a visit to the Vatican inspirational (we get quotes from a tour book, watch Carole kneeling in a chapel to “offer up her own humble prayer—to rededicate herself to her career,” and wait in vain for the lightning to strike her down). Carole is not a likable heroine, so I feel unfortunate that I had to spend so much time with her. You, however, are forewarned, and so can avoid spending 1200 miles in a car on this dull journey.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Nurse Caril’s New Post

By Caroline Trench, ©1959

Doctor Justin Garthorpe was reputedly a tyrant, and while Penelope worked for him, sparks were bound to fly. And she had to cope with family worries as well as an exacting job. Here’s the story of how she succeeded.


“Nursing was the most worthwhile life in the world and she loved it all, from the work that could sometimes be so satisfying and sometimes so hard, to the friendly companionship of the other nurses.”

“Justin never thinks of the decorative value of nurses when he engages them, although I’ve told him it would make all the difference to the patients. Not to mention the doctors!”

“How encouragingly human you look! The starch and stiffness have all evaporated into thin air!”

“He thinks of me as someone who helps him in his work, not as a woman.”

“You’ve made me absolutely agog with curiosity. How do you look agog, by the way? But I clamp my lips together and nobly forebear to ask more.”

Penelope Caril is a London-based nurse who suddenly learns that older sister Alison and her husband Bill have been killed in a car crash, leaving her guardian of nephew Sandy, age 7, and niece Grace, age 17. This means she can no longer work the alternating shifts of her hospital because she’ll need a steady schedule for the children, so she relocates to the coast to take a position in a small children’s hospital founded by Dr. Justin Garthorpe. He’s got a reputation as a strict martinet but a genius with children and their illnesses, and during Penny’s interview with him, she finds him “infuriating,” three separate times but nonetheless thinks “she didn’t know whether Justin Garthorpe infuriated her or interested her. But, whatever her feelings were, she knew she wanted to work for him.”

Not that you will be surprised to hear this, but soon she is in love with him. They seem to have a close friendship, and he involves her in his toughest cases, but he is also at the same time somewhat aloof—“what had brought the brusqueness to his voice, the lines between his eyes and the streak of gray to his hair? What was the mystery of his life—and would she ever know it?” Of course she will, and it’s revealed by a shrew who calls herself mother of one of their patients: Justin’s own daughter had come down with appendicitis and the diagnosis had come too late, he had operated and she had died, and his wife had died shortly thereafter of suicide. The scandal!

But Justin’s friend Simon has a slightly different take, and explains that Justin had been working through an epidemic at the time on four hours’ sleep a night, living at the hospital, and that little Barbie had been seen by another doctor who’d blown the diagnosis. By the time Justin had finally gotten home, Barbie was too ill to be saved. And the wife had left Justin and died of an overdose of sleeping pills. Justin, of course, doesn’t see it that way, and is so haunted by Barbie’s death that he can never love again.

So Penny sets out to find the whole truth, and drags Justin off to meet an old friend of his wife’s, who tells the real story—that Adele had been on the brink of coming back to Justin to try to start over, but had been troubled by severe anxiety which necessitated the fatal sleeping pills, and her death was an accident!

Exonerated by the truth, Justin is free to tell Penny that he’ll never marry again, but that he expects she’ll be happy with any of the several beaux floating around Honeysuckle Cottage, where she lives with the children …

It’s a slight, pleasant enough story, with a few interesting characters (Penny and Justin, unfortunately, not being among them), but no surprises of plot to make it particularly unusual—apart from the nurse’s dorm fire that Justin extinguishes with his hands, blistering them so badly he nearly faints from the pain, but strangely the next day he is driving around the countryside and gripping Penny’s wrist, “the hardness of his grasp almost bruising her flesh,” but apparently with no discomfort whatsoever. Rather, the story seems to be a goodly number of the usual conventions strung together—surly misunderstood teen made right by love, crabby doctor made right by love, perennial bachelor and ugly nurse and crippled fiancé made right by love. Still, if there isn’t much to it, what there is is enjoyable, and you certainly could do a lot worse.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Nurse Judy

By Elizabeth Wesley (pseud. Adeline McElfresh), ©1958

As Nurse Judy Byron worked under the white lights of the operating room, she remembered the words of a wise teacher: “A good surgical nurse is as important to a surgeon as a steady hand, a keen eye.” Now, watching the skilled hands of Doctor Peter Clay as they coaxed life back into  a still heart or pieced together a shattered skull, the words had a fine, true ring. She was an essential tool in the surgeon’s miraculous work. But Judy Byron the woman could not escape the tensions growing around her, the distrust and hostility between the two chief surgeons, Doctors Murdoch and Clay. As a nurse she should never take sides, but watching Dr. Clay’s steady hands so often clenched in anger as he worked to save Murdoch’s patients, she found she cared very much. As her love grew, Judy Byron knew she must become more than just a surgical tool to Peter Clay.


“Doc’s great on acquainting his patients with what’s going to happen to them. Makes a patient feel better, he says, to be familiar with hospital routine. Well, now, he sure should have told me there’d be a hazel-eyed angel to hold my hand and—”

Judy Byron is a nurse at Whittingill Memorial, where she cares for surgical patients. The chief surgeon, named Dr. Montgomery Mason Murdoch, of course, has been carrying on with Karen Whittingill, great-granddaughter of the hospital’s founder and owner of the Whittingill chemical plant. And whenever you see the words “chemical plant” in a nurse novel, you know what’s coming. In fact, this book has a good number of the usual tropes, but it’s as if they are isolated gum drops thrown into a melted frappe of a novel, as a good number of them go nowhere despite taking up considerable space in these pages. There’s the crabby patient of Dr. Murdoch’s, rich Mrs. Ravensby, who keeps ringing the fricking call light for no reason at all and demands a lot of Nembutal. She’s becoming increasingly put out with her doctor, and a number of times Judy involves the nursing supervisor out of some never-named “concern” for Mrs. R, but at the end of the book she’s suddenly discharged and her story, whatever it might have been, is left bafflingly open-ended.

There’s “Staph” with a ph Murdoch, who never washes his hands before surgery so all his patients flirt unnecessarily not just with him but with death by sepsis after their trips to the OR. “Lister would turn over in his grave, at the way he scrubs up,” says another nurse. But the chief of staff seems completely unable to stop it, again for no reason that we’re given, except possibly because of Karen Whittingill’s intervention on her longtime boyfriend-but-not-fiance’s part.

The explosions at the chemical plant (you knew they would happen) is combined with a general sense of unease: “Things are pretty bad out there, Judy. It’s the morale, I think,” explains Judy’s longtime beau, newspaperman Hi Lambert, and I feel like I run into a brick wall every time I see his name on the page. “Something very definitely was out of kilter in both Whittingill Manufactory and the hospital,” we’re told. A sense of unease so great that everyone in town is talking about it, but the only explanation the book gives us, after suggesting that something sinister is behind the several chemical burn incidents, is that one of the employees is a drug addict—hardly enough for all the number of times “tiny prickle that is apprehension cake-walked along her spine,” the “throttled” doubts, the “nibbling small worry,” and don’t even get me started on all the issues Judy has going on under her sternum.

There’s the night someone sneaks up behind Judy when she is on duty alone on the night shift and knocks her out with ether—though nothing else seems amiss apart from Judy herself, who wakens insisting that she needs to finish getting ice water for Mrs. Ravensby, because she is one dedicated nurse! But after an hour’s worth of kerfuffle, during which hunky Dr. Peter Clay comforts her in his rumbling warm voice and steadies her with his firm, fine surgeon’s hands, it’s back to normal with not even a security guard or a motive for the attack—as every little pill in the drug cabinet is accounted for.

Orderly Andy Dexter continues to remain employed despite the fact that he seems to be the source of every patient-privacy-revealing story that Hi prints in the paper, and Judy’s increasing displeasure with Hi who “had no business sneaking around Dr. Tim’s back to get his story!” demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of basic journalism despite the fact that she’s been dating this man for many years.

Only a few of these  mysteries come to a head when a man at the plant is clubbed on the head and suffers third-degree chemical burns, an attack witnessed by a young woman who promptly vanishes. The victim dies despite Dr. Clay’s magical hands, and now everyone in town is on high alert except Judy’s ward, where one night she stumbles across a big guy riffling through the drug cabinet. Instead of calling security, Judy decides to confront the man, who in classic evil-villain monologue confesses to the attacks on the dead man and Judy herself, and having taken the keys to the drug cabinet out of her pocket and rather than immediately avail himself of an excellent opportunity to clean it out, instead somehow had a copy of the key made (at the nearby 24-hour hardware store?), slipped the key back into her pocket and waited for a super-busy night a week later to come back for the goods. Then he decides to strangle Judy, who is rescued by the rare ambulatory patient wielding a potted gloxinia, and I kid you not.

Now the really shocking part comes out!! The man turns out to have been the single patient of Dr. Murdoch’s not felled by sepsis who was rewarded for his survival by getting so much narcotics from the illustrious Dr. MMM that he became addicted. Dr. M, instead of taking the obvious way out with his prescription pad, instead steals drugs in some unspecified way from the hospital and sells them at exorbitant prices to the hapless former patient. This is actually the first time I have come across this problem in a VNRN, a problem that has legitimately become a really frightening issue for the country and a seldom acknowledged, seriously shameful blot on the medical profession that started the whole crisis, with much less repercussions than those faced by Dr. MMM. So buried deep in this hapless two-day-old fruit salad of a novel is an actual meaty issue—quickly whisked off the table by the overzealous waiter of an author who wants to turn and burn us, jumping essentially from mid confession to months down the road, spending exactly one page showing us who Judy has eventually married, someone she has heretofore never even kissed (which actually could include her boyfriend Hi).

In wanting to be all things, this book ends up being essentially nothing, completely missing a real chance at providing us with something substantial. Judy has deeper relationships with her flower garden than she does with either of the men she is ostensibly interested in. All the repetitive hackneyed phrases are old, well, not exactly friends, because we can’t actually admire this trite, overused language, but they’re certainly familiar to longtime readers of Adeline McElfresh, here writing as Elizabeth Wesley, who loves a cliché in language as much as she loves one in plot. There’s nothing overtly bad in this book except a blatantly obvious lack of effort, which begs the question of why we the reader should bother with it when the author has not.