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.

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