Bonnie Schuyler let herself be talked into joining the Candy Stripers. As a junior aide at the Medical Center, she lightened the heavy work load each regular nurse had. But she sometimes wondered why she was there—she didn’t plan to be a nurse; it was hard work; she didn’t especially like helping other people. One day she met David, a technician who was interested in a hospital career. Somehow he made her feel rather special and very grown-up.
“Mother thought she should consider teaching or library work. It was ‘safe,’ she said. People would always need teachers, and librarians were scarce.”
“Down, Mavis, Down. You are a riot. No maidenly reserve at all.”
“Cliff didn’t know she was alive, and now that she thought of it again, it was rather maddening. It could ruin a girl’s ego.”
Candy Stripers pushes the boundaries of nurse novel, given that it’s about 15-year-old Bonnie Schuyler’s summer as the eponymous candy striper—with an avowed disinclination to ever work as a nurse, much less as a candy striper after this miserable summer is over—who may flirt with a number of boys but ends the book firmly decided that she is going to see lots of boys and not just Rock Caldwell, who she’s been dating pretty steadily. Patently wholesome teenager treacle, but she’s not wrong; as nurse novels go, she’ll likely be married in half a dozen years, so she should play the field while she still has a chance.
Bonnie starts out the book as a fairly petulant spoiled brat, upset that her family is going to rent out their summer home in New Jersey this year in order to save money for her to go to college: “You know,” explains kindly dad, “college for each of you girls will cost two thousand a year and then some. Multiplied by four years apiece that’s a pretty staggering amount.” With two kids in college this year myself and the annual bills running six figures, I’m absolutely staggered that this family is going to get through it all for under $10K apiece. But rather than being grateful that her folks are picking up the tab for her education, Bonnie thinks it is just not fair! “It would be a shoreless, dateless, horrid, dull, boring summer.” Until neighbor Nancy talks her into becoming a candy striper.
While she and the other new recruits are a little nervous--“I’ve never seen a strange man in a bathrobe before!” shrieks one—it won’t be all hard work: “When you come here after school, cookies and milk will be served. You are girls on whom we depend, and so we shall see to it that you are well nourished,” says the head of volunteers.
Bonnie has frankly mixed feelings about it, enjoying some parts of the job but fuming about the nerve some nurses have of insisting on their high standards: “Who did Miss Winters think she was, anyway! Here they were volunteers—donating their time—and she treated them in this high and mighty manner,” after Bonnie and a couple other girls were caught fooling around with the cranks on a hospital bed and getting it stuck in a most awkward position. “There was no justice or understanding in that woman, Bonnie thought resentfully,” on another occasion when she’d gone to drop off a specimen at the lab, not come back for an hour when she stopped to flirt with handsome lab tech David, and gotten chewed out on her return. She’s not really fond of working: “‘What do we actually do?’ Bonnie asked, uneasily, hoping that it wasn’t too much. After all, she didn’t have Nancy’s passion for the work.” Again and again, even as we move into the end of the book, we are reminded that Bonnie is “one of the least devoted,” not really interested in helping people. “Why did everyone assume that she was mad about this work? She wasn’t. She was merely finishing a job she had undertaken—much too lightheartedly and impulsively. Whatever else this summer might teach her, one thing Bonnie would never do was jump into anything again!”
There are some stories of patients who triumph over adversity and Bonnie’s small role in helping them, as well as others who die, including a kid hit by a car, that actually do seem to penetrate Bonnie’s hard, selfish heart. So does that cute guy David who she chases all summer and finally maneuvers into a corner. “Oh David, I’m so in love with you,” she blurts out, and he, shocked, points out that he’s a college graduate seven years older than her. “You’re still such a baby,” he says, apparently expecting, in typical male fashion, that this is going to make her feel better. You will not be surprised that Bonnie spends pages wallowing in her grief, ducking into the linen closets to sob: “Oh, David, David! She wept brokenly.” After watching her not care about anything up until now, it’s hard to feel anything for her except a thin disgust.
True to form, when Nancy offers Bonnie a ticket to the end-of-summer capping ceremony—candy stripers with two years of service get to wear a cap—“it meant almost nothing to Bonnie at that moment,” but she manages to agree to go. “Bonnie smiled perfunctorily. No caps for her. She had almost done what she had signed up to do, and then she would forget it.” During the ceremony she isn’t even paying attention when the nursing director describes how the candy stripers have helped patients, recalling actions that Bonnie herself had taken for a burned baby. It isn’t until the candles are lit and the girls kneeling on a cushion to be capped, “like a benediction,” when “the newly capped girls were renewing their pledge of service, purity, integrity,” that Bonnie perks up. “The faces of the capped girls, in the glow of their candles, were almost ethereal. There was joy and dedication in them—an almost holy purity.” Suddenly Bonnie is rethinking it all: “This business of serving others, of being considered a responsible individual, needed. There was a peculiar satisfaction that went with all that. Until this summer she had flitted through life concerned mostly with having fun. And now, suddenly, she could no longer deny the strong pull of the hospital.” Now she’s planning on getting her own cap, and “she might decide to be a nurse, or a technician; even a doctor, maybe!”
This book was clearly written for a teen audience, so condescending and preachy is its tone. Pity the poor kids, and not just the ones Bonnie is forced to take care of. Bonnie, who is self-absorbed and sanctimonious throughout this book, in the last five pages undergoes a completely unbelievable transformation prompted, it seems, by a religious sentiment infusing the capping ceremony that for all its talk of “purity” could be confused for nuns taking their vows. When we leave Bonnie on the last pages, she has become someone completely different, dedicated to serving humanity, dating many boys but none seriously (i.e. maintaining her purity), contemplating “a new year on the way. A year of fun and school, and helping at the Medical Center—and who knew where that might lead! But for now, being a Candy Striper and just living would be enough!” In other words, what any ’50s era girl is supposed to be. I almost think I liked shallow Bonnie better, because at least she wasn’t a conformist cookie-cutter.