Saturday, February 22, 2020

Nurse of Ward B

By Rebecca Marsh
(pseud. William Neubauer), ©1963
Cover illustration by Mort Engle

“You may as well know what everyone else knows,” the associate nurse told Anne. “JULIA STOPE IS OUT TO GET YOUR JOB AND YOUR MAN!” Lovely young Anne Burr thought she had achieved everything when she was appointed supervising nurse of Ward B at McHenry Memorial Hospital. But that was when her problems really began. There was Ada Watkins, the stern chief nurse, a stickler for rules and detail—there was the possessive, handsome resident surgeon—the business tycoon who tempted her with wealth and glamour—and the brilliant, unpredictable young inventor who could make her heart turn flipflops. There was also Julia, clever and jealous, just waiting for Anne to make the slightest mistake—in matters both professional and romantic—so she could carry out her insidious plan.


“Kate can beat me at tennis without half trying. I always think there’s something wrong with a woman who excels at non-womanly things.”

“Anne, don’t try to think; just try to remain beautiful.”

“Never dance with an intern. I think they deliberately step on your feet in the hope of drumming up trade.”

“I blame all these tests of atomic devices for the wretched weather.”

I wish I could tell you what Nurse of Ward B was about. I will confess that I read it on a train to New York with a couple of gin and tonics on board, but I can’t be absolutely sure that’s the reason for my difficulty. This book reads more than a little as if it were by Peggy O’More Blocklinger, author of Disaster Nurse and Door to Door Nurse, which is to say ponderous, pop-psychological, overly methodical, and short on plot. But this I can tell you: Nurse Anne Burr is the supervisor of Ward B, and she is everything God meant when he created woman: beautiful, smart, insightful, a born leader. “Every person you’ve ever worked under here voted you tops in tractability, willingness, understanding, social relationships,” her supervisor tells her as she reveals that Anne is being groomed for the hospital’s top nursing job.

But she is an idiot when it comes to men, and maybe God intended that, too, or the poor dopes might never reproduce. To wit: She’s attached, of course, to loser Timothy Augustine Mahone, an engineer and inventor who declines to get a job, but though he’s dropped a tiny diamond onto Anne’s finger he won’t marry her, because he can’t support her financially. “Hang it, I’m in a box!” Anne explains to a colleague. “I love, he loves, I out-earn him, he won’t let his wife work, and there must be so much in the bank before we risk all on romance.” Her colleague astutely answers, “If you ask me, there’s a guy who doesn’t want to be married.” More on this theme later.

Anne, for her part, has the fatal flaw of insincerity toward her career: “To me, this is only a career I’m following until I marry,” she says. “If Tim proposed tomorrow I’d quit the day after.” Yet the bulk of the book is made up of a blow-by-blow of her managerial studies as explained to the scheming Julia Stope, her main rival for the chief administrator’s job after that good woman announces her retirement. Though Anne immediately declares herself not interested in Mrs. Atkins’ job, we watch her battle with Julia as if it were a tennis match at Wimbledon; every shot is drawn out and the contest lasts for hours. Unfortunately for Anne, Mrs. Atkins decides she is going to transfer Anne to surgery, because she needs to see how Julia would fare as leader of Ward B; apparently Ward A is not an option. Besides, Anne, of course, is a far superior scrub nurse than any other living human being, and everyone in the OR desperately needs her magical touch to put them all to rights. To wit: Dr. Bailey is a disastrously slow surgeon, but Julia invites him to practice on the hospital’s cadavers, and things start picking up!

Of course, after Julia is given Anne’s job as supervisor of Ward B, she turns out to be hopelessly horrible, and on her first day five nurses are on the brink of quitting. The curious thing, though, is that despite their Machiavellian attempts to undo each other, Anne and Julia are not nasty to each other: When Anne gets wind of the rebellion in Ward B, she stomps into Julia’s office after a long day in the OR to straighten everything out in about five minutes—all while Julia, having done time in surgery and recognizing how badly Anne’s feet must be hurting, gives Anne a foot massage.

At the same time, wealthy businessman Harry Underwood, who has become hopelessly smitten with Anne, offers Tim a lucrative job on the same assumption that everyone else has—he doesn’t really want to get married, and the lack of a job is just his lame excuse. Tim accepts, and on his first day manages, à la Anne Burr, to sort out the thorniest engineering problem that had thwarted every other man in the Underwood factory, so he wins a nice bonus and raise. He still comes across as a selfish, deadbeat loser who has the respect of not one other person in the book, but that doesn’t seem to bother Anne, who is “carrying a torch for a man who cares only for himself.” We’re given some false hope when she stops speaking to him after a completely bizarre scene that’s staged as a “quarrel.” VNRNs do at times have scenes with such subtle undertones that great volumes of information are apparently exchanged in a single word. Here we have one such moment: After Tim tells Anne that he’s working for Harry Underwood, his next sentence is, “Marry me tomorrow, Anne.” She whispers, “You ought to be ashamed. And don’t call me; I’ll call you,” and throws her miniscule diamond at him. What??? Thirty-two pages later, she returns to see him, and you’ve completely forgotten these weird two pages, so when she says, “The thing you suggested, Tim, was hardly cheering,” you’re baffled—and if you do remember, it still makes no sense. He answers by telling her, “I don’t want to marry a wheel,” referring to her job. Yet peculiarly, three paragraphs later, “He would have his profession, and she would have hers, and they’d have one another, too,” although he’s not agreed to take her on, no one in their right mind would take him, and neither she nor he has mentioned any reconciliation toward her working after marriage.

Author Rebecca Marsh turns out to actually be a pen name of William Neubauer, who has given us two stellar books in Police Nurse and Nurse Greer. Imagine my disappointment that Neubauer, who has earned two slots in the VNRN Awards for best book and best author, has stumbled so on Ward B. I also am more than a little surprised that Neubauer penned all three of these books. This one does bear some similarities to Police Nurse, but Nurse Greer seems entirely out of character. I’ve got another three of his novels on my shelf, though, so hopefully this one was an aberration. Or, as I have suspected of other authors, he didn’t actually write all the books that have his name (or pseudonym) on the cover (see also Ruth Ives and even the books by Florence Stonebraker under the pen name Thomas Stone). Only time and a few more hours between his covers will tell.

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