Friday, June 19, 2020

Nurse Angela

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1965

“There’s a contagious disease sweeping the hospital!” Handsome Doctor MacDaniel stood before Nurse Angela. She sprang up, her eyes enormous with shock. “It’s a thing called love,” he added, grinning. Nurse Angela sank back in relief. “It’s the spell of the tropics,” she said. “I hear it’s pretty potent.” He moved closer and took her into his arms. His kiss was like a small, gentle hand curling about her heart. But why was her heart afraid?


“We’d much prefer that men shouldn’t understand us. We’re not a bit complex, but we like to have the masterful sex think so.”

“You couldn’t offer a man a more deadly insult than to tell him he is not your type and that he’s safe with you because there’s no danger of you falling in love with him.”

“I probably won’t ever fall in love with anybody. It’s a very undignified emotion.”

“There was a twinkle in his dark eyes as he turned and walked away toward the men’s ward, where there were four sailors who had been badly burned in an explosion aboard a fishing smack a few days before.”

“You’re doing beautifully, Mr. Abernathy. And we’re going to send you home in another week or ten days.”

As the book opens, Nurse Angela Dennard is arriving in Pirate’s Cove somewhere in the Caribbean to work for two doctors who have hired her for two years based on her resume, without having met or spoken to her in advance. Immediately upon her arrival, it’s clear that there’s going to be a big problem: “Dr. Mac will flip his lid when he sees you,” says the other “nurse” on the team, a young woman named Nancy Galloway, who has no license or formal schooling but was trained by Dr. Mac. “We were expecting a nurse, but not someone as young and beautiful as you are.” Apparently “there’s an unwritten law at the Cove that no woman under fifty who is easy on the eyes—and you most certainly are all of that—should be allowed to set foot on the place.” This is a real predicament!

For the next dozen or so pages, everyone who meets Angela remarks about how gorgeous she is, to the point where our patience has grown more than a little thin. “Perhaps I can wear some sort of disguise that will conceal what you seem to feel is a very disturbing appearance,” she snaps at Dr. Mac, and then performs the Patented Peggy Gaddis Heroine Exit, marching out of the room with her head held high.

Before long, though, everyone’s forgotten about Angela and her troublesome face, and now we swirl around five people on the island: not-nurse Nancy; ferry captain Nelson Phillips, with whom Nancy is in love; 17-year-old debutante Kathleen “Kitten” Hansell, who has been whisked to the island to escape the scandal of her having witnessed a murder in a New York City night club; Burke Abernathy, a 25-year-old society man whom Kitten has lured to the island to keep her company; and Barbara Clayton, a 30-year-old millionaire who owns most of the island and acts as its main benefactress. These characters also quickly wear thin, as Nancy and Barbara are described as plain in appearance and are both insanely insecure, thinking that no man could ever possibly want to be involved with them. Barbara develops a crush on Nelson, though she is “much too old for him,” and she and Nancy have a contest to see who can be the nastiest, the most self-centered, and the most childish. Nancy wins by a fair amount, as she soon develops a raging dislike of Angela when Angela buys Barbara, hospitalized after she was stomped by Champ the bull, a bunch of pastel negligees. Worse yet, Angela fixes Barbara’s hair and introduces her to Nelson, who kindly agrees to take Barbara to town when she asks him if he will—and Nancy construes this as worst kind of betrayal. “You couldn’t have found her things that would make her look drab and plain and downright ugly,” she snarls at Angela. “I purely hate you!” She continues to be quite nasty to Angela for most of the rest of the book, and to “purr acidly” in a jealous rage at Nelson too, which is sure to help her accomplish her goal of winning the man’s heart, which she had just laid out three pages earlier. Good luck with that, honey.

Nelson, for his part, stirs up more trouble when Kitten Hansell’s grandmother hires him to chauffeur Kitten out to a few nearby cities for an afternoon’s entertainment, and Nancy's jealousy spirals even further out of control—as does Barbara’s, who rips off her new nighties and smashes her mirror in a petulant display when she hears of the outing. Nelson also offers to smack, wallop and spank Kitten—another Peggy Gaddis staple—and, bizarrely, her grandmother chimes in, “And I’ll help him.” Kitten, not too surprisingly, tells Gran, “I think I hate you!” Kitten uses her outings with Nelson to enrage Burke, who has also landed in the hospital after being thrown from a bicycle, and though he knows no one else on the island and has come there only to keep Kitten company, that lovely lass refuses to visit him for the rest of his week-long stay in the hospital, and instead tells him that in time “I’ll hate you even a little more than I do now.” All the women in this book have studied exactly the same playbook, not to mention the same script, and it is dull, self-defeating, and infantile.

Out of nowhere, Kitten’s character makes an abrupt about-face. When Burke, finally discharged from the hospital, shows up at the Hansell house, the two women are talking about how much they care about each other, when they’ve been screaming and threatening violence in every other encounter up until now, Kitten hugging her grandmother and calling her sweetie-pie (Gran reasonably responds, “What a disgusting phrase”). A page later, Burke has proposed and Kathleen is pronounced old enough to marry, though I think at under 18 she qualifies as a child bride.

Things finally start to wrap up, much to our relief: Barbara has asked the accounts man to go over the business accounts with her, and the pair hit it off, so she’s quickly disposed of. As for Nancy and Nelson, out of the blue, they are suddenly “hand in hand, obviously very much in love and radiantly happy” on their way to announce their engagement, no doubt because the last thing Nancy had said to Nelson before this turn of events is announced, was—take one guess—“I think I hate you!”

Angela, meanwhile, a minor character in the book that bears her name, has had a few short but snippy conversations with Dr. Mac, which end either with her marching off in anger—head held high, of course—or she is warning “her silly heart to stop its pounding.” We don’t even learn the man’s first name until page 80. So you know what is coming: In what is their seventh actual conversation together—most of which have been under a page—Dr. Mac proposes to Angela. Well, I must admit that they did have dinner together one night, but they spent most of it talking to other people and not to each other, so that doesn’t really count. Angela responds to his kind offer by telling him, “You’ve been treating me like a piece of office equipment or X-ray machinery,” but “after all your arrogance and brusqueness of these past weeks,” it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, so after a page of de riguer sniping back and forth, she agrees, and his kiss “was like a small, gentle hand curling about her heart and lifting it to her lips.” She’s kissing her own heart? What? It’s a bizarre ending, but after everything we’ve been through with this book, par for the awkward course.

Apart from everything I’ve cited above, there are even more oddities to the book. Author Gaddis throws a gossip columnist into the story early on, the woman arriving at the island to stir up more scandal about Kitten, but she abruptly drops out of the story halfway through, never to be seen again.  There’s also a scene between island local Lisa Morales, who works as a nurse’s aide, drooling with joy at her chance to care for “our patron saint.” Lisa reveals that the Father at their church has cut Barbara’s photo out of a newspaper and hung it up, and the parishioners burn candles and keep flowers before it in their reverence of Barbara, who once bought a bell for the church. In response to what is to say the least a very uncomfortable encounter, at least for us the readers, Barbara does not die of horror and shame, but instead offers Lisa “a real picture, the very best one I can possibly manage,” for them to continue worshipping. I think this qualifies as requiring a donation to the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in penance.

The book hums along steadily and the writing mostly isn’t bad, but there are just so many psychotic characters in this story—women predominantly, but the men don’t prove too sane, either—that it’s a good thing they’re all stuck on this tiny island in the Caribbean, because it would not be a good idea to turn them loose on general society.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Nurse of the Crossroads

Colleen L. Reece, ©1977

The assignment that reporter Sam Reynolds had been given seemed easy enough: find out about Dr. David Mackenzie; find out what gave him his own special brand of faith. And so Sam left Portland for the small towns around LaGrande, to discover new people and a way of life he had never known existed. Lovely Amber Mackenzie, a nurse, had been alone since her father’s death. But she was carrying on with the work he had  begun—the small Crossroads Clinic was still open; Amber still journeyed into the canyons and mountains to help people in need. Amber’s gentle ways earned her the love of all who knew her and believed in her father’s ideals, and Sam quickly fell under her spell. Sam’s assignment to learn about Dr. Mackenzie turned into something more, as the young man decided to learn about himself, too. And Sam’s presence caused Amber some serious thinking, also. Although she had known and loved Dr. Robert Meacham for years, she felt unsure of herself, unready for marriage. Perhaps with Sam …


“What chance had she, Amber, against such a doll-like creature?”

“Woman, I won’t rest until you’re my meek, obedient, humble bride.”

“While Robert is marrying a nurse, I think he probably also hopes he’s marrying a woman, not a machine.”

The story begins from the point of cynical newspaper reporter Sam Reynolds, who was “raised in a poor family, clawing his way out of the slums.” His editor, Don Baker, who—get this—lives in a mansion (no newspaper editor outside of a major city could possibly afford a mansion these days, and in fact might qualify for food stamps)—is obsessed with now-deceased college chum David Mackenzie, who quit his superlative career at Portland Memorial to take up the life of a rural GP in eastern Oregon. Don is yearning for deeper meaning, and thinks David had found it: He “stood without wavering for what he believed. I’ve got to know whether David’s beliefs were real!” He fears David actually resigned to head off a big scandal, but he “must know what it was that kept David Mackenzie going.”

So he sends Sam on a spiritual cum journalistic quest. Sam heads east, making a beeline for David’s gravestone, which states that David had  “accepted the Crossroads Calling.” This Calling is painted as a mystical quest, for some reason, and Sam, and many other characters in the book, pursues it for the duration. After a stop at the cemetery, Sam meets David’s daughter Amber, who is a nurse and continues the work of the Crossroads Clinic. The story shifts mostly to her point of view, and she develops a crush on Sam, while gently resisting VNRN staple doctor-who-loves-nurse-but-isn’t-loved-in-return Robert Meacham. We spend a lot of time on this old saw, and visiting Amber’s patients, and various adventures including the time Amber catches the 14-year-old boy who’s broken into the drug cabinet to steal—aspirin! Tee hee!

The worst part about this book is how it hangs most of its raison d’être on the mystery of David Mackenzie—which Amber spills 100 pages before the end, ending the suspense much too early—namely that David Mackenzie had unknowingly sent a drunk intern to care for a seriously injured burn victim and, checking later, had found the intern passed out in a chair and the patient dead. The patient would have died anyway, we’re told, but Dr. Mackenzie covered for the intern and resigned, though the resignation is completely unjustified, as if every doctor resigned after the expected death of a patient, no one would be practicing medicine. The intern goes on to become a very successful and famous doctor, and Dr. Mackenzie slinks off to LaGrande to practice in his humble clinic.

Somehow all this is supposed to make Dr. Mackenzie even more of a saint, but to me needlessly falling on his sword just makes him look like a self-absorbed, sanctimonious jerk. Even worse, we’re given a lame poem he’d written—again and again this poem is quoted—in which the narrator chose a path at a crossroads that leads away from fame and fortune but toward “the right way, to happiness … and God.” The ostensible point being that you should do whatever you can to help other people. It’s a reasonable point, though it’s not clear why a famous and successful doctor is not helping people; rather you have an opportunity to help more people if you have a wider reach. Furthermore, it’s not clear why this philosophy translates into a religion, and why this makes Dr. Mackenzie so much saintlier than everyone else for having followed it, when others, including his daughter and Dr. Meacham, have done the same.

The issue is not smoothed when every time a character encounters some dilemma, we are told that they are “facing [their] own crossroads calling,” although most of the time these decisions are over something completely inappropriate such as searching for Amber when she disappears in a snowstorm, or helping “evil” Vagabond Vic when he becomes sick. Worst of all, when Amber decides she’s really in love with Robert after all, and he comes to show her an engagement ring she mistakenly believes is someone else’s, instead of being honest with him about her feelings—“I’m not the type to throw myself at a man, no matter how much life hurts without him”—she is nasty and mean, and the pair barely speak for four months after that. The fact that she severely bungled her “calling” in this instance is never pointed out, and after she discovers the ring was actually means for her, “again Amber stood at a crossroads,” and again she fails to tell Robert how she feels, only that she thought the ring was for someone else, leaving it for him to do the heavy lifting and propose, with no hint from her that she’s changed her mind about her feelings for him.

So everyone in the book is, by its long overdue end, touched by the glorifying Crossroads Calling and has a true religious fervor in their heart, but none of it hangs together. All this religious devotion is whipped up out of a basic desire to do the most good one can, but this is not a particularly unique or even Christian (Ghandi, anyone?) principle. The characters talk a lot, but their spiritual awakenings are told to us, not shown, so they don’t feel sincere, and frankly apart from Amber, no one really does a lot of good, either (Sam writes an inspirational book and editor Sam Baker gives up his job in Portland to start a small paper in LaGrande, and little Billy Carter wins over a savage killer dog named Satan just by believing he won’t get his face ripped off). Amber, the main character shows no growth during this story; Sam seems to have, but we are told this, and his character essentially slinks off to a remote cabin to write his book halfway through, and is seldom seen again. This book wants to be inspirational, but it just ends up being insipid and boring.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Settlement House Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1965

Donna Marker, R.N., was new to the settlement house and to its surrounding slums. She worked within the sheltering walls of the Pediatric Clinic, with infants and toddlers. Dr. Gar Brevermen, the intense young psychologist in the counseling clinic, tried to open her eyes to the danger of the teen-age gangs with whom he worked. Fearing where her innocence might lead, he made her promise not to get involved. Because she was so deeply drawn to Gar, Donna promised … too easily. When a fifteen-year-old youngster appealed to the nurse to help her break with a vicious girl gang, Donna found she could not stand aside. As a nurse, as a human being, she had to help. So she broke her hasty vow, never guessing that her compassionate instincts would trigger a chain reaction of violence that might cost her Gar’s love—and her own life.


“The muggings are more spirited at this time of the year. The hoodlums smile when they’re stomping you.”

“Ann’s making her mark across the street. She’s become a whiz at arranging flowers.”

“You can tell where a girl stands with a man by her shopping sprees. A few weeks ago I was cornering the market in colognes, like you. I’m at the kitchen-gadget stage now. Watch … you’ll be stocking potato peelers like mad in a little while.”

“He was too anxious to get the cloak-and-dagger meeting under way to notice Donna’s new lounge suit.”

There is nothing like a 1960s-era gang to warm the heart’s cockles, and in this book we have a few adorable examples: the Rippers, the Marauders, the Steamers, the Conquests, and the stars of the book, the “vicious” girl gang, the Tabby Cats, who are “easily recognizable by the ‘cat uniforms’—tight black turtleneck sweaters, even tighter elasticized black Capri pants, the vests of sleazy cloth-imitation leopard skin.” You just want to pinch their heavily rouged cheeks! The adventures of our nurse heroine, Donna Marker, begin when she runs into the Tabby Cats one night, and the she-devils trip her as she passes by, knocking her to the sidewalk. “Nursie faw down,” they snarl. “Didn’ watchum her footsie-wootsies.” These girls are tough as nails! But one, the not-quite-indoctrinated Ann Julian, leaps to help Donna pick up the contents of her handbag, which have spilled on the pavement. Head gangster, a 17-year-old named – wait for it – Tabby, is needless to say not impressed by Ann’s do-goodism.  

The incident is brought to a swift end when Donna’s so-called boyfriend, psychologist Dr. Gar Breverman, runs to Donna’s side and kindly asks, “What the devil are you doing way out here? Don’t you have a brain in your silly head?” Then he takes her to dinner where he harangues Donna further about how she can’t help these horrible kids. In fact, the pair spends a lot of time going over this ground again and again, with Gar acting the condescending prig who routinely insults Donna, with lots of comments from the author along the lines of, “Gar’s sarcasm could sometimes cut the air like a cleaver,” and “she felt the customary annoyance rising within herself, the resentment that Gar invariably stirred with his protective warnings and his lofty professional arguments.” You will be as surprised as I was, then, to learn that Donna is in love with him, since he demonstrates not one single redeeming quality. Her attitude, also, is a bit nauseating, in that she is constantly berating herself for arguing with him and “creating an unpleasant atmosphere,” because winning his affection, “to have his approval again, on any grounds,” is more important than having him love the person she really is, or being able to be yourself with the man you love.

When Ann Julian comes round to Donna’s office to apologize for the incident, it’s clear that Ann’s heart is not really into this gang stuff, and Donna gives Ann her phone number so they can be pals. When Ann does call, though, it’s because her young brother has a bad case of croup and is turning blue. Donna rushes over and saves the boy with a hot steam shower and a trip to the ED, and then can’t resist the impulse to perform CPR on the girl’s character, as well, by suggesting that Ann become a candy striper and then, if the work appeals, a nurse. Ann jumps at the chance, and soon is the bestest candy striper the world has ever seen, so good that even doctors are asking for her to come and pat the hands of their patients. Gar, however, is not impressed, and he and Donna fight some more, Gar telling Donna that she’s filling Ann’s head with “a big, unattainable, frustrating goal”—because a poor kid becoming a nurse is utterly impossible, apparently—and that her efforts are doomed. The troubles worsen when Ann drops the Tabby Cats, and the gang beats her senseless.  Gangster Tabby’s boyfriend, Chip O’Neill, who is also head of the Conquests gang, seems a little too interested in Ann’s recovery, both from the gang life and her beating, and soon starts talking about going back to school and getting a job. But the Conquests wreak their own revenge and assault Chip in an alley, stabbing him repeatedly, and Tabby, defending him, kills one of the assailants. What a mess Donna has caused with all her do-gooding! She is so repentant now! But Gar, in his worry that Donna is going to be attacked too, comes around and tells Donna that he loves her, so that’s really all that matters, and all the other loose ends are quickly tied up, to various degrees of success—though I’m not sure how much success Donna is going to have with a man who does not seem to respect her.

The book has some humorous writing, and the story trots along smoothly, which I completely expect from Jane Converse. And there are actually some interesting ideas here. From this vantage point 50 years later, both Gar and Donna seem to be too extreme; though it’s theoretically his job to help the troubled youth of the neighborhood, Gar’s approach is to work on winning over only the leader of the gang in the hope that that influential personage can drive the whole herd in a more righteous direction. Donna’s naivete is equally foolish; she suggests to Chip, as he’s recovering in the hospital, that instead of running around in gangs, the boys might instead “turn all that energy into some positive channel ... like a car club. Or an athletic team. You could still compete with the other …” (Chip realistically rolls his eyes, and in the end decides he’s going to stick with the gang after all.) Part of what wins this book a higher mark is its silliness, but the question of how to help underprivileged youth with no hope of a better future is not an easy one, and an unusually deep idea for a nurse novel to attempt to explore. Donna’s love life is an appalling disappointment, so it loses points there, but overall this book is easily worth reading.