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.

1 comment:

  1. Wait...wait! That's the END? I was waiting for the REAL love interest to show up (the ex-street guy turned preacherman who runs the settlement project) and for Donna to learn that yes, helping these kids IS worthwhile.