Saturday, October 31, 2020

Nurse Jess

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1959

Margaret South was the most efficient, most dedicated nurse at the Lady Belinda Hospital for Specialized Nursing of Premature Babies. Professor Gink was the most dedicated, most celebrated authority on baby-care in Australia. To Jess they seemed an ideally suited couple, and she began to plot accordingly. And then, far too late it seemed, she discovered that she had fallen in love with the Professor herself.



Nurse Jessamine Barlow has such a mouthful of a name that when she gets to her fellowship after graduating from nursing school she is shortened to Jess. She hails from a remote island that is on the brink of transforming into a tourist mecca, and her parents, who run a small hotel, are expanding to meet the boom, though everyone has mixed feelings about it, including the native staff, who have gone on walkabout, what native Australians apparently call a long hiking holiday, with no definite date of return.

At her hospital, Jess is learning all about premature babies and how to care for them, which means hardly ever touching them and feeding them formula and not breastmilk. Some of her patients die quietly offscreen; she comes back to their cribs to find them empty. It’s difficult work, and she naturally feels like a failure, especially compared to her best friend from nursing school who is also on the same fellowship, Margaret South. Early on Jess meets Professor Dr. Gink, whom she mistakes for a parent, and offers him lots of helpful, naïve advice, and is later mortified when she realizes her mistake—though the professor seems charmed by her outgoing, easy manner. Naturally Jess decides that Margaret should marry Professor Gink, even though neither has expressed any interest of that sort in the other, and nor does she bother to enlighten her best friend about her schemes. So it’s a peculiar hook to hang the book on.

Of course, it’s clear to the reader that she likes the doctor and he, her. We can be somewhat relieved that it’s actually only two-thirds of the book in that Jess realizes her own feelings, but still she remains blind to his obvious reciprocal interest. VNRN heroines are not infrequently the dumbest characters in the book, years of medical training notwithstanding, and it’s an irritating gimmick.

Most of the book’s plot follows Jess’s adventures in nursing, including flying to the outback to nurse quintuplets with Professor Gink (we only learn his first name, Bartholomew, five pages from the end) and leading tours of her island’s volcano, which figures prominently in the rescuing of the island from the tourist hordes. We watch Margaret fall for Jess’s friend Barry, who had been pining from unrequited love for Jess until he met Margaret, and dumb Jess can’t see that obvious romance either. That foible again underlined, overall I can’t dislike this essentially charming book, which offers interesting writing and mild humor even if the characters outside the main pair are not deeply drawn. If not especially sophisticated, Nurse Jess is a simple pleasure, much like her title character.


Monday, October 26, 2020

Nurse Fairchild’s Decision

By Zillah K. Macdonald, ©1952

When she graduated from St. Agatha’s Hospital, all the other young nurses envied Corrine Fairchild. Daughter of wealth, Corrine was engaged to socialite Heathby Grant. “She has her future settled,” the girls said. “Corrine’s got herself a nice soft spot on millionaire’s row!” So as she plunged into the hard, gruelling life of a big city hospital, Corrine had to struggle against temptation to follow the path of ease and pleasure offered by her handsome fiancé—had to struggle to be true to the high calling she had chosen. And then into her life strode young Dr. John Burnette, aloof and arrogant as a Bedouin chief, who had his own plans for this warm and gifted girl. 



“Her eyes were caught by a small panel in one of the clerestory windows. It showed Christ on the cross. Her three years in the training school made her see it with new eyes. No medication had eased the intolerable pain of the festering thorn wounds!”

“When we educate a man, we educate an individual; but when we educate a woman, we educate a family.”

“She moved nervously on her wooden chair. Bing! Her stocking snagged on a splinter. Horror struck her. A run in one’s stocking, a hair out of place—such things brought instant reproval. Would they deny her her diploma if they saw the run?”

“Oh dear, Corrine, how could you let your feet grow so? You had such beautiful feet. They’re quite ruined. It’s that dreadful nursing you insisted on doing!”

When I picked up Nurse Fairchild’s Decision, I had high hopes that this would be as bad as the other books of Zillah Macdonald’s that I’ve read, to wit, Roxanne, Company Nurse and Nurse Todd’s Strange Summer. (Yes, sometimes a bad novel can be a lot of fun—love to hate and that sort of thing.) Unfortunately, though completely mediocre, this book has little of the laugh-out-loud stupidity that the others offered in abundance. But then, both those books had co-authors, so perhaps Zillah really had her partners to blame. Only time and a few more of her books will tell.

Corrine Fairchild is just graduating from nursing school with chums Clare, Betty, Barbara, Jean, Beth and Tsuneko (unfortunately painted with a racist brush, so there’s another penitent donation for me to make). Early on we’re informed that her career has caused problems between her and her mother, to whom she refers by her first name, Elsa, because “her Southern mother recognized only one career for a girl, a socially important marriage.” The marriage Elsa is banking on, now that graduation is over, is to longtime friend and beau Heathby Grant, a very wealthy neighbor who is constantly pressuring Corinne to marry him. She, unfortunately, even gives the matter a lot of thought, in classic VNRN trope: “Couldn’t she be wrong? Wouldn’t the feeling she had for him inevitably ripen into something deeper if she married him?” she wails for about the fifth time in the book. Part of her consideration of Heathby’s proposal lies in the fact that she’s fallen for another VNRN classic, the lab man whose “devotion to his beloved science excluded ordinary human feelings.” Though she does have one encounter with him—she’s delivering a message to him in the lab when the mean old nursing supervisor finds her there and threatens to report her, and Dr. Burnette saves her by telling the supervisor that they’re engaged—but outside of that weird meeting she’s mostly just peering hopefully around corners or watching miserably as his white coat disappears onto the elevator. “He had been on the floor, and he had not waited to talk to her! It was as if he were deliberately avoiding her.” You can see what the attraction is.

Other curiosities lie in the rumors that Dr. Burnette was kicked out of the army, and that the family he grew up with—he’s an orphan—doesn’t like him much and so taint his reputation with innuendo. Some even suggest that he’s the one who is breaking into the narcotics cabinet and stealing the drugs! (He’s not, of course, and when the true thief is outed—a much-beloved longtime cancer patient whom Dr. Burnette thinks of as a mother—the completely benign reaction of Corinne and Dr. Burnette is rather bizarre.) Even Corinne suspects him of taking the drugs, both early and late in the book, after he’s asked her to wait three months for him, until he’s “free”—though he will tell her nothing about what the issue is. She also worries that he’s fallen for another woman, but that too is quickly brushed away with, “She did trust him,” though it’s clear that she does not, and indeed she later thinks that “this might be the end of things between them” when she tells him she’s had to report another narcotics theft.

In the end he comes to tell her the story, that he was kicked out of the army for taking an experimental drug that turned out to be a cure for a deadly tropical disease, and that he’s been taking another and, until it’s proved it won’t kill him, he can’t possibly marry Corinne, or even tell her what he’s been up to, though his secrecy is hard to understand—as is her willingness to accept it in someone who says they want to marry her.

Another odd aspect of the book is that despite her oft-stated disgust with her mother’s social climbing, she herself is a snob—it’s clear that she revels in the luxurious life she’s dipped into when she’s with Heathby: When they visit “the most exclusive club this side of Hades,” she briefly considers the sumptuous surroundings and the club motto “Up above the world, careless of men, like gods are we!” and compares it to the lives of some of her patients, including one who suffers from malnutrition—but then without another thought about it she changes in the cabana, swims at the private beach, stuffs herself and throws leftovers to the seagulls. “ ‘It’s nice to be free, away from the city crowds,’ she said as she stretched out lazily on the beach.” So much for Corinne’s conscience.

It’s hard to care for Corinne, understand her devotion to Dr. Burnette, or believe her passion for nursing—“this was not a career on which she was embarking. It was a dedication”—since she doesn’t truly seem dedicated to anything outside of her unswerving pursuit of a man she’s barely spoken to, and who doesn’t seem capable of human interaction, much less honest communication. Whatever Corinne Fairchild’s decision was—that’s not really clear either—it’s not a bad decision on the reader’s part to give this book a miss.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Resident Nurse

By Frances Dean Hancock
(pseud. Jeanne Judson), ©1966 

Mark Lennon wanted to marry Nurse Lyle Mackey and take her away to Mexico. But Lyle, not sure she really loved the young architect, kept putting him off. Besides, she enjoyed taking care of the twenty elderly women “guests” at Harewood House. It was a dream job. The dream became a nightmare, however, when one of the guests reported a valuable ring missing. When Lyle found the ring, under “mysterious” circumstances, ugly rumors began. Still, no one would have seriously suspected her of theft if Dr. Tom Blake hadn’t encouraged the idea. Lyle wondered why he hated her so much … perhaps because she’d refused to date him after he’d tricked her into accompanying him to a gambling house? Then the ring vanished again, and this time unfounded suspicion drove Lyle out of Harewood—heartsick, wondering if she would ever be able to clear her name …


“I hate middle-aged people. Youth is glorious and old age is compensating.” 

“Lyle sometimes suspected that she would have been more enthusiastic about him if her parents had been less so.”

“Sometimes I feel like beating you and wonder why I’m so much in love with you with so little encouragement.”

“It’s the rich old women she feels sorry for. In poor or middle-class homes the old women have the satisfaction of still being useful as baby sitters or helping with the housework, and they know their children aren’t tolerating them for the sake of legacies, because they have nothing to leave.”

“Being a good-natured woman, she bit into a caviar sandwich to restrain herself from making any comment about people who had never heard of the apostolic succession.”

“I’ve seen a lot of girls wearing their hair like that. Usually they’re accompanied by men with beards.”

“Oh, you and your ethics.”

“When you’re older you’ll find out that many times you will be credited with virtues you don’t deserve and with faults that you never dreamed of.”

Lyle Mackey works as a nurse at Harewood House, a private residence for 20 wealthy old women who intend to live out their lives there, a sort of early assisted living facility. She loves her work because for the most part the old gals are fairly healthy and only need routine pills and maybe a back rub now and then—working at the hospital had been a difficult, low-paying job, and she was glad to be out of it. Her boyfriend, Mark Lennon, relentlessly pushes her to marry him, and makes sneering remarks about the Old Dears. “ ‘I can just see you passing out the sleeping pills and the tranquilizers and the cathartics and diuretics, and so on.’ Mark’s mouth twisted in disgust.” He’s got no pity for the “selfish old biddies thinking only of prolonging their useless lives,” although I’m not exactly sure what he thinks the alternative is, and what exactly any of us are doing every minute? She’s just wasting time at her job, he tells her. “You could do better—marrying me, for example,” he says. Right. So exactly no one is sorry when Mark packs off to Mexico for several weeks on business. But before he leaves, he proves true to form by insisting, “When I return from this trip, either you’ll  marry me and go back there with me or we’ll just say goodbye.” If I were Lyle, I wouldn’t have made him wait weeks for his answer. At least she feels that his ultimatum “offended her sense of freedom and independence.” 

In her free time, Lyle accepts a date with Dr. Tom Blake, who is the nephew of Mattie Pringle, a Harewood House inhabitant. He’s a handsome man, but Lyle is not impressed when he takes her to a private house on their date. “He’s going to entertain me inexpensively by taking me to visit friends who are giving one of those Bohemian parties at which anyone is welcome, Lyle thought angrily.” Which seemed snobbish and odd to me, but as luck would have it, the place turns out to be a gambling parlor. Tom dumps her in a chair and heads off for the craps table, where he makes a bundle, and she makes the acquaintance of George Glyndon, who happens to be an antique dealer, Mark’s boss, and a cousin of another Harewood House resident—talk about small worlds! Eventually Tom is ready to leave, but his time with the dice has turned him into a monster, and after he insults Lyle for not enjoying gambling, he drives her home and assaults her in the car outside the front door. She slaps him hard across the ear and escapes, while he shouts, “You’ll be sorry for this, you little tramp. No one’s going to treat me like that and get away with it.”

His plan for revenge involves taking up with the other nurse at Harewood House, Mollie, and curiously Lyle says nothing at all to Mollie about her nightmare date with the creep, and her hints that she would never date Tom again only intrigue Mollie more. “I’d like to live dangerously just once,” she says, and soon she’s seeing him regularly, though it’s not clear if Tom is assaulting her too.

Then Tom’s aunt’s valuable emerald ring goes missing, and many chapters are spent looking for it. When we’ve finally forgotten all about the darned thing, it turns up in the drug cabinet—to which only Lyle, Mollie and Harewood House director, Mrs. Gaitskill, have keys. Good doobie that she is, Lyle turns the ring in to Mrs. Gaitskill, who decides they will say that the ring was found in the bookshelf. Miss Pringle is relieved to get it back—but then a few days later it’s disappeared again, and now she’s out for murder, egged on by nasty nephew Tom, who starts spreading gossip among the old ladies that Lyle stole it. Soon everyone is looking at her askance, except Mrs. Bickford, who takes her aside to tell her that she had been accused of murdering her husband years ago, but there had never been enough evidence to convict her—painting a picture that leaves you thinking that she actually did it. She tells this story to Lyle in the hope that it will help her feel better, but the next day we learn Mrs. Bickford died overnight. Did Lyle kill her? Apparently not, but why did the author?

Now with ignominy hanging over her, Lyle suddenly decides, “She was ready to marry Mark now. Then, because she was always questioning herself, she asked herself if it was love for Mark or a desire to get away from a job that no longer interested her and had become actually unpleasant.” But though she always questions herself, she doesn’t like to give any answers, and in the next sentence we’re on to some new scene. In the meantime, Tom is pressing Miss Pringle to call the police and have Lyle arrested, saying that Lyle had thrown herself at him and had stolen the ring as revenge when he had turned her down. Though Mrs. Gaitskill is smart enough to make Miss Pringle realize that police involvement in the matter will not turn out well, she nonetheless fires Lyle, truthfully pointing out that her effectiveness at the establishment is shot, though Lyle had been on the verge of quitting anyway. Naturally, now that she has been given what she was likely to take, Lyle is not so excited about it. So when Mark writes that he is coming home imminently, suddenly Lyle is madly in love: “What a fool she had been to let him go without an answer. How could she have been so stupid? She loved Mark; she had loved him almost from their first meeting. Was it some silly idea of keeping her independence? She didn’t want independence now. She wanted protection. She would marry Mark at once. Mark would take her to Mexico with him, and long before they came back, everything would be forgotten. It would solve all her problems.” Oh, absolutely, that’s true love, for sure, though we readers have seen nothing in the man to inspire anything except disgust. Mark enters stage left about five minutes later, and Lyle repeats these self-delusional statements for him, but adds, “I’ve just remembered I can’t marry you,” and tells him the whole story.

Well, you are not going to believe this, but somehow in the few minutes between landing at the airport and picking up Lyle, Mark had seen George Glyndon, who as it happens had shown Mark a remarkable emerald ring—guess whose it turns out to be? It seems that Tom Blake, who had run up huge debts at the gambling house, had stolen it the first time and used it as collateral for his debts, then won some money and gotten it back, but then lost even more money, taken the ring again, and sold it to George. In a patented Agatha Christie scene, everyone is invited to Mrs. Gaitskill’s office, where the truth is revealed. Lyle is offered her job back, and though Mrs. Gaitskill all but begs her to work for even a few days since she is now down to just one brand-new nurse who is still learning the ropes—Mollie has quit, too—Lyle turns out to be somewhat mean herself and refuses to help out, though it’s Mark who does all the speaking for her, because now that she has a man, she doesn’t need a job or a voice.

This book is a bit over-long and takes us to some odd corners, such as Mrs. Bickford’s confession and death, without ever being especially interesting or suspenseful. The angle of Tom Blake as an evil masher and jewel thief is unsatisfying because in the end, after he’s cruelly dumped Mollie and is setting off on a luxury cruise with Miss Pringle to get away for a while to put this embarrassing incident behind him, he is never punished for any of his bad behavior, but rather, as the book declares, is rewarded, because this way everyone saves face. I’m not sure why this is the most important thing, but there you have it. Lyle’s instant conversion into a smitten fiancée is not at all convincing, particularly since the book itself points out that she is likely using the marriage to run away from this upsetting situation—again, to save face. Her sudden chucking over of the independence she’d initially valued so highly to marry a man who had shown not one single redeeming feature in the first half of the book is especially maddening. I’m always curious about authors who leave us with these odd messages. Was it the times—remember, this book was written more than 50 years ago—that forced her to suggest to young women that their independence was not as important as landing a man? that sexual assault was something the victim should be ashamed of to the point of not even warning a potential future victim? that men always win, even when they are felonious assholes? Was she self-aware in the slightest about the horrible messages she was sending her readers? Or was her whole-hearted embrace of them meant to slap some sense and feminism into the young gullibles? I’m not sure that, without at least a glimmer of a clue that Lyle is aware at the end that she has made an enormous sacrifice at the altar of convention, we can ascribe the latter motive to Ms. Hancock, we can, sadly, only believe that she had drunk the Kool-Aid, and is now offering the readers a silver serving tray laden with more of the same.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

High Country Nurse

By Virginia Smiley, ©1970

Lovely young Cass Fleming wanted nothing more than to be a good nurse. But suddenly her work at City Hospital, the suffering of small helpless children and kind elderly people, seemed too much for her. To make matters worse, her fiancé, Dr. Dan Driscoll, could not understand her feelings. Could she marry a man who was that cold-hearted? Cass decided she needed to get away from it all—to sort out her bruised and mixed-up emotions. The remote Navajo Reservation, where her Aunt Norma taught school, seemed the perfect refuge. But “getting away” wasn’t quite that easy. There were the Navajo people whom she quickly learned to love, and who needed her help. And there was the tall, self-assured young flyer, Sandy Russell, whose playful mockery suddenly turned into something much more serious. Cass realized there was no escape from life and its decisions … and the most important decision of all still lay in wait for her.


Nurse Cass Fleming, apparently just a few years out of nursing school, is already burned out. Working at City Hospital in Phoenix, she has witnessed both children dying of cancer and elderly people dying of old people diseases, and she just can’t take it! Plus she had a fight with her fiancé, Dr. Dan Driscoll! So she decides to take a four-week vacation—can you imagine such a thing?—and heads off into the desert to visit her aunt Norma, who is a schoolteacher on the Navajo Reservation. 

OK, I know, you’re already bracing for the racist attitudes of the Great White Woman descending into sandy poverty to bring holy healing to the unwashed, and I will in fact be making reparations in the form of a donation to the American Indian College Fund, a truly inspiring organization that has already benefitted from another horrific book I’ve read (Peace Corps Nurse) and, unfortunately, is likely to be hearing from my checking account in the future as well. On the whole, however, High Country Nurse is less appalling than other VNRNs I’ve read, in that our heroine Cass actually seems to respect and admire the Navajo people she meets. She does, however, feel that their lifestyle is backward—never mind that they were forced out of their homelands and marched on the Long Walk to a prison camp, and then to a piece of land no one else wanted, not exactly prime farmland. Can you blame the Navajo for not trusting anything white people brought them?

Initially Cass is reluctant to get involved in the community clinic, run by an aging Dr. Barton, who begs her repeatedly to help out even for a few hours, but she is on vacation, she insists, and still struggling to get over her heartbreak from witnessing bad outcomes in patients she had cared for. But before long a crisis forces her to get involved, helping to ferry a man with appendicitis to the hospital on the local medical rescue helicopter piloted by heartthrob Sandy Russell. The patient sleeps the whole way, but that’s all it takes for Cass to overcome her reluctance, and now she’s showing up at the clinic in a pale green shift because she neglected to bring any nursing uniforms with her on the trip.

She’s also hanging out with Sandy, and increasingly musing over fiancé Dan’s shortcomings in classic VNRN style. “Dan would want a large, well-staffed office in the best section of the city, with patients in the upper-income bracket.” “Dan had always been so very serious, almost to the point of being stuffy.” “Sometimes lately, when she thought of Dan, he seemed shallow and a bit selfish.” So naturally, when Sandy asks her why she doesn’t wear her engagement ring on her hand—she keeps it on a chain tucked into her blouse—she jams it back on her finger, snaps angrily at Sandy, and, when he coolly says goodbye, she decides, “She would return home to repair her relationship with Dan—and just as soon as possible, they would  be married.” Because marriage will fix everything!

Central to the story is a young girl, Daisy, who wants to attend school but is prevented from going by her grandmother. This is one of Cass’s biggest obsessions during her stay, and she tries again and again to befriend Daisy as well as win over Grandmother Many Blankets—who may recall the compulsory boarding schools for Native Americans that attempted to wipe out Navajo and other Indian Nations’ culture, but no one ever bothers to ask Grandmother about her objections.

Cass’s vacation winds down, and with Sandy now a bit more cool, she heads back to Phoenix to her job, but soon finds it—and her betrothed—a bit dull. “Cass did her work efficiently, but it was always the same—assisting the doctors on rounds, routine work, taking orders, endless orders. More and more often, in spite of her intentions to push it aside, she thought of Dr. B. and his clinic. There, she had shouldered responsibility—there she had felt alive.” Furthermore, Dan has not turned out to be all that great, surprise! Furthermore “since you came back, our dates have been a bit on the dull side,” Dan says. So she decides to return his ring, because “the butte country had changed her. There was no use in trying to force him out of her mind any longer,” she says, and then, out of nowhere, “She was in love with the young flyer.” Now she’s mooning over Sandy, but can’t possibly tell him how she feels.

Eventually Daisy, now ill with tuberculosis, runs away from home and collapses on Cass’s doorstep. Sandy’s helicopter, coming to carry her to the hospital, frightens Grandmother, who is hot on Daisy’s heels. Grandmother believes the helicopter and its radio to be “magic,” though it’s inconceivable that she hasn’t seen the ubiquitous chopper before. Suddenly Grandmother is on board with white man’s medicine and education as well: “You take Daisy to place in city to make her well. Then she will go to the school like other boys and girls.” This shockingly sudden about face sweeps Grandmother’s years of resistance away with the backwash from the helicopter rotors, delegitimizing her feelings without even informing the reader what they even were.

Another side story is Navajo Louise Beh, who wants to go to nursing school, but whose father, a medicine man, is against it. Cass visits Louise in Louise’s home, and “there was, Cass noted, nothing in the room to show that an Indian family loved here.” Louise says, “White man’s school has taught me much better ways,” and my heart broke for poor misguided Louise.

This book is fairly simplistic and formulaic, with cardboard characters and perfunctory writing that yielded nothing for the Best Quotes section. While the thinly veiled racism will make you wince, there’s not much else here to either upset you--or interest you, either. If we hear a lot about sand, we really don’t have much description of the southern Arizona landscape.  Like the other two Virginia Smiley books I’ve read (Nurse Kate’s Mercy Flight and Nurse of the Grand Canyon), this book is not the worst I’ve reviewed, but it certainly is a flat and arid desert.