Sunday, October 17, 2021

An American Nurse in London

By Diane Frazer, ©1968

The huge jet liner was London bound. And Elaine Gibbs had left thoughts of hospital routine far behind. But when the stewardess asked her to assist a sick passenger, she couldn’t refuse. Then, she discovered that her patient was none other than Tommy Taylor, the rock-and-roll idol. At the airport, Elaine helped Tommy avoid reporters—including the handsome young journalist who was her seatmate. And so, unwittingly, she embarked on a wild adventure that changed her entire life. 

GRADE: B-

BEST QUOTES:
“Hospitals. They give you a pill to put you to sleep, and then they wake you up in the middle of the night with a blinding light in your face.” 

“She hadn’t forgotten her own days of student nursing, when you combined classwork and exams with floor duty and wondered how much longer you’d be able to stay alive.”

“Pity I’ve a wife. Healthy one, too.”

“One felt almost anything could happen when the sun shone.”

“Luck was the last ingredient for a happy life. Work and industry and giving in a relationship was what made it grow and blossom.”

“Lionel always notices legs. I’m grateful for that. I’d loathe living with a man who noticed bosoms. That always seems so common to me.”

“Behind every delightful man there’s a wise and gracious woman.”

REVIEW:.
I’m writing this review on a jet to the US from London, and I have to say that what struck me most about this book was the ease of travel and immigration when it was penned 54 years ago—no passenger locator forms, no COVID-19 tests, no vaccination certifications or multiple COVID tests to schedule upon arrival—just show up, fall in love, and stay forever in a foreign country forever. Times have changed, indeed. 

Elaine Gibbs is a nurse on vacation, and so barely acts as one during this book, apart from diagnosing fellow passenger, rock star Tommy Taylor, with chicken pox. She goes above and beyond, however, when she helps him scurry off the plane to escape the press and the crush of screaming female fans, whisking him off to her friend Erica McLean’s flat at 14 Grafton Terrace in the Bayswater district of London, which is apparently a real address. (I wonder if its current occupants know of its prominent place in literary history?) The spots on Tommy’s face, we are told, would be “just great for my image,” and that’s all the sarcastic explanation we are given as to why Elaine must escort the man out the plane’s back door, a “service exit for airplane personnel,” through passport inspection and customs, and off to Erica’s—an address no one has bothered to give to Tommy’s manager, Bernard Moss, who is accompanying him on the flight, so he’s left worrying and waiting for Tommy to reappear.

Another problem is that Elaine’s seat mate on the plane, Tony Crenshaw, is a very attractive and interesting young journalist. Dashing off without explanation, Elaine is vastly disappointed not to have been able to share a cab and perhaps something more with the young man, who is left to cab it alone into town. As for Elaine, once she lands in London, she makes the most of her vacation with a very thorough tour of the city, and we are led to Trafalgar Square, Lincoln’s Inn Fileds, Temple Church, the Cheshire Cheese pub at 145 Fetter Lane—an old haunt of of Samuel Johnson’s—and Windsor and Buckingham Castles.

In a shocking incident of insight and coincidence, Tony is lunching at Twining’s at the same time as Erica, who is a literary editor, and she inadvertently leaves behind a manuscript with her name and address on it. This simple clue leads psychic Tony to decide that this must be where Elaine and Tommy are. He knocks on the door the following day, only to be turned away by Erica. But Tony’s brief visit makes fellow reporter Liam Cobb suspicious—my God, these British reporters must all have ESP—and he tails Tony as he’s tailing Elaine, Erica and Tommy on a driving tour of the countryside. Tony, spotting Liam, punctures Liam’s gas tank  to get back to town first to turn in the story that Tommy is alive and well. Elaine, deeply crushed that Tony had learned of her whereabouts and not contacted her, is unconvinced when Tony turns up to offer a dozen roses and a box of Fortunum & Mason’s chocolates in apology. She stomps off in the rain to see Picadilly Circus (I was there yesterday, and if it’s not as horrific as Times Square, it’s certainly not a pleasant jaunt) and then to Buckingham Palace, and he trails along behind for almost an hour after she refuses to speak to him, but “he couldn’t stay out of the office all day,” so making no further effort to speak to her apart from his intial rebuffed attempt, he stomps back to work, “thwarted and seething.”

Tommy, meanwhile, is whisked back to a more suitable hotel by his manager. He and Erica, during their time together, had found themselves remarkably compatible, able to quote the same Alexander Pope poems and discuss artists with insight and intelligence—but Erica just cannot accept that Tommy is a rock and roll singer—“one of those dreadful people,” Erica insists, after two weeks of the contrary. She finally agrees, reluctantly, to attend his concert, and discovers that it’s not rock that he plays at all! Rather, he opens his show with a flamenco paso doble in Spanish, “an elegant pop number,” and when it’s over, Erica is a changed woman. “That isn’t popular singing!” she exclaims, finally won over, the shallow fool. For his part, Tony continues to shadow Elaine, and finally runs into her on the street and discovers that she’s pinned one of the roses he’d given her to her lapel, so that relationship is saved, too, without them speaking a word.

This book is somewhat problematic. Tony and Elaine, who have barely spoken for most of the book—the intrepid reporter who stops at nothing including criminal vandalism to obtain a story can’t make more than a trivial effort to speak to a reluctant woman—end on the brink of becoming engaged, too much too fast. And after all the reconciliations, Elaine makes a slip that Tommy had had chicken pox, and that’s Tony’s lead story for the early edition, so he’s apparently learned nothing at all from his journalistic misadventures. Even more curious is Erica’s debate about men vs. career; she’d dumped a man who’d wanted her to give up her career running a literary agency to marry him. “Roger had wanted her to be what she wasn’t. He’d wanted her to be just a woman, nothing else.” Working at the agency “had remade her, made a woman of her. No, she had never regretted it; it was her life. Or so she’d thought. That it was enough.” Because now, having met Tommy, she’s having doubts. Grrrr!

There are hints here of what makes Diane Frazer a great writer, but this is not one of her best books. It’s not a terrible book on its own, rather the difficulty is knowing that author Frazer can do so much better. The amusing wit is not as prevalent, and the absurd leaps of plot are just not acceptable from a writer as smart as she is. It’s not exactly a fair yardstick—for an author like Jeanne Bowman or Arlene Hale, two dandelions on my Worst Authors list, this book would be a home run—but this is the curse of being good at what you do, that a B grade is a disappointment.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Nurse Ann in Surgery

By Ruth MacLeod, ©1965
Cover illustration by Bob Schinella 

Ann Phillips returned to Crestridge with a whole new life ahead of her. She was going to start her career as a nurse-anesthetist, and she was going to marry Dr. Frank Parker, whom she had loved for so many years. But when she learned that while she had been away, Frank had decided to marry someone else, Ann buried her hurt by filling her life with her hospital work. Then, Frank came to her saying that he had made a mistake and would she renew their engagement. She asked herself whether Frank really knew his own heart … and besides there were whispering words of an exciting young intern warning her not to make a second mistake.

GRADE: B+ 

BEST QUOTES:
“Tears do have a way of invading the nasopharynx instead of rolling like pearls down a rosy cheek.” 

“You’ll most likely marry before long and find you need your time to rear a family. At least I hope so—for your sake. That’s a woman’s highest calling.”

REVIEW:
Ann Phillips is particularly interesting in that she is a nurse anesthetist. Current-day CRNAs will likely appreciate the description of her job, which includes administering anesthetic as directed by the surgeon, which is curious because nowadays it’s the CRNA or anesthesiologist who makes that call, and also because she’s usually using sodium pentothal. Furthermore, she manually bags the patient—squeezes a bag every six seconds to push air into the lungs, a job today performed by a machine—for the entire surgery, which can last hours, and reports the patient’s condition aloud “every minute or so.” And with administering IV fluids and medications, and blood products when necessary, Ann’s got a lot to do! 

But this pales in comparison to juggling her personal life. She’s returning home to fiancé Dr. Frank Parker, who is a rising would-be surgeon and son of brilliant chief surgeon Dr. Stuart Parker, for her first job since receiving her certification. “We’ve been engaged since he graduated from medical school,” Ann reports to one hopeful young man. “I haven’t seen him much since then,” which is at least two years ago. “Maybe he’ll have become a creep,” says the astute gentleman, who can read the writing on the wall better than Ann. Sure enough, on their first so-called date, Frank tells Ann he’s in love with the new OR nurse, Carisse Moffett, and breaks their engagement. It’s not hard to understand why, as Ann “could never compete with a girl like Carisse whose beauty was matched by her charming poise and grace.” None of which make you a good person, but values were different in the Sixties. In fact, however, Carisse is a lovely person who becomes very interested in Ann’s work and decides that she, too, will become a nurse anesthetist, and the two become friends as Ann takes her under her wing and helps her get started with applying to the training programs.

Frank, on the other hand, quickly proves he deserves neither the charming Charisse or the plucky Ann. He’s constantly bungling the more intricate surgeries, and when Ann expresses her admiration of an appendectomy he’s pulled off without killing the patient, she’s corrected by talented resident Dr. Robin Price. “It was a neat, workman-like performance,” he points out. “Exactly what should be expected of an intern on his first assignment. If a resident surgeon couldn’t perform that well he should be sent back to medical school”—and he concludes with the zinger that what could have been done in seven or eight minutes took Frank over half an hour. 

Worse than that, Frank comes bumbling to Ann, pleading with her to take him back, that “I got off to a bad start—I’ve been all upset inside. That’s why I need you, darling! I’ve been all torn up inside and it affects my work. I need our love! Then I can settle down to the practice it takes to do good work.” Instead of vomiting, Ann, who seems to be driven more by the rush she gets when kissing Frank, succumbs, despite the disapproval of her entire family, and Frank breaks off his engagement with Carisse to take up with Ann again. It becomes clear that this yo-yoing is due in part to pressure from his family, although it’s not obvious why they object to Carisse when they’d objected to Ann as well. Carisse proves again to be the best person in the triangle and bears no grudge at all against Ann, and continues their friendship and works with flawless professionality with both in the OR.

Meanwhile, Ann demonstrates that at least professionally she has a spine. When her anesthesiologist boss suggests that she couldn’t handle open-heart surgery, she interrupts him to insist, “Oh yes I could!” And she suggests to both Frank and his father that he might be better suited for a different specialty, though both are equally outraged at the thought. Never mind that in one emergency surgery “Frank’s incompetence cost the man’s life,” and when her own mother needs a pacemaker, Ann talks her out of having Frank do the job. “He isn’t exactly incompetent,” she explains to her mother in ringing praise, but thinks to herself, “Thank God it was Dr. Stuart in charge—not Frank!”

Eventually Frank is called out for his dithering during a ventral septal defect repair and, finally at the end of his patience, he “snatched off his mask and cap and stomped from the room.” This enormous breach of aseptic protocol should certainly cost a surgeon their hospital privileges on the spot. When the operation is over, Ann rushes to console Frank, only to find Carisse has beaten her to it, so the motion-sick, tempest-toss’d ring goes bouncing back to Carisse, but not before Ann has again tried to set Frank straight. “You’ll ruin your own life and ours too, if you don’t grow up and make your own decisions!” she explodes—not to mention all the other patients he’ll maim or murder. “It’s time for you to quit behaving like a child”—though she could benefit from her own advice, as she’s never been entirely convinced that Frank’s return to her was completely honest. Ann’s scolding, apparently, is what it takes for Frank to tell his father what he really wants in both career and marriage, and “she experienced only a numb sense of relief that his feet, at last, were set on the right path”—and never mind that his finally making the difficult decision obviates her from doing the same.

In the end, she ends up not with a fiancé but with a solid prospect who is an excellent surgeon—illustrating another curious VNRN theme that the heroine never ends up with someone who is not good at his job. Would I love my husband less if he was lousy at his profession? It’s a curious question. Overall I’m slightly bothered that Ann is highly capable at work, and yet cannot demonstrate the same incisiveness when it comes to Frank, instead allowing herself to be buffeted by his storm—not to mention dumped twice! Otherwise, it’s an interesting book worth reading, and not just to admire Ann’s grip strength as she squeezes the ambu-bag 2,400 times in a two-hour surgery.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Emergency Nurse

By Jane Converse (pseud. Adele Kay Maritano), ©1962 

“You don’t  belong in a hospital! If you were honest you’d operate a beauty parlor.” Nurse Diane Waycott flung these bitter words at plastic surgeon Dr. Ken Michelson the night her mother died. Maddened with grief, she believed that her fiancé was more concerned with preserving vanity than saving life. But when a young girl, victim of an auto crash, was brought to Emergency with a bloody, unrecognizable face, Diane knew that only Ken could help. Only his sensitive hands could build a new life for this tragic girl—and for the desperate boy who had ruined her beauty.

GRADE: A- 

BEST QUOTES:
“You can’t have a pretty face if there’s hate written over it.” 

“That icy-tongued perfectionist is either going to make top-flight plastic surgeons out of us, or we’ll get the chair for bludgeoning him.”

“Good management is adaptable. Why consult an expert if you’re going to overrule his opinion?”

REVIEW:
Emergency Nurse hangs on the curious premise that Emergency Room Nurse Diane Waycott, engaged to plastic surgeon Dr. Kendall Michelson, has no idea what he actually does. But for the sake of this otherwise excellent book, I ask you to overlook this minor flaw. The issue is Diane’s prejudice against plastic surgery: “Never, in all the months she had loved him, had she been able to generate a profound, nurse’s respect for him as a doctor.” And when he drives her home from the hospital on the night her mother, who has battled cancer since her retirement (and therefore been unable to enjoy any relaxation), finally dies, she’s overcome by the injustice of it all. “Maybe just one more doctor might have made the difference!” she shouts at him. “Just one more man in a laboratory, or in surgery, might have found the answer a year ago, or five years ago, or ten. You might have found it! And she wouldn’t have suffered. She’d be alive!” Instead, she adds, “you’ll probably become rich bobbing the noses for show girls or eliminating the scars from some wanted hoodlum’s face. You’ll get ahead even faster if you gain a repaution for bust reconstruction!” Well, she’s not wrong about the boob jobs, but Ken is so outraged at this slur on his profession that he slams out the door, and when she never calls him to apologize, he never calls her either, so she’s single again. 

Months after their breakup, an anonymous young car crash victim is brought in, and she and Dr. Paul Otis sew up her face, which has been badly cut. If the hospital knew who she was and whether her parents had money, they’d have called in Ken to repair the damage, but since time is a-wastin’, ED Dr. Paul Otis perfunctorily does the job. And when the bandages come off, the resulting scars are so hideous that her father, who turns out to be wealthy and powerful automotive parts magnate Harley Gilmore, screams in horror and is shoved out of the room while the young girl, Cammie, crumples into sobs. (In a later scene, Diane unprofessionally argues with Dr. Otis when he’s about to amputate three fingers of another unidentified accident victim, saying that the fingers might be saved, which gives enough time for the patient’s wife and doctor to arrive and save the hand.)

Diane’s kid brother Bud, who has been allowed to pretty much do whatever he wants after his mother died, turns out to have been driving the car involved in the accident, which Diane figures out not too slowly. Petrified that Bud’s life will be ruined by his leaving the scene of the accident—he had carried Cammie into a nearby house and called an ambulance, but then fled—she asks no questions, just hints to Bud that she’s aware of his role, and leaves him to keep skipping school. But her concern about Cammie slowly draws her into the girl’s care and life; Cammie’s widower father, a large, powerful, angry man, has refused to allow her to have any friends or even leave the house, and Diane is the only person who stands up to him, telling him that he needs to let go of his daughter if he wants to keep her.

Meanwhile, Diane starts dating stodgy Dr. Otis, who, now that Diane’s mother is dead and her brother is old enough to support himself, finds the prospect of marrying a woman with no dependents to support much more enticing. “Anticipating the question with which he would probably end the evening, Diane projected herself forward. Should a husband be chosen on the basis of flash-in-the-pan excitement, or eliminated because he didn’t convert every moment to a bell-ringing, physically tingling carnival of thrills? A marriage should be built on more solid groundwork. Paul offered a firm foundation for the future.” On the other hand, “No hour with Ken had ever been dull.” That old trope again!

Eventually Bud, eaten alive by guilt, finds his way to Ken and unburdens himself. Ken immediately tells Diane that Bud must go to the police in the morning, and Diane, disappointingly, has learned nothing from her first fight with Ken, and blames him for the ways of the world: “The day I see Bud hauled off to a cellblock, I’ll know you sent him there!” she screeches. Even after he’d just kissed away her tears of fear. So we have to wait a bit longer.

If the plot works out exactly as you know it will, it’s a most enjoyable ride. Diane and Harley Gilmore’s characters grow organically, as Diane learns more about Ken’s patients and as Cammie’s father Harley receives a few more hard truths from Diane. And the writing here is a step above the usual. There are inside jokes that pop up later, and author Jane Converse, who can be erratic, here is in top form. Of the four Emergency Nurse VNRNs in existence that I can find (see Anne Lorraine, Peggy Gaddis, and Rosamund Hunt’s mediocre offerings) this one has the best story—and arguably the best cover—of the quartet. If you have a few hours—maybe in an ED waiting room?—you could do a lot worse.

Emergency Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963 

The nurses in the Emergency Ward were always busy. And one of the busiest was Nurse Elaine Prescott. Two doctors called for her … after working hours as well as during them. When Dr. Toby Latimer even glanced at her, her pulse did flip-flops. How odd, then, that she should be so impatient for her next date with Dr. Jay Dillard. His kind of attractiveness spelled danger … a danger she didn’t want to think about … yet …

GRADE: B

BEST QUOTES:
“I’ve never seen her in anything except operating garb. And you know what that is! Liz Taylor would look like a hag in one of those sickening green gowns and masks.” 

“I knew how much it would mean to him to look at something young and pretty. Miss Simmons and the other nurses on this ward are definitely not either!”

“Since I’ve been here, and especially since my service in Emergency, I’ve come to believe that the automobile is far more deadly than the atom bomb!”

“‘It’s a dance sensation called “the twist,”’ he explained kindly. ‘Care to try it?’
“‘I do not!’ Elaine assured him firmly. ‘I have much too much respect for my sacroiliac! Nobody over eighteen should ever attempt that sort of dance, that is, if it is a dance, which I doubt. It looks like something dreamed up in a nightmare.’” 

“If I felt any better I’d have to take something for it.”

“Parents sometimes take a whole lot of understanding, don’t they?”

“Any little thing I can ever do for you, or even any big thing like murder or arson, just let me know and consider it done.”

REVIEW:
Elaine Prescott is a nurse in an Emergency Department where every patient is brought in on the edge of death, usually from a car crash; unfortunately, the patients seems to have a mortality rate of more than 50 percent. Maybe because the staff thinks it’s a good thing when patients are thrown from car crashes, they dig out bullets and suture bullet wounds, and persuade dying patients to have surgeries that won’t cure them. Has medicine changed that much, or do VNRN authors not bother to do their homework? 

When she’s not assisting at malpractice, Elaine is usually arguing with Dr Jay Dillard or Dr. Toby Latimer. Toby is the son of a very wealthy society doctor, Fergus Latimer who, paradoxically to how these kinds of MDs are usually portrayed, is an extremely talented surgeon. Dr. Fergus holds lavish parties that his dowdy wife Ellen avoids like the plague; she prefers to volunteer in the pediatric ward or putter in the garden. Everyone assumes Toby is going to step into his father’s practice, though Toby has never made it a secret that he plans to use his trust fund to open a clinic in the slums. Dr. Fergus is very dismissive of Elaine when she attends a party at the country club with Toby and has tea with Ellen at the family manse; Ellen, for her part, tells Elaine in the kindest possible way not to get involved with Toby because Fergus is going to change Toby’s mind about both the clinic and Elaine, and then she’ll be hurt. Elaine is outraged that Ellen thinks she is “pursuing” Toby, but then Ellen “clarifies” that rather she knows Elaine is not in love with Toby, but that he is in love with her and “I didn’t want to see you hurt” by marring a man she doesn’t love. 

Elaine responds to this by accusing Ellen of child abuse: “You have bullied him and hectored him and laughed at his plans and his hopes,” she says—though when we meet Ellen earlier, we are told that “it was obvious that Mrs. Latimer hadn’t the faintest doubt of her son’s ability,” and Ellen herself says, “I think Toby is quite old enough and intelligent enough to make his own decision” about going into practice with his father. After this contradiction, Elaine adds another: “I’m not the least bit in love with Toby, nor do I think for an instant that he is in love with me.” We doubt Elaine is as impassive as all that, as on their first date “Elaine’s happy heart gave a little excited skip at the implication that this was not to be their only date.” As for Toby’s feelings, on numerous occasions Elaine is assured by the people around her that Toby is in love with her, and Toby himself has told his father that he’d like to marry Elaine “more than anything in the world.” This could be the classic VNRN denial of the obvious—a classic tactic for Peggy Gaddis—but it’s hard to know what to do with this; either the heroine is disingenuous at best or completely schizophrenic, and neither is very conducive to a happy love life, or a good story line.

As for Elaine’s other beau, Jay Latimer is planning to step into his father’s practice—but that’s OK, because his father is a general practitioner in the North Georgia mountains. Whenever this particular geography is aligned with a character in a Gaddis novel, you know that’s who we’ll be with on the final pages. But in virtually every exchange, Jay and Elaine are squabbling, usually because Jay has made some disparaging remark about Toby, and Elaine is defending him.

In between Elaine’s battles with Jay and Toby’s parents, both of whom are doing their best to keep Elaine and Toby apart—again, rather perplexing, since Toby’s mother is initially painted as a doting, underappreciated saint—a 15-year-old girl who has been groomed to be lonely by her social-climbing parents and who was almost the victim of half a suicide pact (her boyfriend shot her in the lung and then chickened out on killing himself and ran, which ends their relationship) and her story resolves happily after she delivers a lengthy and astoundingly psychologically insightful lecture to her parents about their failings. We also have the more bizarre story of a 32-year-old widow who has conjured her dead husband’s ghost, whom numerous people hear speaking to her and who drives her car, and her, into a tree. Her story also ends “happily,” we are told, when she dies: “I’m so glad she didn’t have to go on living without her husband,” says the wise 15-year-old. “She loved him so very much, and she was so alone without him.” Curiously, these two stories contradict each other—although, come to think of it, given that this is a Gaddis story, it’s not curious at all—one young woman is lucky to have lived and lost her boyfriend, while the other is lucky to have died after losing her husband.

This is the problem with Peggy Gaddis. She starts writing one story that is abruptly flipped on its head, and we are told with a straight face that everything we’ve been led to believe up to this point is false, and the opposite has been emphatically true all along. A young woman who is outraged when she is thought to be chasing one man suddenly openly pursues another with gusto; a man and a lifestyle she’s been chilly toward from book’s open, we now find she’s been “pursuing like mad ever since we first met!” When did that happen exactly?

One of the more interesting aspects of this book is that it holds an amazing prejudice toward both upper and lower classes. After her evening at the country club Elaine says, “There didn’t seem to be a serious idea among the crowd! I can’t imagine anything duller or more boring than a steady diet of such dates; or the sort of life those people live. They all looked bored and dissatisfied with themselves and the world at large.” At the same time, Toby endures an inordinate amount of disdain from his peers—Jay Latimer in particular—despite the fact that he’s an extraordinarily dedicated and hard-working doctor, because his father is a rich man. But being poor is not much better, at least being urban poor: Characters talk of the “savage brutality in the slum areas” that “springs from ignorance as much as from native brutality: people can be taught to rise above such animal-like things”—and that’s from Ellen Latimer, who has the kindly view. Dr. Fergus Latimer just calls the slum-dwellers “lazy, ignorant and shiftless, who are unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves and rush to grab anything the city or the state or the government hands out.” Curious contrast to the mountain-dwelling poor, who are painted as a holy, hard-working, noble species.

For the most part it’s a well-written story, though even urban nursing students tend toward cutesy epithets such as “Saints preserve us and forevermore!” and “Praises be!” and “For the love of Florence Nightingale.” There’s enough bizarreness in the side plots to be entertaining—what is up with the ghost???—and the contradictions of the plots are not especially irritating, partly because instead of turning into a vapid, spineless wimp who does what her man tells her, which happens too frequently in Gaddis novels, rather the opposite is true. Elaine, who shows little interest in any man for much of the book after her first and only date with Toby, in the end puts her feelings on the line—up to a point. “I’ve gone so far as I intend to go! After all, this is supposed to be partly your job, you know. You really shouldn’t expect me to drop on my knees and put my hand on my turbulent heart and beg for your hand in marriage!”—and by saying this, she is making it clear that she would like it if he did the same. The good news is that, once safely betrothed, Elaine insists on waiting a miserably long six months for the wedding, because “we have been alone only in the cafeteria, and neither of us has ever had enough time off at the same time to get really to know each other.” So that’s a smart move we can all get behind, even if we feel confident that to get engaged after only one date seems a bit foolhardy. Peggy Gaddis is a bit frustrating as a VNRN author because as good a writer of sentences as she is, her themes and plots are not infrequently off-putting, and she has a penchant for lazy writing mechanics. But in Emergency Nurse she does better than usual and gives us a book we can largely enjoy.

Emergency Nurse

By Rosamund Hunt, ©1964

Amy Whiting came to Elsalock Island seeking escape. The young nurse had lost the doctor she loved to another woman, and wanted nothing more to do with nursing or with men until her painful emotional wound had healed. But fate had other plans. Her first day on the lovely New England island, Amy was pressed into service when a tragic accident filled the understaffed local hospital with needy patients. Soon Amy had won far more than the professional admiration of two handsome young doctors, and the vengeful jealousy of a stunningly beautiful yet strangely moody fellow nurse. Amy had only her heart to guide her through a maze of personal rivalries and conflicting feelings … the heart she had sworn never to trust again …

GRADE: C+

BEST QUOTES:
“Couldn’t do that. Couldn’t pick out one woman in the whole world and make her happy. Think of how many others I’d make miserable if I took myself out of circulation!” 

REVIEW:
Amy Whiting RN has turned up on Elsalock Island, which is located off Cape Cod, vowing never to love again!!! Or nurse again, either, because even just being in a hospital makes her remember Dr. Alec Osborne, a boy she’d loved since high school and followed into medicine with the dream of working alongside him after they were married—except that he’d decided to marry someone else, the rat bastard! Amy needs a serious dose of coping skills. To demonstrate how destroyed she is, “she wore no make-up because she had lost faith in such things. Alec had rejected her for an older, plainer woman, and she was not interested in trying to make herself attractive any longer.” She’s also pretty shallow; did I mention that? 

Anyway, after quitting nursing and life altogether, she’s going to hole up on this remote island in the cottage left to her by an aunt. On the ferry over, she’s taken up by a suave charmer, Peter Pepper, who regales her with humorous stories to such an extent that she hardly notices the two cops who are scrutinizing every male passenger exiting the ferry. “A guy could lose himself up here for a long, long time,” Peter observes. “He could hide out from the world, and his enemies would never be able to find him.” Nope, Amy doesn’t pick up that clue he’s putting down, either. Peter also finds the island attractive because it’s itching to raise money to build a new hospital, and he’s just the man to make all that happen, as long as he gets to put his name on the bank account!

But en route from the ferry stop, the bus she and Peter are riding on tips over, and all the injured folks are hustled off to the local hospital. Amy is not harmed, but she is instantly pressed into duty by mean old Dr. Dan Spencer, who hears Amy’s story and is not exactly impressed. “You decided to quit the profession that you only went into for selfish reasons of your own,” he sums up. “Didn’t it mean anything to you at all, except as a means to your own ends?” At least she has the nerve to answer, “I don’t think it did. It was a job.” Ah. 

But with all these injured folks lying around, she does agree to help out, initially thinking it would be just for one day, but she keeps coming back, because she likes the patients, and besides, Dr. Aaron Moon is “the most impressive-looking man Amy had ever seen.” He’s Indian, of the Chackonee nation, which inhabits one end of the island. He and the charge nurse, Jeanne Halderson, are apparently desperately in love with each other, but for some reason—could it be his Indian heritage?—Jeanne is just nasty and brutish with poor Dr. Moon, so he dates Amy now and then.

Meanwhile, as Amy finds out that more and more folks who can’t really afford it are digging deep into their piggy banks to help the persuasive Mr. Pepper finance the new hospital, she starts to get uneasy. “Don’t get involved in something which isn’t your affair,” she eventually decides, and keeps her suspicions to herself. We’re lucky it’s just one con man, and not a band of international terrorists, that are hiding out on Elsalock Island. You will not be surprised to learn that Mr. Pepper and the money vanish on the same day, and the cops are not so pleased with Amy when they discover she had concerns all along. “Even though this crook was going around collecting money from everyone on the Island. You simply sat back and did nothing when, as you say, you felt that something was ‘wrong’?” Um, yeah, that about sums it up. Interestingly, we’ve met other VNRN heroines who minded their own business and allowed a baddie to get away with a crime (see Jane Arden Space Nurse), but she is not shamed for her stupid behavior the way Amy is. 

So the entire population of the island stops speaking to her, except for the Chackonee people and Dan, but surprisingly, Amy sticks to the job she never wanted in the first place. She even decides that she likes Dan; “there was a certain ease between them, as thought they had known each other for years. There had not been the strain, as there sometimes had been with Alec, of being bright and witty in order to hold his attention.” Because if one man hasn’t worked out, we just have to be informed that the fellow wasn’t all that awesome to start with, that it wasn’t really love that she felt, that it didn’t count for anything.

In the end there’s another disaster, a hurricane this time, and by the end of it, Amy is finally seeing the shining light of Florence’s lamp: “She had found the satisfaction of hard work, of service, of helping and being needed as she never had before in her life. Before, nursing had been to her only the means to an end, something impatiently learned for a selfish purpose. … Words like ‘serve’ had had no part in her life until she had come to the Island, in spite of her glib recitation of the Florence Nightingale oath.” It’s nice that the author bothered to try to give her character some personal growth, but it’s mostly told to us, not shown, unfortunately.

The book ends completely as expected. One big disappointment comes when Amy has just realized that she loves Dan as he is driving her home. He asks her what she’s thinking about, “and, of course, she could not tell him. She could not even turn her head and meet his eyes.” It isn’t until he puts his arm around her and tells her that he has feelings for her that she is able to reach for him. I’ve been realizing lately how passive all these heroines are romantically, how in the end, it is almost always the man who makes the first move. No matter what we’ve been sold throughout the pages about the heroine standing on her own feet and taking ownership of her life, she still can’t extend a hand or face toward a man she loves until his answer is assured. Weak and hypocritical is what it is. The only “plus” in this book is that the Indian community was treated respectably, with honorable, hardworking characters who don’t talk much, of course, but who stand by Amy when Peter runs off with the loot. It’s not much, but with Rosamund Hunt’s Emergency Nurse, we’re not given much, so it’s best to just take that small token and close the book.

Monday, August 23, 2021

The Fledgling Nurses

By Diana Douglas, pseud. of 
Richard Wilkes-Hunter, ©1971
Cover illustration by Allan Kass

“Tina,” John whispered, “I’ve never seen you the way I’m seeing you now.”
“No? I guess you never bothered to look,” she answered. Any second now he was going to kiss her, and most girls would give anything to have such an attractive man look at them as he was looking at her now. But all Tina felt was a diminishing satisfaction that John’s date Dell would see them—that what Dell would feel would be payment for some of the dirty tricks she’d played on Tina at the hospital. John’s kiss was passionate and very, very exciting—too exciting. For when Tina saw Dell staring at them furiously, she knew that what had started out as a simple act of revenge might signal the beginning of a love that would threaten all of them … 

GRADE: B

BEST QUOTES:
“Inside this hospital, nurses do not run even in an emergency. Running promotes panic. In patients as well as nurses. Remember that.” 

“‘Sometimes it’s like that with people,’ he said. ‘You just look at one another and you vibrate.’”

REVIEW:
Tina Lambert, a second-year nursing student, hates her fellow student Dell Blandon with a burning passion. Dell, who’s at the top of their class, is always ratting out Tina, who is somewhere at the bottom. Tina’s problem is that she has mixed feelings about nursing, mostly stemming from her mother, who is director of nursing at a hospital in Berkeley, California, across the bay from Bayview Hospital, where Tina is a student. “My mother’s more than a trial—she’s a conviction, too,” Tina gripes, adding that it was her mother’s idea that she become a nurse. Honest and self-aware, though, she admits, “I wanted to be a nurse. But I wanted to make my own decision about it, that’s all. I didn’t want to be taken by the ear and led into a nurse’s uniform. Would you?” No, I wouldn’t, and it explains Tina’s attitude and mixed performance as a student. 

One evening Tina and the gang and their men friends go to a club—“It’s now, it’s wow, it’s the Rainbow Pad,” and I laughed for about ten pages at the wild, swinging hippie scene with hypnotic, psychedelic lights and a “depth-perception machine,” whatever that is. Unfortunately, Tina is not able to “swing your hang-ups away!” and instead decides to wreak her revenge on Dell by taking away her boyfriend, John Small. Unfortunately, it’s not very difficult, as John seems too eager to kiss Tina from the moment he lays eyes on her. She lets him do it as she sees Dell exiting the ladies’ lounge, and Dell, furious, leaves the club with Stanfurd playboy Peter Spain. That night, Tina hears Dell sneaking into the nurses’ dorm way past curfew and cry herself to sleep, and—too late—she starts to feel remorse. But it proves difficult to drop John, who now is hypocritically angry with Dell for dating Peter. Eventually, trying to get Dell to go back to John, who Tina is sure still loves Dell, Tina comes completely clean to Dell, in her startlingly honest way. Dell, not very surprisingly, is devastated and humiliated, and thinking that she’s lost the man she loves forever, walks out of the hospital when she should be heading for class.

The next 40 pages devote themselves to a long, drawn-out, day-long hunt all over San Francisco for Dell, ending with Tina, John and two friends driving through the thick fog (you knew the fog would make an appearance at some point) to track her down—only to end up in a car crash, and wouldn’t you know it, the car they hit contains Dell and Peter! Tina, who’s been a hit-or-miss student—though we do hear she’s especially strong on the first aid exam, in a bit of foreshadowing—saves John’s life while the other two student nurses go to pieces, and when the victims are finally wheeled into the ED doors, Tina wins the admiration of chief surgical resident Dr. Roger Carr.

Eventually everything is tied up, but not before Tina pulls a half-hearted Dell maneuver herself and runs into the park after dark and is nearly assaulted before Roger shows up in the nick of time, in a perfunctory 2½-page adventure that feels insulting to the reader. Overall it’s certainly not author Richard Wilkes-Hunter’s worst, which can be pretty bad (see Resort Nurse, Nurse Deceived, Mystery Nurse, and Surfing Nurse, to name just a few—he has definitely earned his berth on the Worst VNRN Authors list). But here he has given us a short story stretched yawningly into 125 pages, and we can’t avoid Wilkes-Hunter’s trademark awkward references to Tina’s “firm breasts” and the shower in which she is “letting the warmth pour down over her smooth young curves,” which make me feel like a creepy voyeur. But Tina is a forthright, insightful, admirable young woman who learns from her ability to perform under pressure that “if I can do that once, I can do it again, can’t I? I mean, I can help people who need what I am able to do for them.” It’s a rarity for Wilkes-Hunter to give us such a feisty and enjoyable heroine, but after wading through 13 of his other books and finding them overwhelmingly to be duds, I am glad to have met her.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Seaside Hospital

By Pauline Ash, ©1964
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

As a nurse, Lisa Bryant knew the importance of treatment for kleptomania, but when she found that her own sister was suffering from it she didn’t know who to turn to—well, she did know, but she was determined not to drag Doctor Randall Carson into it.

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:
“For a girl with such an innocent face, you certainly manage to get men to run around and do things for you.” 

REVIEW:
The first pages of this book bring Nurse Lisa Bryant’s younger sister Jacky, who has been incommunicado for three years, back into her life with a bang. “Do you know,” Jacky trills, “that’s the first time I’ve seen you in nurse’s uniform! Isn’t it perfectly hideous?” We are not surprised to learn that Jacky “takes, all the time, and has very little to give back”—but Jacky takes literally, and has swiped a solid gold cigarette case that Lisa has to get out of the pawn shop to save Jacky from ruin. And you will not be surprised that Lisa is eventually suspected to be the thief, which is how these klepto stories usually go (see The Case for Nurse Sheridan and Nurse’sDilemma). But here we have a new twist, in that the man Jacky has been stealing from was her boyfriend, who tells Lisa, when she nobly returns the case, that he won’t call the cops if Lisa will “be a hostess, a companion—which she had had to agree to as the price for Jacky’s freedom.” Ew. 

Well, she has some free time, because she’s just been jilted by gadabout Derek Frenton. You have to acknowledge that he has a point when he tells her, “You adore hard work, or else you wouldn’t be so keen on staying at that hospital of yours until you qualify, marriage or no marriage. As for myself, I’ve never done a day’s work in my life, and a working wife would bore me as badly as I should bore her. I know you’ll be sensible about this, so let’s call it quits, shall we?” The knife in the back, though, is that he’s fallen for Jacky, the louse!

She also has a run-in with Dr. Randall Carson, who is “the most important (and the most short-tempered) surgeon at St. Mildred’s,” and wouldn’t you know, the man always seems to be picking on her. “She wished he wouldn’t keep watching her. It almost made her do stupid things. She tried to assess the thoughts going on behind that lean dark face of his, and wondered what he was feeling behind those cold, slate-grey eyes. He was so efficient himself that he just hadn’t patience with anyone who hadn’t achieved the standard of perfection, she supposed.” He is, in a word, horrible—so guess who Lisa develops a crush on?

Unfortunately, Lisa perseveres with her near-suicidal compunction to clean up after Jacky, which means she gets tangled up in all sorts of bad situations, such as when Derek Frenton’s mother’s jeweled brooch is stolen at a house party, and when another cad that Jacky had been dating decides he’d rather go out with fresh, unspoiled Lisa and blackmails her to make her go along with the plan. We know the eventual assault is coming, but alas, Lisa does not.

It’s a fairly convoluted story, with all the secrets and entanglements and coverups, that it’s a little hard to keep track of who knows what, and which lie is being told to whom. Meanwhile, there’s a young boy who’s been run over, and wouldn’t you know it, Jacky’s tangled up in that, too, having attempted to steal a diamond ring from the mother right before the accident, but now the parents are not coming forward to claim their mangled son, and Lisa is playing detective to try to track them down. Of course, through all of this, Lisa tries to keep Randall from thinking the worst of her—with little success, as he is always on hand when she is getting into or out of one man’s car or another. Eventually she takes Randall into her confidence and tells him the truth, so they decide they are going to have Jacky committed, and as Jacky attempts to sneak away before they can capture her, there’s a scene on the beach with the tide coming in, and Lisa and Jacky are trapped in a cave, while the police are closing in on them as well as on the blackmailing beau, who is wanted by the cops (surprise!). Of course, Lisa takes a tumble from the cliff while attempting to go for help, but that’s just the usual clever ploy to snag her man in the end.

I was hopeful from the first sentence: “Casualty was almost empty after a really busy Monday, when they brought in the man who was to play such havoc in Lisa Bryant’s life.” The rest of the book was not as quite as interesting, particularly when they trotted out the klepto relative with the covering nurse storyline, and the plot did get a bit bogged down in the end. But overall it was a quick-paced, lively and pleasant enough book. I could swear I’ve read this trapped-in-a-cave bit, too, but I couldn’t find it – no worries, that will pop up again, I’m sure, along with another kleptomaniac and an aloof, older doctor you can’t imagine anyone would reasonably fall in love with!

Friday, August 13, 2021

The White Jacket

By Kate Norway (pseud. Olive Norton), ©1961
Cover illustration by Paul Ann Soik 

Vivien loved her surgical work with all the enthusiasm of her temperamental nature. She had been attracted to Johnny Dysart by his even temper and sound common sense. But the arrival of a new and disturbingly attractive member of the staff changed both their lives—and indeed the lives of many of the doctors and nurses at Queen’s Hospital.

GRADE: A-

BEST QUOTES:
“Men! she thought angrily. As soon as a woman begins to think for herself they tell her she’s tired. Tired!” 

“Well, if there’s any giving in to be done, I always think it’s best to let the men have the last word, Doctor. They set a lot of store by it. Women know when they’ve won, and they don’t need to have it in black and white the way men do.”

“Nature heals and the doctor only encourages the patient while she does it.”

“Nothing worthwhile ever is simple.”

REVIEW:
It’s interesting to me that when a VNRN has a female doctor protagonist, there is often at least one more woman MD on the staff—but when the book’s heroine is a nurse, almost never do you meet a female doctor. Anyway, here we have Dr. Vivien Bromwich, who is working in an English hospital. From what I can tell she’s finishing her residency, and covers all specialties, though she spends a lot of time in surgery with Dr. Malcolm, her boss and mentor. 

She’s sort of engaged to Johnny Dysart, though it’s not “official,” whatever that means, because “I want to feel a hundred per cent sure,” she tells Johnny. I guess it really means they’re not engaged. Johnny is a cool customer: “It wasn’t easy to tell with Johnny. His comfortable cheerfulness never varied very much. Big and confident, he made her feel safe.” Safe, of course, is not always a promising feature in VNRN men.

The other woman MD in the book, Dr. Rena Todd, is a 36-year-old surgeon in training who is much discussed by the staff. “Too much ambition,” Johnny snorts. “Rena’s determined to be a Great Surgeon—and if she only knew it, she’d probably be a darn sight happier being the Little Woman to some nice chap.” Vivien, to her only partial credit, disagrees, saying, “She’s not a cabbage like me. I don’t want to be a career woman all my life.” Rena, it turns out, has been married and even had a baby, but it had died and her husband had left her. She’s now unable to have children, so she feels “I’m a failure as a woman,” and that’s part of the reason she works so hard at surgery.

On her own career front, Vivien is proving herself in the OR, and Dr. Malcolm asks her to stay on as his registrar, which I think is the British term for fellow. “Wasting your time, working with me, if you’re not going to go on with it,” he points out. When she says she might get married—the horrible inference being that she’ll quit working—he answers, “Any fool can keep house. But you can do surgery.” I love Dr. Malcolm. Discussing the invitation with Johnny, he refuses to even recognize the compliment, much less consider the offer. “I’m a man, and I have to think about having a career and providing for a family. You don’t,” he tells her. “Why can’t he let me glow, just for once?” she wonders.

In her personal life, while she’s waiting to feel 100 percent certain of Johnny—good luck with that—Vivien meets Edward Featherstone, who is working as an OR porter. “Emboldened by the perfect fit of their interlocking glances,” she starts snatching kisses with him in the autoclave room, and her secret smooching leads her to think she shouldn’t marry Johnny. But then she and Johnny are in a car crash, while he’s driving their friend Dr. Dick Clements’ car, and Johnny is badly hurt, requiring the amputation of several fingers. Now surgery as a specialty is out for him—and we’re panicking, thinking she’ll marry him out of pity, but he breaks up with her from his hospital bed. “Now I begin to live my life the way I want to live it,” she thinks, and the freedom in that sentence truly made my heart lift up.

Unfortunately, the insurance won’t pay for Dick’s car, and the book takes a turn into a mystery story. Vivien borrows $200 from Edward Featherstone and gives it to Dick for his car, but then Edward comes to Vivien in a panic and says he needs the money back immediately, as he’s leaving the area in a highly suspicious hurry! Then avuncular Dr. Malcolm is assaulted and dies of a head wound, and Edward has disappeared, and a patient has been robbed of $200, bills he had fortuitously marked in advance. Edward calls Vivien and tells her to leave the $200 in a telephone booth, and then she learns that he is wanted by the police for murdering Dr. Malcolm. While trying to decide what to do, she confides in Dick Clements, who is increasingly but gently making it clear that he has feelings for Vivien. He sends her to the hospital archives, where she learns that Edward was once signing hospital notes as Edward Featherstone Catlow MD, and that he had lost his privileges at the hospital for stealing drugs.

She and Dick go to the police, who are supposed to surveil the telephone booth after Vivien drops off a fake envelope, but they seem to have gone for doughnuts at the crucial moment because one of the OR nurses is discovered knocked out in the telephone booth and the envelope is gone. Vivien and Dick then head for the coffee shop, but it turns out that the bill Vivien uses to pay the tab is one of the stolen bills! Dick stands by her as she’s questioned by the police—who now think she was the one who knocked out the nurse. “If you’re in it, Viv, I have to be in it too, until it works out,” Dick tells her. “I’m with you.” He’s the kind of person who sees she’s troubled and pulls her aside for a talk. “His quiet strength was unbearably moving to her, the more so for its silence. He put an arm across her shoulder and waited. It was clear that he was prepared to wait all night, if necessary, for her to confide in him.” Well, I was won over!

The mystery is wrapped up, not in the way I’d imagined, but it does turn out that Vivien is innocent after all! This book is a little above the usual, with a mystery that actually is one in some places, solid writing, fine characters, and luscious ball gowns. If we are subjected to the usual sexism that the heroine doesn’t work especially hard to shrug off, she doesn’t completely accept it, either, and lives her life in an honest, forthright way—with a little help from her friends. Olive Norton, here writing as Kate Norway, is quickly becoming a trusted source for an enjoyable, pleasant read, and I am happy to have found her, and this charming book.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Odds Against Nurse Pat

By Ray Dorien, ©1958 

Nurse Pat Merriford’s friends said the fire that inflamed her red hair sparked her impulsive personality. For Pat’s impetuous nature gave her a talent for landing herself in difficulties. Luckily, Dr. Kent Willerby had always managed to protect her from being burned. Yet Pat wished that Kent’s protective attitude would change to something more akin to the love she felt for him. Then Janet Westbrow came to work at the hospital. For the sake of loyalty, Pat found herself defending this girl she disliked; one, furthermore, who seemed determined to win Dr. Willerby for herself. To make matters worse, Pat found herself professionally opposed to the doctor she could never stop loving.

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:
“Even our best patients think there’s nothing to be done for men except smooth their pillows and hold their hands while they make love to us.”

“I don’t think that is quite the way for a respectable doctor to behave in a telephone booth.”

REVIEW:
Nurse Pat Merriman is the usual impetuous red-haired nurse who is running afoul of the cute but imperious surgeon Kent Willerby at every turn. Then one day, after a bad day in the OR with him, he actually speaks to her, to tell her that “a few words of blame don’t matter. Cheer up.” And with that, “the man she had admired from a distance, almost with a touch of schoolgirl hero worship, was human, approachable. She loved him then, impulsively, foolishly, hopelessly, from that moment.” He’s still quite cool, of course, so I don’t know how “approachable” he actually is, but he does give her the barest of hints that he has feelings for her—a ride home from the farewell party and a kiss on the lips—before he sets off for a year on an expedition to Antarctica, a voyage her brother Tom will coincidentally be making as well. 

A year goes by in a few pages, and Pat is half-heartedly dating Dr. Lee Gauntley and shepherding socialite Janet Westbrown through the first year of nursing school, when Janet quits and goes to South Africa to welcome home the adventurers—and there becomes engaged to Kent. Upon the team’s arrival in England, however, there’s a bizarre and poorly explained accident in which Kent, carrying a heavy case of instruments, fell into Tom, who “hit the bulkhead” and now is paralyzed from the waist down. He’s pretty glum about it, naturally, and it turns out he’d fallen in love with Janet in South Africa—though honestly if you’re going to fall for something you’re better off with the bulkhead than with shallow, materialistic, selfish Janet—but there’s the heart-of-gold physical therapist to tell him off and set him straight, not to mention back on his increasingly sensate feet!

In the end, Lee asks Pat to a weekend house party at his sister’s, and here we spend a lovely few days with good food and company and dogs and charming children, and Pat and Kent reach the understanding you knew they would, but not without a crisis—Janet’s gone missing, and every character in the book is out looking for her, but Janet’s not the kind of gal who is ever short of a man or three, so you know she’ll land safely on her Jimmy Choo’s.

This is a fairly typical VNRN, but the party at the ending is rather sweet, as is the rapprochement between Kent and Pat, even if the kerfuffle about the “missing” Janet is overly manufactured. The writing can be charming, as when newly secure of Kent, “even Pat’s hair seemed to be of a brighter color.” If it’s not the greatest of the nurse novels, odds are you’ll find Nurse Pat a perfectly pleasant afternoon companion.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Special Duty

By Arlene Hale, ©1970 

When Dr. Taylor assigned her to special duty, lovely, auburn-haired Margo McKim felt a sense of pride—and also relief. Perhaps if she poured all her energy into her work, there would be no time left to brood over a love that was lost … but not forgotten. But the assignment only created new problems. Because the patient was famous folk singer Jedd Buckley, the case was kept secret. And his illness itself was shrouded in mystery. What had really caused Jedd’s breakdown? Why was his manager Steve so hostile towards Margo’s help? Why had the handsome, cool-headed Dr. Taylor insisted on her for assignment? Whatever mysterious motives lay behind this case, it was soon no secret that Jedd, Steve, and even Dr. Taylor all were looking at Margo not only as a nurse … but as a woman. She had thought that work would help her run away from love—was she actually running towards it?

GRADE: C

BEST QUOTES:
“Being late is just a form of being dishonest, you know.” 

REVIEW:
Dr. Alex L. Taylor has just relocated to White Hill Hospital from Topeka, Kansas, and the man “has a way of walking by people as if they were sticks of furniture. Did you ever see him smile? … It was inconceivable that he knew any of them by either their first or last name. They were simply women in white. When he wanted one of them, he crooked a finger and expected her to follow obediently behind him, do what he ordered.” Naturally, every nurse in the place is hot for him. 

Except for Nurse Margo McKim. Sure, he’s handsome, but “that holier-than-thou attitude is for the birds,” she thinks. So she’s the one he calls up, arrogantly insisting she meet him at the Oasis Club, to discuss a private duty job he wants to hire her for. He’s got a top-secret patient whose “nerves are shot,” or so the official diagnosis goes. “You have a good figure. You’re also a pretty woman,” he says to Margo. “Just exactly the kind of nurse I’m looking for.” He even asks her if her auburn hair is real, if you can believe it, which of course is what makes for a good RN.

She agrees to take the job, which is to nurse rising folk singer Jedd Buckley out of his stupor. Manager Steve Ryan is extremely concerned about Jedd’s mental health: “You’ve got to have him on his feet in time for Dick’s Discotheque opening,” he insists. “Big deal. Big money. Big publicity. You’ve got to have him ready for it. He sure isn’t ready to crack up! I can just hear what talk that would cause—he might even lose some juicy contracts.” How sweet!

Almost immediately after arriving at Jedd’s mansion, she regrets taking the job when Steve snaps at her, “What I say, goes. And whether you agree or not, I know what I’m doing, and I know what’s best.” But her reward, outside of a big paycheck, is that Dr. Alex is going to see her every day, and he ends his first visit with a kiss. “I’m not just a cold fish after all. There’s hot blood in my veins,” he tells her. So hot that he starts their first real date by assaulting her in the car. She slaps him, and “he reached for her again and he kissed her until she struggled free.” She jumps out of the car and starts walking back to the house, but Alex says he’s really sorry, so she gets back in the car, they have a lovely picnic, and she kisses him back for real when he drops her off at the end of the day. I really don’t understand why it’s so common in VNRNs for women to end up dating, often happily, a man who’s assaulted her.

Back at the mansion, Margo slowly warms up Jedd, whose recovery is aided by numerous pills, because “tranquilizers will help him get a grip on himself.” Eventually he opens up enough to take her on a walk in the woods to meet Zeke, who is the father of a woman he’d been in love with back home, but whom he’d left behind to be a star. Of course, it’s obvious that Sallie Mae is the reason why Jedd has gone into this funk, but it takes everyone else 75 pages and a crisis in which Jedd grabs a rifle and holes himself up in a cave to figure this out.

At this point in the book, everyone, including Jedd’s oldest friend Charlie, who has stood by him through it all, is revealed to have had a fiscally related motive for pushing Jedd to succeed as a performer. Even Margo falls into the pattern of treating Jedd like a show pony who just needs to be whipped a little harder when she tells Alex, “Jedd shouldn’t be allowed to throw in the towel on his career. He has far too much to offer!” Curious that in all this book, no one once asks Jedd what he wants, even in the explosive crisis.

Thank goodness, though, for Nurse Margo, who runs up to the cave with Jedd’s bullets whizzing past her ears to tell him that she’s directed Steve to fly to Tennessee and pick up Sallie Mae on a chartered jet, so hadn’t he better get back home and shave? Everything is quite predictable after this point, though to be honest, it was predictable from the first mention of Sallie Mae’s name. For Margo’s love life, there is a limp red herring in the form of Steve, who has a turn at assaulting Margo and then asking her to be his girl. She mulls it over for about three seconds, and spends twice as long considering Greg Walters, the first man she ever loved, who broke her heart and rendered her an iron maiden, and who makes no actual appearance in the book. But in the end she’s cured of her frigidity as easily as Jedd is cured of his dystonia and homicidal ideations. All you need is the right person in your life!

It’s more than a little disconcerting that not one person in the book puts Jedd’s well-being above his potential as a star; we never hear a single word from Sallie Mae, so we have only the fact that she’s from the sticks and knew Jedd before he was successful to vouch for her character. But Charlie had those same credentials, and look how he turned out! As Jedd pulls himself together and wows them at Dick’s, all the leading players in his crackup express remorse at how selfish they’ve been, but it rings false to hear their regrets only after their own admittedly juicy slice of the pie has been reassured.

The treatment of Jedd in this book as a commodity to be jollied into giving up what everyone wants is not far removed from how the men treat Margo, so that’s a disturbing narrative twin in this book—again, not something that’s ever discussed. The story and the writing are ordinary and serviceable, neither being especially interesting, and the characters are no better. Arlene Hale is not my favorite writer, having garnered a less-than-C+ average in 21 reviews, and unfortunately for me, she was as prolific as she was ordinary. So if it is my duty to read her books, they are seldom special, and Special Duty is true to form.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Wanted—One Nurse

By Joanna Grey, ©1977

Celia Price’s new life in New York as a nurse to a struggling young doctor meant complete freedom from her English mother’s old-fashioned ideas. But it also meant imprisonment by feelings which she tried to suppress for Dr. Eric Adamson, feelings which she rationalized as respect for him as a skilled doctor. But Celia didn’t fool herself one bit! It was love. With no interest from Eric in return, the only direction she could take was away from him. Yet, could she run away from life again? 

GRADE: D

BEST QUOTES:
“New York could turn you daffy, and in a very short time, at that.” 

REVIEW:
I felt no small amount of apprehension when I realized this book was copyrighted in 1977; VNRNs tend to get worse the more recently they were written. (Six of the seven reviews of books written in 1975 or later got C- grades, while the earliest VNRN I have found, “K,” which dates to 1916, got an A.) The trend continues with this dud. 

Here we have gratuitously British Nurse Celia Price, who has been living in New York at 85 West 88th Street in New York City, deciding to work for Dr. Eric Adamson at 226 West 89th Street. He’s setting up a new practice that hasn’t actually opened yet, so they wash the walls and baseboards of his office and go shopping for carpet and linoleum. After the doors have opened, they take care of the patients who trickle in at a gradually increasing rate. Eventually Eric takes Celia for a picnic and, the poor dolt, does not kiss her at a moment when she was hoping to be kissed. This proves to be a fatal mistake for poor Dr. Adamson. “The bitter disappointment and hurt that Celia felt was like a physical pain. As well as that, she felt betrayed. It had taken some courage, and some difficulty, to bring herself to the point where she had to admit that her feelings for this appealing young man went far beyond what was normally expected of an employee. And then, having struggled with her conscience, and forced herself to look at the truth of the matter, he had turned away from her.” This “total rejection” renders her cold and snippy for the next four weeks. Undaunted, he asks her to go to Shakespeare in the Park with him, but she shows him who’s boss when she turns him down—and then “it upset her that he had not asked her again. When she noticed in the paper that the season had ended, she felt that it was almost a personal affront to her.”

In the interim, her roommate Joan meets Eric and they go for drinks while Celia does a slow burn at home. Then she meets his roommate, Mike, and “not that she was thinking of Mike in any romantic way,” but she hopes he might date her. He drops by her apartment and meets Jean, “her hair wet and straggly, her body anything but curvaceous under her shapeless robe,” but within a few hours the two “were completely and totally in love.” So Celia is back to being “curt and short” with Eric even though he remains completely magnanimous, and even takes her to lunch to try to get her to tell him why she’s being so horrid. She doesn’t, but at least she defrosts enough to agree to go with him and Jean and Mike on vacation to a cabin in the mountains. Not surprisingly, Mike falls into a ditch en route to the cabin and breaks his leg, so Eric and Celia are at the cabin alone, which is a shocking risk for her reputation, and there’s a long, dull scene in which Celia becomes increasingly enraged that Eric won’t take her back to New York as he lies smugly on the sofa with his eyes closed. Guess how it ends?

Time and time again, Eric proves himself to be a much bigger person, while Celia is irritatingly small and petty. No sensible reader could possibly understand what drives him to continue to pursue her, but there it is. I wasn’t sure I understood why author Joanna Grey devoted the hours it must have taken to phone in this soggy lump. Some books are so bad they’re good (see Harbor Nurse, A Nurse at the Fair), but this one is just dull, to the point that I was grateful on multiple occasions while I was reading it that it was only 124 pages, and the font not overly small. I can only hope Grey didn’t write any more VNRNs, or if she did, that they were written in the 1930s.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Debutante Nurse

By Lois Hobart, ©1959
Cover illustration by Tom Miller 

Elaine Forrest lived in two worlds. She was a Registered Nurse with an outstanding record. She was also a wealthy society girl soon to wed Bryce Thorne, a prominent lawyer. Her future was neatly planned, carefully catalogued—until Dirk Yeager shouted angrily at her, “Stop kidding yourself, Elaine. You’ve got to face the facts.” Then he turned and stalked off into the night. Elaine was left trembling and frightened. Her professional reputation challenged, her engagement broken, Elaine was passionately involved with a man who could ruin her way of life.

GRADE: B-

BEST QUOTES:
“‘You needn’t talk as if he were a robot in my hands,’ she retorted angrily. She shivered. ‘Bryce dear, would you fetch my stole from the living room?’”

REVIEW:
Nurse Elaine Forrest is fairly unique in the VNRN genre in that she is, at least in the beginning of the book, a rather horrible character. Spoiled, selfish, and inconsiderate, she’s managed nonetheless to hook physicist Bryce Thorne, because even as a young girl, “the outlines of the kind of life she wanted to shape for herself were quite clear to her, and Bryce fitted into it.” 

On the train to her new job as a public health nurse, she runs into a man on the train. “He was certainly not a type that appealed to her. Too casual, with a tieless open-collared shirt and the tweed jacket slung over his shoulder. There was something too—not irresponsible exactly, not fresh, not precisely unreliable but—uncertain, unpredictable, that was it. And Elaine liked predictable: actions, situations, people that she could interpret and anticipate and deal with.” We’re already waiting to see him pop up again in a few more pages.

When she gets to the office on the first day, she finds everyone a little too relaxed and informal for her liking. She’s “appalled” that the other nurses will do things like run errands or even the dishes, if you can imagine, and on her first visit to a harried family, she “followed the woman upstairs, not supplying her name because the woman was too disorganized to care.” When it’s over, she thinks, “Hardly a very interesting first call.” But she’s OK with that; “she didn’t intend to get into the habit of carrying all her cases with her, as the others did.” Instead, she thinks about what to wear to a party she’s attending later on. So much more satisfying!

Of course, the man on the train turns out to be a new consultant, Dirk Yeager, who is writing a sociology PhD thesis on what he calls “diagnosing families,” which turns out to be a sort of psychoanalysis of relationships within a family to determine how they may be contributing to illness. “We have to understand what the family’s problems are and how each individual fits in,” he explains. Elaine, who has no interest in any of the families of her patients—or even, really, in her patients themselves, beyond their illnesses—is not wild about Dirk’s theories. She’s snippy to him, and the pair are soon arguing at every opportunity, despite the “electricity” she feels when she is forced to dance with him. But she quickly snaps out of it: “This was the real Elaine, carefully groomed, unswayed by any talk of chemistry. This was the Elaine who always knew what she was doing—not that silly, emotional, unpredictable creature of a preposterous situation. Enough nonsense about Dirk. He could not be trusted; he was probably practicing his psychology on her.” Before long, he’s practicing his psychology by taking her in his arms and telling her that he has feelings for her, but “there must be no more of that electricity,” she decides, and she gives him the brushoff.

It turns out, though, that boyfriend Bryce has been hiding a secret—he wants to chuck research and become a high school teacher. Elaine is horrified, and had “the uncomfortable feeling that she had lost control over Bryce.” She admits that “her motive was sheer selfishness; she did not welcome the status of the wife of a high school teacher. She resented the crushing of her plans.” She is openly dismissive of his ideas, but he demonstrates some spine for the first time in their relationship, takes a job teaching despite her disapproval, and then breaks their engagement. How shocking! “Elaine simply could not reconcile this firm Bryce with the one she knew, so amenable to reason, so deferent to her wishes. It was beyond belief.” He is well rid of Elaine, that much is clear.

When Dirk hears of it, he gives Elaine a complete assessment of her character, calling her “a cold fish,” and a “self-centered egotist.” He says that there’s hope for her, since she did choose nursing as a profession when she didn’t need a career at all. “I admire your ability, your intelligence, your purposefulness, but I can’t stand those blind spots—the impersonal way you deal with your patients, your impatience with the element of sympathy that makes a real woman,” he says. These disses from two different men arriving together give her a night of sleepless self-reflection, when “new humility tangled with bewilderment that the things she had been so sure of, her plans and hopes for marriage, Bryce, her very self, should be so baseless and insecure. How could this happen to her? But she was discovering new qualities in herself, new strengths as well as perplexities.”

Then there’s a flu epidemic, and after Elaine spends days vaccinating firefighters, she and her fellow nurses agree to hang out and have a beer with the guys. “It struck Elaine that once she would have ignored men like these, so different in personality and type, so remote from her previous experience of people; and in doing so would have missed the richness of range that she now valued.” She also starts to waken to her patients’ personal lives—to family diagnosis, if you will—and even makes a cup of coffee for a father who’s been up all night. “This warmth and understanding, a sensitivity to the needs of others, was it something Elaine could learn herself? Mrs. Hagstrom had it; Molly Carew had it. No wonder they were marvelous nurses. And marvelous people. Perhaps you didn’t have to conform to some idealized pattern or be socially attractive to find satisfaction in your work and an effective role in life. Maybe Elaine could accept herself for what she was and do the best with her own temperament, whatever its faults. Whatever its faults … strange to think of herself apologetically after all these years, a young lifetime of taking her good fortune and gifts for granted.”

Elaine’s growth as a human being occurs in fits and starts: In one minute she’s thinking about how cramped her old life is, the next she’s thinking of her best friend, whom Bryce is now seeing, as “a girl from a common family and background and education—how could she fit in with Bryce’s breeding, family position, and wealth? She gave her head a toss, trying to shake off this residue of snobbery and ego, but it wasn’t that easy.” This wavering makes her growth more believable, though, and I did like Elaine better in the end.

Overall, the book is well-written, despite giving us nothing pithy for the Best Quotes section. We spend a lot of time visiting patients, and the supporting characters in the book (outside of the one-dimensional male lead) are interesting. Unfortunately, her love life does not evolve as nicely as her growth as a character, Dirk (no surprise there) displaying the same presumption and bossiness that he had condemned in Elaine. I guess it’s OK to be inconsiderate and domineering if you’re a man, and if you’re a woman, you’re just hoping to find a man who will order you around: “A tiny thrill ran though her. Dirk might not leave the decision entirely in her hands.” Curious that the message of this book is that Elaine needs to be more receptive to the feelings of others, while at the same time her beaux are only admirable when they are ordering her around with no consideration of what she wants. But if you can overlook this flaw—one that is admittedly far too common in VNRNs—Debutante Nurse is a pleasant enough read.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Her Soul to Keep

By Marguerite Mooers Marshall, ©1940

With all the fire of youth, Nurse Joyce Randolph served her great profession at St. Botolph’s, a vast New York City hospital. Fighting her lonely duels with death in the long night watches, she was sustained by her love for Dr. Warren Faulkner, brilliant young surgeon. And then one terrifying morning disaster struck. Joyce was called into her supervisor’s office. A patient had died from an overdose of morphine. The evidence pointed to Joyce. Trustingly she turned to Dr. Warren, the doctor on the case, to clear her name. But he refused to come to her defense! Bewildered, grief-stricken, believing her future in ruins, Joyce fled to a tiny fishing village to try to pick up the pieces of a shattered life.

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:
“The woman who could not do her own dirty work in a boat or in the woods had better stay at home.”

“You haven’t got a thermometer so you can’t take my temperature. It might give you quite a shock if you did.”


REVIEW:
I’d been saving this, the last of the nurse novels by Marguerite Mooers Marshall, who is one of my favorite VNRN authors, and I’m shocked to find out that it’s been more than seven years since I read her third book—hard to believe I’ve been doing this blog for so long. The problem with all that anticipation is that sometimes a book does not deserve it. I have to say that this was not one of her best—but even one of her “worst” books is so much better than most other nurse novels out there that it’s hard to feel terribly disappointed. 

Nurse Joyce Randolph is working at a New York City hospital on the night shift, and the sloppy day nurse, Evelyn Adams, is late again. In an attempt to help cover for her colleague, little though she deserves it, Joyce gives the morning dose of morphine but does not document it, as it would be in her handwriting (those were the days) and would therefore out Evelyn, who would have been the one to give the dose if she’d showed up on time. The patient is the daughter of the chair of the hospital board of trustees, so she’s to get VIP treatment—but what she gets is a double dose of morphine when Dr. Warren Faulkner shows up later. Though Evelyn has told him that Joyce already gave the morphine, he believes the patient when she says Joyce withheld it out of meanness, and orders Evelyn give another 10 mg morphine—and the patient promptly dies.

Joyce is immediately fired and, worse, blackballed from nursing altogether, because Evelyn is now saying that Joyce never told her about the first injection—and Dr. Faulkner refuses to defend Joyce, the rat! It turns out that Dr. Faulkner is hoping to get a plum job with a senior surgeon, and word that he had ordered the fatal dose would make him unworthy of such a post, so he has asked Evelyn to lie for him. He asks Joyce to not fight her dismissal, too, but the hitch here is that he is her boyfriend and, she hopes, her future husband. “That the brilliant young physician she admired so much should lie to cover an error in judgment—even a fatal error—was bad enough. But that he should connive with Evelyn Adams, entrust his professional honor to her keeping—oh, how could he, how could he?” She’s overlooked the part where her beloved has asked her to sacrifice her entire career for a small blot on his, but eventually she remembers that and storms off.

He’s back later, though, insisting on her silence and promising to marry her in the fall if she stands by him. But “she could not so soon forget all that had happened. Not only unjust blame, rankling humiliation, threatened banishment from the work she loved. Under everything else, the sense of betrayal by one trusted, the discovery of weakness in what she had taken for strength.” She tells him she won’t see him for two months, and trundles off during a hurricane to her roommate Sally Scott’s beach cottage, which is somewhere on Long Island, ten miles from Manhattan. It’s in a community of similar houses, all without electricity, though they do have running water, and she’s floundering around on the boardwalk in the blinding rain when she literally runs into—not the first time that’s happened!—Roger Kent, a former newspaper journalist who became disenchanted with the politics of his beat and, rather than get a new assignment, quit altogether and moved to the island to write a novel.

Most of the ensuing book is about her life on the island: Boating and fishing with Roger, lying on the beach, meeting the neighbors as they move in with the warming weather. It’s an idyllic life, and enjoyable to watch, but apart from bandaging an occasional burned finger or packing a hot appendix off to the hospital, there’s not much nursing. Eventually Roger declares his love for her, but Joyce is waiting for her feelings for Warren to reveal themselves. Interestingly, she acknowledges that mainly what she feels for him is lust: “Honestly she faced the fact that he, more than any other man, had stirred her senses. Contact as a nurse with the darker by-products of sex could not destroy its glamor and glory. One did learn, however, to apply perspective to passion.” Which she seems unable to do. When Warren does turn up, “safety—Warren’s safety—seemed to remain his first thought!” She smooches him anyway, but when he sort-of proposes—he asks her to wear his fraternity pin, how adorable!—she says she needs more time to think. He’ll be spending that time in Bar Harbor, where he has to go to care for a “sick patient,” which we of course can see right through.

It’s a classic VNRN plot that we saw coming from early on, and though Joyce is a smart, determined, sassy, intelligent, hard-working young woman, she cannot foresee how this is going to play out until the engagement announcement is printed in the Times. I do wish Joyce had figured out her feelings on her own, because it’s not really growth if everything is thrust upon you. I liked Roger, who kept telling her that “even in love one has one’s soul to keep, that when love demanded the constant sacrifice of integrity it was more than the traffic would bear.” He, unlike Warren—who has told her that her destroyed career doesn’t matter, since she’d be chucking it anyway when they got married!—has assumed she will continue nursing, because “you can’t stop being yourself just because we’re in love.” The writing has a poetic feel to it, particularly in passages describing the ocean and the beach, and numerous references to poets and writers including Emerson, Kipling, Keats, da Vinci, George Bernard Shaw, and a sprinkling of ancient Greeks and Biblical references. Marshall’s hometown of Kingston, NH, makes a cameo, here and in her other books, as Belltown, along with nearby Campton (née Hampton) Beach and Axter (Exeter)—which you may not care about, but I do, since I’m from the New Hampshire Seacoast, and I share Mooers’ pride in the beauty of her home state. I’m disappointed that this book did not live up to Marshall’s best works (Nurse into Woman and Wilderness Nurse, both A-grade books), but I’ll repeat that it’s easily worth spending an afternoon on the beach with this book.