Monday, February 1, 2021

Hospital on Wheels

By Anne Lorraine, ©1956

Susan had loved Ricky Sharp all her life, with the passionate devotion of someone who had too much love to give. On the night their engagement was announced, Ricky was dangerously injured in a car accident—while eloping with Susan’s best friend. In her anguish Susan turned to her work. But could even the exciting new Hospital on Wheels, with the brilliant but temperamental Dr. Stephen Brand, make her forget losing Ricky?


“Once she was married, her life would consist of loving and looking after Ricky.” 

“Never pause at doors, my dear child. Every time you come to a new door in your life open it boldly and walk in, no matter what you dread to find on the other side.”

Susan Mance is a lucky orphan, in that after the demise of her parents, she was taken in by a family who had known her all her life and raised with love and compassion. The family also had a daughter, Bette Jonson, and much is made early on about how fabulous Bette is. Bette is “pert, vivacious,” “a breaker of hearts,” and everyone is “lost in admiration of her beauty and charm.” “Bette was everything Susan was not—cherished, adored, lovely, witty and determined.” She’s also willful and spoiled, with every boy wrapped around her finger, and one adoring worshipper in Susan, who expresses her adoration of Bette by following her to nursing school and acting as Bette’s live-in “friend, sister, nurse and slave,” doing all the cooking and cleaning. To be fair, Bette seems to love and appreciate Susan also, and the pair are known as best friends at nursing school. 

Susan eventually manages to land her childhood crush, Ricky Sharp, who has become a doctor (the inspiration behind her and Bette’s desire to go to nursing school). He’s proposed to her, but the night of their engagement party, it’s pretty clear that something is afoot, as Bette acts nervous and Ricky acts guilty, and even the hospital matron is telling Susan to open her eyes. Before the party, however, she works a shift with Dr. Stephen Brand, who is a strict, unfriendly, cold man, and while in clinic she tells him about a patient who can’t make it to prenatal visits because she doesn’t have transportation and no one to mind the other kids. She offhandedly suggests that in these cases it would be best to “take the hospital to them,” and this sparks a fire in Dr. Brand.

But neither Ricky nor Bette turns up for the engagement party, and as she arrives home at her apartment, she gets news that the pair have been in a car crash, and Ricky is paralyzed. Rushing to grab a coat, she finds a note on her pillow from Bette, saying that she and Ricky are eloping! What a shock! So when she tells everyone she is not going to marry Ricky, everyone thinks she’s dumped him because he’s crippled.

Susan also drops Bette like first-period French, and Bette goes to pieces, quits nursing, and moves back home with her parents to care for her mother, who is conveniently ill. Susan visits Ricky from time to time, but the visits are cold and strained, and it’s not clear why she goes—before long, Ricky refuses to see her, so clearly he doesn’t get it either. But the whole story appears to be more than we know—not that we’ll ever find it out, at this rate, because absolutely no one in this book ever has an honest conversation with anyone else. Unfortunately, what this means is that there will be 100 more pages of this silly book that could have been avoided.

Susan “had never been one to profess to having a ‘call’ for nursing,” but we’re also to understand that despite her disinterest in nursing, she is also pretty good at it. But after the accident she needs a change, so when Dr. Brand comes to her with a full-blown plan to start a clinic in a bus, she immediately enlists. It isn’t long before she’s finding that Dr. Brand doesn’t deserve his mean old reputation: rather, he's “charming and attractive,” “a most delightful companion,” and even “kind”! Whenever she’s with him she gets a warm glow, basking in their “mutual understanding,” and the best days of the week are when he travels out with her. He repeatedly suggests they add another nurse, as much as he says he would hate to complicate their pure and easy relationship, and she flat-out refuses every time, even though it means she’s working most hours of most days. On one drive home after a long day, when she is nearly asleep, he kisses her, and then she can’t sleep; “praying only that the man at her side might not hear the excited beating of her heart, nor know that her face was burning hotly from his kiss.” 

At the same time, it’s not clear how she feels about Ricky. “Could she go back to that time when she had not loved him?” she asks herself. She demonstrates little affection or even unhappiness when she sees him, and we have no insight as to what drives her to visit. Painfully, she also can’t decide how she feels about Stephen, her vital signs notwithstanding as evidence. She’s “immersed in these wearisome questions” about what the kiss means, and does he love her, and could she ever come to love him in return? If they are wearisome to her, they are triply so to us, and they go on and on, round and round in circles, arriving nowhere.

Eventually Bette’s mother takes a turn for the worse and Susan is summoned to see her. Now we are presented with a home scene completely opposite to how Susan initially drew it for us. Bette, says Mom Jonson, “always needed you, Susie—always. You had so much that she could never have.” We hear that Bette “was so miserably jealous” of Susan. “She always had to watch you stealing her thunder,” Dr. Brand says, and Bette tells Susan that her mother is better, all owing to Susan’s visit: “A little of Susan is worth a whole lot of Bette.” More reality adjustment comes when Susan decides that Dr. Brand is going to propose to her at a party he’s hosting. The idea gives her “flushed cheeks and bright eyes,” but as soon as she gets home, she decides “grimly” that she will accept Stephen’s proposal: “What did it matter if she could never love him as she had once hoped to love the man she married?” Suddenly her relationship with Stephen could never be more than “firm friendship,” that it could never have “the mad rapture she had experienced with Ricky.” What?

When Stephen does propose, Susan “suddenly felt cold and afraid,” though it mostly appears that she’s upset that he didn’t gush about his unrelenting love for her in the process, but she agrees “quietly.” Just then Ricky turns up with the news that this famous surgeon from America is going to perform a risky operation on him—the only other patient with this condition that he’d operated on died—but there’s a remote chance that he’ll walk again if it succeeds! Alone for a minute, Susan and Ricky realize they’re still very much in love, and Susan insists he have the surgery, which somehow proves that she loves him: “Nobody but a woman deeply in love could have dared to give such advice to the man she loved.” 

Back at the party, Bette pipes up that Susan will never love Stephen, because “she’s the type who gives her heart once and for all. Her heart happens to belong to Ricky—to Ricky, do you understand?” Unleashed, she tells Susan that she had intended to persuade Ricky to elope with her and had left the note, but Ricky would not be persuaded—“he loves you, and has never loved anybody else, nor ever will”—so Bette had grabbed the steering wheel and crashed the car. 

Then Bette tells Susan, “Your whole life has been a constant demand for love, love, and more love—and because you need love so much, you attract it—my mother and father frantically trying to make up to you for your loss, eternally dinning it on me that ‘we must think of poor little Susan, darling’ I almost hated you, Susan, because you demanded so much from us! And then you had to have Ricky.” Following this revelation, Ricky and Susan quickly put things to rights between them, and Susan has an eye-opening realization that it’s true, “I have demanded love, all my life,” which somehow “hurt Bette—the way I took the love of her parents as my right, the way I accepted her love and generosity as due me, and then the way I demanded that you should remain true to me.” It’s a baffling position—doesn’t every child “demand the love of the people who raise them, and doesn’t everyone insist that their beloved remain true? Is it a sin to need to be loved? As for feeling that Bette owes Susan love and generosity—after the way Susan has been “friend, sister, nurse and slave,” is that terribly surprising?

The maddening way this book completely turns 180 degrees on so many things, and how it willfully keeps half the story away from the reader for most of the book, means we wait and wait for the big reveal that makes utterly no sense; Susan ends up looking like an inconsistent, self-absorbed moron. Bette and Dr. Brand turn out to be the most interesting characters, and even he takes a turn in the end when Bette tells him that he doesn’t love Susan either, when he’s been as swoony in appearance as she’s been all along. Not much of this book makes sense, and with everyone acting so inconsistently and frankly stupidly, it’s really hard to care about them.

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