Monday, April 19, 2021

Hostage Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1973
Cover illustration by Allan Kass 

They were the ideal couple. Jenny Cole, the pretty ash-blond nurse, and Alex Walters, the boyishly handsome intern. It would be a marriage made in heaven, their friends and relatives were certain. But suddenly, a clash of temperaments, a bitter quarrel, and the inseparable twosome became mere nodding acquaintances. Jenny was determined to put Alex out of her mind, if not her heart. And she might have succeeded if a twist of fate hadn’t thrown them together in a bizarre and terrifying adventure. Facing danger, Jenny also faced the truth about herself and what she really wanted. But would it bring her a second chance at happiness?


“If you want to be the queen, you don’t keep sniffling, understand?” 

Jenny Cole and Alex Walters have been sweethearts since high school, and have plotted out their medical careers with the plan to work together “until they decided to start a family,” when Jenny would quit working and raise their brood of young ’uns. But nursing school doesn’t take as long as medical school, so by the time Alex lands a residency in the hospital where Jenny works, she has more than a year of experience under her belt to his mere months. Unfortunately, Jenny’s found that Alex thinks that his degree is worth more than her experience. “There was no doubting that Alex had changed. Several times during his six-week service in Orthopedics, Jenny had found herself working with a short-tempered, actually arrogant taskmaster, who knew less about her department and her patients than Jenny did. Why, he behaved like a smug tyrant, overly impressed with his title, making Jenny feel more like an erring servant than an experienced member of the medical team.” Which had swiftly brought about a loud argument: When she had pointed out his disrespect, he’d retorted, “You sound like one of those bra-burning women who want to be men”—proving her point. “You’ve got some idea that M.D. spells God. Let’s just forget the whole thing,” she’d snapped back, and their engagement had ended.

Now she has a vacation, coincidentally at the same time as Alex’s, and their mutual friend Toby Woodruff, a flight attendant who hasn’t seen them recently and so is unaware of their breakup, has booked them tickets on a charter flight back home to Miami. It’s a flight full of psychics on their way to a convention, and a family of three—parents and a four-year-old boy—are the only other non-conventioneers on the flight. Unfortunately, none of the psychics had picked up on the fact that the father of the family, Louis Dalby, is a paranoid schizophrenic packing a gun and a knife who hijacks the plane, shoots co-pilot Herb Gray in the shoulder, and insists that everyone call him “your majesty.” Louis wants the plane to be taken to Dalbania, a fabulous island where he is king and everyone else is his slave, located somewhere in the Bahamas. He allows the plane to touch down in Miami long enough to let off the psychics and take on fuel, then they’re off again to this chimerical destination.

Landing on a tiny, virtually uninhabited island, you’d think something interesting might happen, but no such luck. Here we find no Gilligan, no Tom Hanks and Wilson, not even Lord of the Flies—just a lot of fretting, waiting around, and stupid conversation with Louis’ equally nutty wife Iva. We also watch Jenny and Alex tend the dwindling Herb Gray while managing to keep up their pathetic squabbling even in this supposedly tense situation, to such an extent that Toby finally snaps, “You’re worse than children! I didn’t know they issued M.D.’s and R.N.’s to petulant six-year-olds.”

As the plot drags on, the pilot, Paul Farrar, and Alex manage to wrestle the gun away from Louis not once but twice, and still Louis manages to get it back every time. There’s a fruitless walk to a cabin on the other side of the island that holds only an old woman and another four-year-old kid without a radio or means of communication beyond a mail boat that isn’t due for six days, so that’s the end of that, and they walk back to the plane and King Louis. There’s also a lot of talk about removing the bullet from Herb’s shoulder, which in current medical practice is not done unless it’s endangering some internal organ or blood vessel, and then there’s the infection in Herb’s wound that’s slowly killing him, even though a bullet leaves a gun with such heat that it—and the wound it creates—are rendered sterile, so bullet wounds do not require antibiotics. Honestly, toward the end you start to wish King Louis just shoot them all, if only to put this dull book out of its misery.

Eventually, though, the bunch is magically rescued through no apparent effort of their own, though they’ve already discussed how unlikely it would be to find the wreckage, which has slid into the jungle, among the hundreds of islands in the Caribbean. I am sorry to report that their brush with death has not changed Alex any: “Come here, glorified maid,” he says to Jenny, who somehow manages to avoid throwing a fistful of sand into his face and instead falls blissfully into his arms. An equally disappointing side plot involves the romance between Paul Grey and “Stewardess” Toby, which is on the rocks because Toby does not want to have children. “I’ve got a million other things I want to do,” she explains. “Places I want to see. You know? And I’m not going to do or see anything tied up in some crummy suburban house, washing diapers or separating a couple of battling monsters.” Yet she, like Jenny, is somehow won over by this experience, or more specifically, by Louis’ son Tad—who somewhat tragically is flown off with his mother at the book’s end, without any mention whatsoever of involving the DCF—“What chance has Tad got with Iva for a parent? It breaks your heart,” Jenny says, adding that Toby “probably will never see him again. And it’s too bad. They needed each other, I think.” Never mind, now Toby is apparently ready to sign up to have her own “bawling little wet-pantsed creature” with Paul. So in the end, what we have is a dull story that offers distressing outcomes for our two heroines. Toward the end of the book, as Louis is becoming increasingly hysterical, his wife, master of the understatement, remarks, “I wish Louie wouldn’t do stuff like this. It’s kinda scary.” I have to say, I know exactly how she feels, but in my case, I’m wishing it about author Jane Converse, who shouldn’t subject us to this sort of drivel.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Nurse’s Dilemma

By Vera Cleaver, ©1966
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

“I’d better warn you, Nurse … I’m going to marry Stephen Templeton—so forget any ideas you may have in that line. I’m not ashamed of my money—I like it and I like what it can buy.” Helen Harrison’s arrogance infuriated Nurse Jean Wheaton, but she was comforted by the memory of the handsome surgeon’s embrace. “I doubt very much if you’ll buy Dr. Templeton. Is that all you wanted to tell me?” “I just thought I’d warn you,” Helen said. “Steve is not the man to settle for … second best.” Burning with fury, Jean went to meet Dr. Stephen Templeton. Second best! Anyway, I have no intention of falling in love with him—or have I …? A beautiful young nurse, a rich society girl, and a handsome surgeon become involved in a triangle that rocks Monroe General Hospital.


“I was talking to a guy this afternoon who drives a truck for a living. He told me he makes four dollars an hour. We could live on four dollars an hour, couldn’t we?”

“I’m going to wear my new white sweater and my new black pants, and when you see how handsome and virile I look whizzing around on my new silver skates with the wind in my hair and a song on my lips, you’ll fall to your knees and entreat me to marry you immediately. 

It is with great sorrow that I tell you that The Nurse’s Dilemma is the only nurse novel that Vera Cleaver ever wrote. It was her first, written when she was 47, and thereafter she turned her focus to books for young adults, mostly written in partnership with her husband Bill Cleaver; you may have heard of their third book together, Where the Lillies Bloom, which was written in 1969 and was a National Book Award finalist.

But here we have a truly remarkable story, of Nurse Jean Wheaton, who is an excellent surgical nurse. “If you’re just routinely good, you wait for the surgeon to ask for the instruments. If you’re more than good—if you’re standing there moving, breathing, feeling with him—you anticipate. You know ahead of time and you act … You are trained and, more than that, there is a built-in intuition in you, so you don’t wait for him to ask. You give. It’s a little like dancing with a stranger.” She’s the preferred scrub of Dr. Stephen Templeton, who likes everything just so, and who has carefully plotted out his life. “Dr. Templeton wants prestige in his life,” she tells her roommate Willow. “You can tell that from the way he speaks and dresses and acts. He graduated from one of the best schools in the East. He’s not going to throw all that away now.” His plans to obtain nothing but the classiest mean, Jean suspects, that she isn’t high on his list of suitable dates.

Nonetheless, he accepts Jean’s invitation to visit her raucous family in the hills for Christmas, and upon seeing him in her messy home, she realizes that she’s blown it. “When we all trooped in and took our places, and I saw Stephen Templeton look at it, I knew that the table covering should have been white cloth, that I should have somehow managed matching napkins, that the thick restaurant china my father had bought at an auction should never have been considered for such an occasion ... that it and all of us were in our element, but not in Dr. Templeton’s.” But he’s still human underneath his armor of plans, and he falls in love with Jean anyway. He’s announced his engagement to Helen Harrison, a society snob, but tells Jean he’s going to break it off with her. Unfortunately, Helen beats him to the punch and tells him that she has tuberculosis, so now we have the slightly stale situation of a couple staying together because of tragic illness. “We have to be sensible. And we have to do the honorable thing,” Stephen tells Jean, and she agrees. She packs off to a new job 600 miles away while Helen packs off to a sanitorium.

Months pass, and then there’s a knock at the door: Helen has hired a detective to find Jean, and sends a summons. She’s going to die, she tells Jean, and though Jean the trained nurse determinedly denies the truth, Helen refuses to have it, and frankly acknowledges, “My marriage to Stephen wouldn’t have been successful. It would have flopped because Stephen is in love with you.”

From here the story is fairly predictable, but what I couldn’t have predicted was how fine and how truly original the writing, how honest the emotions, how lovely the characters. The story has an actual heart. The characters are admittedly flawed, but in the end, they realize their failings and promise genuine growth, together, as a real honest love should. The medicine is detailed and mostly accurate, showing that Vera Cleaver put in a lot of time at the library for this one. This book demands a special niche on your VNRN bookshelf as a rare story that actually deserves to be read a second time, with a tear that it has no sisters, but a relieved smile that we have the remarkable gift of this one.

Monday, April 5, 2021

A Prize for Nurse Darci

By Suzanne Roberts, ©1965

Darci Betton loved being a nurse, but at the writers’ conference she discovered a glamorous new world. It almost made her forget Dr. Mark Garrett whose last angry words were branded on her heart. When Jerome Sinclair, the famous writer and Darci’s private idol, showed more than a passing interest, Darci’s new world seemed perfect. Would a new love help her forget the old?


“You wouldn’t want us coming on duty without our coffee, would you doctor? We might give a heart stimulant to that patient who sneaks liquor into his room, and then you’d really have something to complain about.” 

“I’m not even so sure it’s a good thing for the patients to read poetry. Maybe they ought to be resting instead of reading.”

“Being around you makes me want to go out and get myself a job in a munitions factory. I feel as if I’d like to help murder the human race, instead of trying to help it.”

“Look here, I was about to kiss you. And suddenly you’re telling me I ought to have X-rays or something! What kind of a romance is this, for Pete’s sake?”

“Darci almost wished she had fainted. It would have been so nice to be in his arms and be carried to the couch and worried about.”

I will confess that I’ve had this book on my shelf for some time but have been loath to pick it up, because my experience with Suzanne Roberts has not been particularly enjoyable. Unfortunately, she’s written at least 14 nurse novels, of which I’ve endured only half (every one of them earning a C grade of some sort), and though it’s all right for you to steer clear, it’s my self-appointed job to plow through these bombs—and hopefully my pain will save you some. To that end, let this stand as a warning to avoid drippy Darci Anne Betton, who is a shallow, spineless, insipid patsy. 

She is, though, a very dedicated nurse, and when the new ward resident, Dr. Mark Garrett, shows up, she’s determined to impress him. But he’s a mean, nasty tyrant who has imposed a slate of new rules for the floor—including a three-minute time limit for coffee breaks, even though it takes five minutes to get from the 10th floor ward to the cafeteria. Of course, it’s utterly unrealistic that a doctor could have the authority to insist on these things, and this one’s only a resident, not even an attending! Every nurse on the floor is putting in for transfers except Darci, who thinks, “When he doesn’t look angry—he has the nicest mouth”—the trouble being that he always looks angry.

The good news is that she’s won a story-writing contest, and the prize is free tuition at a writer’s conference, which miraculously falls on exactly the same two weeks as her upcoming vacation. The big draw for the conference is famous but fading writer Jerry Sinclair, who phones Darci at 3:00 a.m. to ask her to pick him up at the airport and have dinner with him. Instead of banging down the receiver on the inconsiderate, selfish ass, “She closed her eyes, joy going through her. ‘I’ll meet your plane, Mr. Sinclair,’ she said eagerly.”

Meeting the man, it is clear that he is a horror show—for starters, he doesn’t let her drive her own car. He’s a slimy type out to use Darci for his own purposes, and it’s certainly not hard to imagine why a writer might be pumping this na├»ve young woman for details about working in a hospital. Darci, curiously, sees it too—but when he takes her parking, “it might have been pure feminine instinct that made Darci sit very still, not talking, her hand as quiet as a tame bird, there in Jerry’s.” We are not surprised to find, then, that she absolutely cannot say no to the man, and instead foolishly seems to be talking herself into falling in love with him: “Am I falling in love with him? And, she wondered, if this was love. She had even mentioned the possibility that she might be in love. At the time, she had felt a little bit foolish. But now she wasn’t sorry at all she had written to her girlfriend and admitted she might be in love. Because right now, at this very moment, whatever it was she was feeling was either love or hero worship.”

Whatever it was, Jerry quickly proves himself deserving of neither, as he monopolizes her time, manipulates and guilts her into seeing him, and repeatedly insists he’s completely dependent on Darci—and he treats the conference students cruelly and unprofessionally, as well. “I was shook up because I’d phoned you and you didn’t answer my calls. That made me everything seem so—hopeless,” the stalker tells her, jealous of the time she spent writing a letter to her roommate. “Just stay with me. I need you, little girl.” Rather than run to the police department and file for a restraining order, Darci the Dope thinks, “He was probably one of the most intelligent and fascinating men in the world. Wasn’t it true that what she had was the beginning of a very hard crush on this man? And wasn’t it also true that their beloved image of Jerry had begun to fade?” Because Darci always wants to have everything both ways, even fantasizing about grumpy Dr. Garrett, who suddenly “seemed both challenging and exciting.” She has two assholes in her life, and “they were both strangely secretive and moody, and yet, Darci felt an odd tenderness and warmth towards both of them.”

As Jerry pumps her harder for details about the hospital, even Darci starts to edge away—but when the conference ends, Jerry cons her into allowing him to move to her hometown and show him around the hospital. She fears Jerry is writing an expose about the hospital, but nonetheless dutifully trots him around the hospital and introduces him to everyone. Lo and behold, Jerry eventually admits he is writing a scandalous tell-all. “Darci felt an odd sensation of fear go through her. She felt like running from Jerry in that moment and yet, he wasn’t really mean or cruel, or even cunning.” I’m not sure who she’s fooling, because we have seen him be all these things—frankly, seldom is he anything else.

Since she came home lugging Jerry Sinclair with her, Dr. Garrett has been especially frosty. But that never stops Darci—suddenly “she was in love with him. She was in love with that cold, angry man who could be so gentle with a patient but so unbending with the girl who worked side by side with him all day long.” Nurse Darci Betton is a bona fide nut case. But Mark won’t date her, so she keeps going out with her other lunatic. In his room, waiting for Jerry while he showers before another of their dates, she finds his manuscript and reads the lurid tell-all he’s written, which includes a near-miss medication error of her roommate’s, and the suggestion that at a prior job Mark’s negligence had killed a patient. Who saw that coming? Again proving herself psychotic, she wonders, “Could she still go on loving Mark if what Jerry had written was true? […] Darci tried to think more kindly of Jerry.” Really, this woman should just start dating axe murderers and be done with it.

She runs to Mark’s apartment to warn him and he tells her the story Jerry has uncovered—as an intern he had witnessed a car crash, pulled a victim from the wreckage, and the woman had died shortly afterward. This is the sort of “scandal” that frequently befalls people in nurse novels—they can’t in any way be blamed for it, but the hospital turns their actions into a terrible crime, making it a pathetic cop out. The pair end up kissing, and the next day Darci is a wreck, because “the two of them made rounds, attended patients, subbed in Emergency during noon time, and nothing at all was said. No plans were made for the future.” Apparently one kiss means it’s time to start picking out china patterns—not in the coming months, but immediately, and never mind the important work they should be concentrating on. “How can I talk to you about marrying me?” Mark rightfully asks, less than 24 hours after their first kiss—even if “it was a stop-the-world kind of kiss.”

Darci is in love with love, and getting married is her main objective—she’ll talk herself into the first ogre that comes along, and we should not be surprised, because on page three of this book we’re told “Neither girl was in love, but, of course, both of them hoped to be. Falling in love at the Center was something just about every nurse did.” Even her “plump” roommate is planning a wedding, to a patient whose sling she’d changed a couple weeks earlier. This book paints a horrific picture of the lives of young women, not to mention marriage, and I shudder to think of all the kids who’d read this fifty years ago and imagined that this was what they were supposed to be—compliant yet grasping, blind bits of putty whose main objective was to convince a man—any man, no matter how unworthy or even insane—to slip a diamond onto her hand. This book is just depressing.