Monday, May 31, 2021

Crystal Manning, Maternity Nurse

By Nan Lowry (pseud. of Ruth MacLeod), ©1964
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti?

As the young head nurse of the busy maternity ward, Crystal Manning often went beyond the call of duty to bring compassion to her patients. Then one of her kind gestures backfired. She was accused of kidnapping a new-born baby. Nurse Manning needed all the help she could get at this crucial time, particularly from the two men who loved her: Lloyd Norris, a successful attorney; and Mike Dorand, the friendly young doctor with whom she worked. As a nurse, she knew that she would have to clear her name or neither man would want her for his wife.


“There is nothing coy or coquettish about you. Sometimes it’s discouraging.”

“She did not want him to think she was the cheap sort of floozie who casually concluded her dates with a bit of heavy necking.”

“A psycho can behave most intelligently at times.” 

If you were looking for one-stop shopping for all the grotesque stereotypes of the past, you would have to go a long way to find a single book more stocked with insensitivity than Crystal Manning, Maternity Nurse, in which we meet a family with a developmentally delayed son and visit a Chinese restaurant—I will spare you from how the book portrays these situations—meet a couple who refuse to adopt a baby from an agency because “we don’t want some little tramp’s discarded bastard,” and watch the nurse tell a woman whose newborn has died, “That’s no excuse for being such a cry baby.” Of course, I haven’t even started on the usual misogyny: A husband needs to sign consent for his fully alert and competent wife’s surgery, and a wife’s blaming herself for her husband’s walking out on her and their six children.

We are also subjected to a handful of the usual VNRN tropes. Nurse Crystal is dating Lloyd Norris, an attorney ten years her senior who “had an endearing, proprietary manner with her, calling her ‘doll’ and ‘darling’ in a way that made her feel like a cherished child.” Ew. We are not surprised that she does not love him, though he is wild about her and is pressuring her to marry him. She’s actually hot for Dr. Mike Dorand, in his last year of residency, and knows she will never love Lloyd the way she does Mike. But Mike runs hot and cold, so she naturally concludes that he doesn’t have any interest in her, and tries to convince herself that she should accept Lloyd’s proposal. “He was sweet, he was a fine, wonderful man and he loved her. Few women were so fortunate. So why couldn’t she grab her luck while she had the chance? Some day, when it was too late, she might wish in sorrow and desperation that she had.” Because any marriage would be better than none, apparently. “She wondered which sort of marriage brought a woman the greatest happiness and satisfaction. One in which she fulfilled a man’s deepest needs—as it would be if she married Lloyd? Or one in which she was forever striving to fulfill her own emotional needs through love for a man like Mike?” I’m not sure why the latter is apparently being held up as something wrong.

An interesting point in the plot is that when Lloyd and Crystal are kissing, “as the pulsing warmth of his embrace stirred some inner dormant fire, she was lost in a wild urge to respond. For timeless moments her heartbeats rioted as her lips answered the pressure of his.” Lloyd is thrilled by her physical response, insisting that “it’s there, the love and passion to make our marriage wonderful.” The idea that if she has a sexual urge she must be in love is curious; I doubt anyone would make this mistake about a man.

There’s also the question of whether she should give up her career for marriage. Early on, of course, she loudly protests, “Marriage couldn’t make me not be a nurse.” Adding to his charms, Lloyd tells her, “I wouldn’t demand that you give up nursing altogether, or right away. I’d like to hope that gradually you to become so happy and occupied as my wife that it would fill all your needs.” Instead of running, she proves herself a hypocrite by deciding, “If I really loved Lloyd I could give it all up to share his life completely.” This makes no sense, particularly since she’s already pointed out to Lloyd that he wouldn’t ever not want to be an attorney. And when Lloyd continues to present his feelings to her on the subject, asking her, “Honeychild, when are you going to let me take you out of all this and provide the kind of life a doll like you is made for?” she is not repulsed, either by his demeaning choice of endearments or his obvious intent for her to stop working if she marries him.

Beyond all the alarming biases, there is a plot here: Mrs. Perkins, saddled at home with five kids, has just had a sixth, and Mike diagnoses the newborn with phenylketonuria, which will cause the little girl to have brain damage if she’s given food containing excessive phenylalanine. This diet is going to be very expensive for the dirt-poor Mrs. Perkins, whose husband has left her because she refuses to put five-year-old developmentally delayed Joey in an institution, where, we are repeatedly told, “he’ll have the care he needs, and the other children will have a better chance to develop normally, unhampered by his presence.” Eventually, though, she decides she’d rather have her husband than Joey, so when Mr. Perkins finally shows up, they’re a happy couple once more with still just five kids at home.

Meanwhile, Susan Carter has lost her baby and her uterus, possibly because Dr. Leslie Hampton, who even the orderlies think is “scared to do cesarean sections,” stalled performing that surgery until Mrs. Carter’s uterus ruptured. Crystal, attempting to help the grieving, childless woman realize “your adjustment to it will strengthen your character,” tells her about poor Mrs. Perkins’ plight. Susan immediately decides that she will adopt Baby Girl Perkins, and breaks every rule in the book trying to make this happen—and Crystal breaks quite a few herself in acting as intermediary between the two women, even though she feels (and repeatedly says to Mrs. Perkins) the baby should stay with its biological mother, mostly because Mrs. Perkins might change her mind later on.

When Susan Carter finally kidnaps Baby Perkins, which you saw coming a mile away, Crystal’s gross irresponsibility is rightfully made much of by the hospital superintendent, the police, and Susan’s husband Neil. “I should think that one of the first things you would have learned in your hospital training was not ever, under any circumstances, to gossip with one patient about another’s problems!” shouts the superintendent, and suspends her. She spends the next day at the Perkins farm helping take care of the kids and the chores, and when she gets home, a cop is waiting to take her down to the station—the kidnaped baby has turned up in Crystal’s own bed, and she’s under suspicion for the crime. But never mind about that, the superintendent brings her back on the job the following morning, because things have been crazy in obstetrics on her one day of suspension! And it’s probably that crazy Susan who did it, who’s been found nearly psychotic and is refusing to speak!

Suddenly it’s two weeks later, and Mike tells Crystal he’s decided to go back to school to study public health. Crystal is upset because this means he might decide he’s too poor to marry, and in attempting to convince him otherwise, the dime finally drops for Mike, and twenty seconds later they’re engaged. The chief of obstetrics walks in as they are clinching the deal, and tells them to save it for their time off. Unbelievably, Crystal shouts, “You have no right to sneer at our love! It’s perfectly proper and decent—which is more than you can say about your clandestine affair with Marilee Gifford!” Marilee is Crystal’s own roommate, who has been secretly in love with the married Dr. Hartford for many years, and who has repeatedly assured Crystal—who always nags her hypocritically that she shouldn’t chase after a man who shows no interest in her but should go out with men she’s not interested in—that they are not having an affair at all. I tell you, seldom have I been so shocked by a VNRN as when I read Crystal’s complete betrayal of her best friend.

Dr. Hartford responds by suggesting that he could have Crystal fired, and Mike, apparently having acquired a few unfortunate tendencies from his horrid fiancée, tells Dr. Hartford that if he fires Crystal, he will order an investigation into two cases of Dr. Hartford’s that had bad outcomes. Dr. Hartford remarkably manages not to order them both out of the hospital immediately but instead calmly explains the two cases and why he is not to blame for them, and Mike is forced to agree. The whole nasty situation doesn’t end there, but has dark repercussions in Dr. Hartford’s marriage and his relationship with Marilee—and Crystal again decrees that Marilee’s decisions, startlingly like her own (a fact she completely fails to recognize) are “terribly wrong” and “lacked integrity.” So she decides she’s going to set up her now-dumped ex-boyfriend Lloyd and Marilee, believing Marilee will go out with Lloyd for no other reason other than that she has dared Marilee to do just that. Mike sees Crystal with Lloyd in his car when she’s wheedling him to ask Marilee on a date, and Mike speeds off. Now Crystal is frantic that Mike thinks she’s still seeing Lloyd and that it’s over between them, but Mike at least has learned something from all these explosive situations and tells Crystal the next day that he trusts her to make good decisions of her own. He clearly does not know Crystal very well.

Crystal Manning is one of the more alarming heroines I have met in a VNRN. She never learns to stop her own stupid mouth, and she suffers no consequences for any of her many very bad decisions. Marilee never learns of Crystal’s betrayal, so Crystal gets off scot-free with that backstabbing, and a one-day suspension hardly seems a fitting punishment for all her ethics-stomping involvement with the Perkins baby—not to mention that at the time she was under suspicion for kidnaping. Instead she lands the man she wants, who gives her the benefit of the doubt that she never gives anyone else, a point that is utterly lost on her. Finally, we have the copious bigoted attitudes as the cherry on the top of this poison, if you needed any further inducement to stay far away from Crystal Manning, Maternity Nurse.

Alternative cover, from the
second printing in 1966

Friday, May 21, 2021

Children’s Hospital

By Elizabeth Gilzean, ©1960
Cover illustration by Jack Harmon 

Sandra Lorraine took great pride in her children’s ward at St. Christopher’s and she resented the “new broom” methods of the new consultant, Peter Donaldson. There were many clashes between them before they came to understand each other.


“She got a clean cup out of the cupboard, filled it, sugared it and passed it to Matron. She seemed to be spending a lot of time resuscitating senior hospital staff.” 

“It was one of those wild coincidences that only happen in real life.”

“All the ward Sisters I’ve known have been hatchet-faced women who come around with little books asking you the most intimate questions.”

Sandra Lorraine is perhaps one the oldest heroines I have met in 10 years of VNRN reviews. She is a shocking 26, and has been ward chief the Westwood Ward of Saint Christopher’s Hospital for years when we meet her. She has no friends, certainly no boyfriends, and she’s estranged from her father, who is off honeymooning with a woman she can’t stand. Her entire life is going to work and her pediatric patients: “They were her world and no one could touch it.” 

Then surgeon Peter Donaldson appears and shakes up her tidy little cocoon. This audacious man wants to do rounds in the afternoon instead of the morning, wants to allow parents on the ward even when it is not visiting hours, and asks her to work through her lunch hour! Furthermore, he has a grand scheme to add adult patients to the mix at Saint Christopher’s with the idea that this will improve the hospital’s chances of survival. Outrageous! He is equally disgusted with her views: “I don’t know whether you realize it, but you’re a dangerous menace to medical progress,” he tells her. And he kind of has a point. “Never in her life had she been so insulted, upset, hauled over the coals, blackmailed, provoked, stimulated, attracted, or repelled by any man.” So it is clear where all this is heading. She is a good nurse, however, and Dr. Donaldson sees potential in her that he attempts to draw out by any means necessary. “I feel that only shock tactics will jolt you out of your smug little rut and make a worthwhile human being out of you,” he tells her when he takes her out for coffee on their first date.

Interestingly, she rises to the challenge. “She did not like change ... she did not even want it. But wasn’t there something exciting about the challenge he had thrown her? The prospect of building up a new unit, the spur of grappling with different problems, of learning more so that she could help her beloved children to better advantage ... she would enjoy it, wouldn’t she?” And gradually she comes to appreciate her new boss’s techniques. There are challenges along the way, however, one of them being a new surgeon who joins the team. Gordon Rainswick is a fellow who leaves Sandra “shaking with terror,” though why that might be is never clearly spelled out to us. He’s a wolfish sort, though, so it’s not hard to guess. Peter, seeing Sandra’s overwrought response to the man, asks if she needs help, but here we have an admirable gesture from writer Elizabeth Gilzean, who has Sandra decide not to cut and run but to stand her ground. “If only she could slip a note of resignation under Matron’s door and quietly disappear, but that could be no way out for her. She could imagine the scorn, and even the disappointment, that would be on Peter Donaldson’s face if she chose the easy way out. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps she had been doing that all her life, but he had thrown the challenge at her feet. Having picked it up she could no longer deny its implications. She had to prove she was worthy to be his ward Sister, equal to the increased responsibilities he had been placing on her shoulders, mature enough to cope with the problems, not only of her professional life, but also of her private life.”

And that, unfortunately, is the high point of the book. In reality, Sandra talks a good talk, and even agrees to meet Gordon to have it out with him, but they immediately get into a car crash and she’s saved from having to actually do anything. Nor is it ever clear exactly what the problem is, though it’s insinuated that at some point in the past he’d gotten her into a compromising situation and, even if nothing happened, the trauma of the potential ruin of her reputation leaves her a quivering jelly. The fact that he’s her new stepmother’s cousin seems also to play into the unseen scandal, as does the fact that she resents her father’s new wife, but that’s never explained, either. Instead, Peter’s mother tells a story of how she was coerced into a similar situation decades ago and escaped by throwing a chair and jumping out a window. And from then on Sandra is wreathed in smiles and can finally return the love that Peter has been desperately trying to shower her with from early on in the book (though she maddeningly pretends, “He showed no signs of even approving of her most of the time.” I don’t know what’s wrong with these heroines who appear to be in a completely different book than the one we are reading.).

Compounding my disappointment in Sandra is the fact that she’s also dealing with Annette, a nurse on her ward who’s surly and insubordinate, and though she promises Peter that she is up to handle the challenge, when the nurse (for about the tenth time) lets loose with a long paragraph of invective, it’s one of the hospital doctors—who is bafflingly in love with this woman, who is just as mean to him as she is to Sandra—who swoops in to save the day. Adding to my dismay is the fact that he carries the moment by grabbing Annette’s arm tightly and dragging her forcefully out of the room. “Sandra saw that her staff nurse was gazing at John Carruthers as if he were a stranger, a stranger who had suddenly appeared fascinating. Annette’s eyes widened in startled surprise before following meekly in the wake of a man who appeared to have belatedly discovered how to handle it.”

Another problematic incident occurs when Sandra is asked to give a speech before the hospital’s board of directors about whether the hospital should admit adults. She waffles before her speech about whether she actually thinks it’s the horrible idea she believed it at book’s open, influenced no doubt by the fact that Peter is in favor of it, but he tells her to stick to her guns and give it her all. She delivers a heartfelt speech about caring for children, and the hospital board decides to keep the adults away. Then it’s suggested that Peter might have actually changed his mind for once and now agrees with Sandra, but again, it’s hard to tell if that’s the case, because the story never comes out and tells us.

Peter is an affectionate beau, and it’s not clear why he keeps after cold Sandra, who even when they are engaged cannot tell him she loves him until ten pages later, though he’s altogether soggy with affection. Those last pages become especially excruciating when rainbows and unicorns start turning up everywhere: “Sandra tried to subdue the feeling of excitement which was bubbling up inside her, threatening to overflow like a child’s bowl of soap bubbles, and her happiness was painting the bubbles with fairy colors.” And that’s just one sentence. Overall it’s not a terrible book, one that hints at good intentions, but nevertheless it is regularly disappointing, with bland, trite characters—in particular our heroine, who lives in a shell and never actually comes out of it, for all the suggestions to the contrary. If author Elizabeth Gilzean wrote with more conviction and endowed her characters with it, this would have been a much better book.  

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Doctor Ellen

Adèle De Leeuw, ©1944
Cover Illustration by Rudy Nappi 

Lovely Ellen Paige met a host of violent reactions every time she reaffirmed her intention of being a doctor. “It’s—well, it’s so unfeminine,” her sister Joyce said. “It’s hard for a man; it’s even harder for a woman,” kindly Dr. Seth warned. “I want a doctor—one with pants on,” complained and injured patient. “No woman should be a doctor—and you least of all,” handsome Tim Flagg fellow student, commented. The old prejudice against woman physicians was still very much alive, but Ellen waged her battle staunchly, determined to be a doctor as well as a woman—and to be accepted as both.


“What’s the idea? Trying to titillate the optic nerve unduly?”

“It must be fun to be young.”

Doctor Ellen hits the ground with a nauseating bang when our protagonist “flung back the covers and leaped out of bed” and “sang out”—first thing in the morning, mind you!—“Morning, Mums!” It’s a wonder I managed to press on to the second sentence. The ensuing pages are admittedly less alarming, but they are stuffed with the misogynist stereotypes that Ellen is battling as she begins her third year of medical school: “Do you have to wear those awfully mannish suits all the time?” Mums asks. “It’s—well, it’s so unfeminine,” says sister Joyce, who doesn’t think Ellen will ever get married if she insists on going through with this doctor thing. “Girls don’t make good doctors!” says little brother Bill, and somehow Ellen refrains from smacking his fat head. “No woman should be a doctor,” says medical student Tim Flagg, who thinks Ellen should instead be his wife: “It’s my mission in life to persuade you you’ve made a mistake.”

There’s also the institutionalized sexism, such as the fact that “the men students had automatically been enrolled in the Army, their training supervised, their tuition paid for. But the women students had to struggle along as best they could, with prospects as lean as ever and, of course, no financial aid forthcoming.” The anatomy professor takes “special delight in baiting ‘hen medics,’ in making it hard for them and quizzing them unmercifully. He addressed himself to the men; the women were their only on sufferance, and he ignored them as much as possible.”

We watch with lifted brow while Ellen allows cave man Tim to pick her up at the train station, take her to dinner and deliver her to her rooming house, all the while cheerfully submitting to his sexist inanities. Once we get to the rooming house, however, Ellen starts to redeem herself when she meets a new boarder, Frances Tyndall, with a skeptical glance of her own. “So that’s her line, is it? Little, innocent, and helpless,” Ellen thinks snarkily to herself after the girl bats her eyelashes at the dinner table, and we like her more for it. “Being homesick and terrified and appealing all within three minutes—if this was a sample of the Tyndall mind and conversation, she saw a trying year ahead.”

And, over the ensuing pages, Ellen Paige grows on you. Like the irritating Frances, “She hadn’t been easy to live with at first, but in the painful process of growing up she had endeared herself to them.” Most of the book follows Ellen in the day-to-day of school, an externship, patients, successes and failures. She befriends a nice young wannabe surgeon Andrew McKenzie, who makes a point of stopping her after a class during which she had diagnosed a patient as having a glass eye and been subjected to the ridicule of her classmates—and little appreciation when it had turned out that she was right. “That was a brilliant piece of work,” Andrew tells her, and she answers, “There weren’t any other congratulations, though,” and our hopes begin to lift that maybe Tim won’t star in the final chapter—though he does give us quite a scare at Christmas after he wins over every single person in Ellen’s family, including Joyce’s babies and the hard-boiled cook.

Early on we sense the usual tragedy-in-the-slums trope bearing down on us when Ellen complains, “What’s that matter with cities that they can’t see the sores festering in their midst? The dirt and the slums and the rottenness? It seems like working in a circle. People studying to be doctors, men inventing medicines and cures and machines and gadgets to make life better and never getting at the root of the evil, the conditions that make sick people and criminals and poverty.” After a visit to a paralyzed child who is left alone all day in the dark while her mother works, during which a rat runs over Ellen’s shoe, Ellen gets all hot and bothered, and Andrew introduces her to a reporter, and before long there are speeches and donations and political upheaval, and a lot fewer rats in town. Ellen also works to bring Easter and Christmas celebrations to the Children’s Ward, and purpose to the life of a nurse’s aide whose husband is off fighting in the war—fairly standard stuff, it must be confessed, but presented without too much treacle.

The writing is solid and occasionally humorous, and author Adele De Leeuw, an acclaimed children’s author who wrote more than fifty books, was here in mid-career. This story is not as fluffy as it could have been; there are truly tragic characters, including one very impoverished female medical student who is forced to drop out of school to care for her siblings after her mother is incapacitated by stroke, and the paralyzed girl who inspired the rat extermination crusade. The overwhelming theme of the book seems to be learning to stand on your own, to have confidence in yourself to do the right thing. “You don’t get your strength from playing to the gallery, only from yourself,” Andrew tells her, and as the last two years of medical school pass, we watch Ellen’s confidence grow out of almost-failures, out of tragedy, out of success that isn’t just luck but earned through hard work. I would love to know what prompted De Leeuw to turn out this book, which thought it must have required a great deal of research appears to have been her only attempt at medical fiction (though she wrote three nonfiction books about nurses). But if you are going to write only one VNRN, it should be, as this is, one to be proud of.