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

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