Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Guardian Nurse

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1970
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

Burn West had engaged Frances to look after seven-year-old Jason West in the joint capacity of nurse, governess—and guard. But why should the child need to be guarded? Just what was going on?


When Frances Peters first meets her new employer, Burn West (Burn is short for Burnley), she does not think much of him. “The mouth suggested arrogance, she thought, and the eyes were cold. … She found she really disliked this man.” Well, we savvy VNRN readers recognize this as a sure sign that he’ll be playing a starring role on the last page, but we’ll play along for now. Burn runs a very large farm in the Australian outback alongside the Murrumbidgee River in the Mirramunna district, if you are familiar with Australian geography, and having decamped the group there, Burn insists that Frances is never, ever! to leave seven-year-old Jason alone. She is also to ask no questions about Jason, Burn, or anything at all relating to the family she is joining. She valiantly agrees to this ridiculous stipulation, as absurd as it isdo we really think a seven-year-old is never going to discuss his past? (In this magical land, of course, he doesn’t, outside of telling her he has lived in Switzerland and France, which she does not believe.)

Little Jason West has suffered a severe leg fracture, but she is not told how this happened. He is “unfriendly, unco-operative, apparently without any enthusiasm,” when he meets Frances, constantly shouting, “No!” He is scarcely more affectionate with Burn, whom Frances assumes is his father—you know what they say about assuming, but of course she cant just ask! Jason needs a doctor, and wouldn’t you know it, this turns out to be Dr. Scott Weir, a long-lost sort-of ex-beau of Frances’. They’d been friendly in the nursing home where they’d both worked the previous year—but then he had abruptly transferred to another practice and never said goodbye, so she’d taken her broken heart into community nursing in the city, which was how she’d come to be hired by the Wests.

On the ranch, as Frances and Scott take up where they had left off, Burn is gradually defrosting, and Jason also coming out of his shell—figuratively and literally, as eventually the cast comes off—and he is soon running all over the ranch, or else catching up on his schooling with Frances as teacher. As Frances slowly warms up little Jason’s heart, gradually bits of the mystery are dropped into the plot. We learn that Jason is in danger of being “taken away … by his mother’s side,” Burn tells her, after one of several episodes in which Frances takes her eye off her charge for a few minutes and the pesky little blighter disappears. Frances meets a man coming out of the driveway of the ranch next door and assumes it is the owner, Trev Trent—but then Trev turns up and he’s not that man, so who is he!?! She also sees a young woman in a blue car on multiple occasions, the woman apparently watching them. Jenny, the physical therapist they engage, keeps harping on water therapy for Jason, but when Burn installs a pool, she won’t take Jason into it, or go anywhere near it herself, and it’s Frances who teaches Jason to swim. It turns out that Jenny knows the man whom Frances thought was Trev, but what is their connection? Of course, she cant possibly do the obvious—discuss these concerns with Burn—though she considers it repeatedly, and rejects repeatedly. Argh!

Of course, in true VNRN fashion, the only way out of this mess is to add a natural disaster—in this case, the routinely foreshadowed flood—and stir. Once all the mysteries and secrets are tidied away with the high water, we can close the book, but here we can let it go with at least a small, pleased smile.

Guardian Nurse is not a book for witty writing—I could shake out nothing for the Best Quotes section—but it is a good story. It unwinds slowly and gently, and most importantly, believably. We don’t like Burn much to start, but he improves in our estimation naturally, and in the end actually is a better person, unlike those books where we are presented with a pig’s ear and told he’s a rose. It’s true that the main folds in the plot are predictable and typical, but nonetheless this book is a pleasant and enjoyable, and worth reading.

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