Friday, August 13, 2021

The White Jacket

By Kate Norway (pseud. Olive Norton), ©1961
Cover illustration by Paul Ann Soik 

Vivien loved her surgical work with all the enthusiasm of her temperamental nature. She had been attracted to Johnny Dysart by his even temper and sound common sense. But the arrival of a new and disturbingly attractive member of the staff changed both their lives—and indeed the lives of many of the doctors and nurses at Queen’s Hospital.


“Men! she thought angrily. As soon as a woman begins to think for herself they tell her she’s tired. Tired!” 

“Well, if there’s any giving in to be done, I always think it’s best to let the men have the last word, Doctor. They set a lot of store by it. Women know when they’ve won, and they don’t need to have it in black and white the way men do.”

“Nature heals and the doctor only encourages the patient while she does it.”

“Nothing worthwhile ever is simple.”

It’s interesting to me that when a VNRN has a female doctor protagonist, there is often at least one more woman MD on the staff—but when the book’s heroine is a nurse, almost never do you meet a female doctor. Anyway, here we have Dr. Vivien Bromwich, who is working in an English hospital. From what I can tell she’s finishing her residency, and covers all specialties, though she spends a lot of time in surgery with Dr. Malcolm, her boss and mentor. 

She’s sort of engaged to Johnny Dysart, though it’s not “official,” whatever that means, because “I want to feel a hundred per cent sure,” she tells Johnny. I guess it really means they’re not engaged. Johnny is a cool customer: “It wasn’t easy to tell with Johnny. His comfortable cheerfulness never varied very much. Big and confident, he made her feel safe.” Safe, of course, is not always a promising feature in VNRN men.

The other woman MD in the book, Dr. Rena Todd, is a 36-year-old surgeon in training who is much discussed by the staff. “Too much ambition,” Johnny snorts. “Rena’s determined to be a Great Surgeon—and if she only knew it, she’d probably be a darn sight happier being the Little Woman to some nice chap.” Vivien, to her only partial credit, disagrees, saying, “She’s not a cabbage like me. I don’t want to be a career woman all my life.” Rena, it turns out, has been married and even had a baby, but it had died and her husband had left her. She’s now unable to have children, so she feels “I’m a failure as a woman,” and that’s part of the reason she works so hard at surgery.

On her own career front, Vivien is proving herself in the OR, and Dr. Malcolm asks her to stay on as his registrar, which I think is the British term for fellow. “Wasting your time, working with me, if you’re not going to go on with it,” he points out. When she says she might get married—the horrible inference being that she’ll quit working—he answers, “Any fool can keep house. But you can do surgery.” I love Dr. Malcolm. Discussing the invitation with Johnny, he refuses to even recognize the compliment, much less consider the offer. “I’m a man, and I have to think about having a career and providing for a family. You don’t,” he tells her. “Why can’t he let me glow, just for once?” she wonders.

In her personal life, while she’s waiting to feel 100 percent certain of Johnny—good luck with that—Vivien meets Edward Featherstone, who is working as an OR porter. “Emboldened by the perfect fit of their interlocking glances,” she starts snatching kisses with him in the autoclave room, and her secret smooching leads her to think she shouldn’t marry Johnny. But then she and Johnny are in a car crash, while he’s driving their friend Dr. Dick Clements’ car, and Johnny is badly hurt, requiring the amputation of several fingers. Now surgery as a specialty is out for him—and we’re panicking, thinking she’ll marry him out of pity, but he breaks up with her from his hospital bed. “Now I begin to live my life the way I want to live it,” she thinks, and the freedom in that sentence truly made my heart lift up.

Unfortunately, the insurance won’t pay for Dick’s car, and the book takes a turn into a mystery story. Vivien borrows $200 from Edward Featherstone and gives it to Dick for his car, but then Edward comes to Vivien in a panic and says he needs the money back immediately, as he’s leaving the area in a highly suspicious hurry! Then avuncular Dr. Malcolm is assaulted and dies of a head wound, and Edward has disappeared, and a patient has been robbed of $200, bills he had fortuitously marked in advance. Edward calls Vivien and tells her to leave the $200 in a telephone booth, and then she learns that he is wanted by the police for murdering Dr. Malcolm. While trying to decide what to do, she confides in Dick Clements, who is increasingly but gently making it clear that he has feelings for Vivien. He sends her to the hospital archives, where she learns that Edward was once signing hospital notes as Edward Featherstone Catlow MD, and that he had lost his privileges at the hospital for stealing drugs.

She and Dick go to the police, who are supposed to surveil the telephone booth after Vivien drops off a fake envelope, but they seem to have gone for doughnuts at the crucial moment because one of the OR nurses is discovered knocked out in the telephone booth and the envelope is gone. Vivien and Dick then head for the coffee shop, but it turns out that the bill Vivien uses to pay the tab is one of the stolen bills! Dick stands by her as she’s questioned by the police—who now think she was the one who knocked out the nurse. “If you’re in it, Viv, I have to be in it too, until it works out,” Dick tells her. “I’m with you.” He’s the kind of person who sees she’s troubled and pulls her aside for a talk. “His quiet strength was unbearably moving to her, the more so for its silence. He put an arm across her shoulder and waited. It was clear that he was prepared to wait all night, if necessary, for her to confide in him.” Well, I was won over!

The mystery is wrapped up, not in the way I’d imagined, but it does turn out that Vivien is innocent after all! This book is a little above the usual, with a mystery that actually is one in some places, solid writing, fine characters, and luscious ball gowns. If we are subjected to the usual sexism that the heroine doesn’t work especially hard to shrug off, she doesn’t completely accept it, either, and lives her life in an honest, forthright way—with a little help from her friends. Olive Norton, here writing as Kate Norway, is quickly becoming a trusted source for an enjoyable, pleasant read, and I am happy to have found her, and this charming book.

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