Saturday, December 11, 2021

Nurse Martin’s Dilemma

By Rosamund Hunt, ©1961
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti 

For eighteen months Nurse Beth Martin was stalked wherever she went by the nightmare of her past. At last, in a remote New England hospital she found safety and love. With Dr. Chad Dennison she began to forget her tragedy. Then a little man arrived—asking questions and looking for Nurse Beth Martin. If she ran again, she’d have to run forever …


The abducted-baby plot is a bonus because it offers our accused nurse-heroine an oversized scandal, followed by an equally righteous triumph in the end—and an opportunity to sneer at the mother at the same time. Here Nurse Beth Martin has agreed to care for boarding school chum Harriet Sawyer’s infant son—not that she deserves a baby, and we are allowed to ask if she even wants one: “the beautiful spoiled” Harriet had “complained constantly” during her pregnancy and, when the child was born, “didn’t want any of the burden of its care,” to the point that she’s never seen him undressed and “had held him only when he was dressed in his expensive, handmade little garments. Even then, she had been only too glad to hand him back shortly, had seemed to see the baby only as proof of her own accomplishment, a new possession to be shown off to admiring friends and relatives.” Then one afternoon, Beth is alone with Baby Bunky—“Harriet had gone off on a shopping expedition”—when the phone rings and rings until Beth goes inside to answer it, leaving Bunky on the terrace, and when asked to hold, she does, apparently for quite some time, as when she gets back, Bunky is gone! 

The police can’t convict her, though “the tabloids had had a field day,” and she’d fled to Europe until her apparently substantial inheritance (she’s an orphan, of course) has run out, and now, 18 months after her graduation, she has returned to America, somewhere in New England far from the Californian scene of the crime, for a job as a charge nurse of the surgical floor. It’s a tough assignment, as the patients are demanding and the hospital is short-staffed, and Beth, in her first hospital job, “could not have got off to a worse start if she had been trying deliberately.”  She flaunts her college degree before a top student nurse, who, rightfully offended, tells Beth she shouldn’t “ride the girls who know what they’re doing because they’ve learned it by actual experience”—a valid point—and then sets out to ruin Beth’s life. Beth does not learn from this incident, unfortunately, and continues to prove herself to be a snob.

She’s not helped by the ridiculously coincidental appearance of Dr. John Chadwick Dennison, known as Chad, whom she’d known as a child and of course been crushing madly: “She had always felt that the reason she had never fallen in love again was because no one had ever measured up to the ideal she had met, and lost, when she was 16.” Now we watch Beth make an even bigger ass of herself as, having unburdened herself about the Bunky mishap to Chad, she decides that she’s still in love with him and literally thrusts herself between him and Nurse Elinor Chase, who anyone can see he actually cares for. Now she has her obsession to “give new meaning to her life,” and she spends every evening alone in her room waiting for Chad to call, remembering all the words he’s spoken to her and “reading into them what she wanted to be there.” She snubs good-hearted Dr. Bill Holloway, who is the only person to stand up for her when she snatches a tin of salted nuts away from a hospital trustee three days after an open cholecystectomy. She decides on their disastrous date that “she wanted to repay him” and so “if he wanted to kiss her tonight, she would not resist. There would be no disloyalty to Chad. It would be merely a friendly gesture, her way of saying ‘Thank you.’” Um, thanks, lady! Of course, she’s insulted when he doesn’t.

And then a mysterious man shows up at the hospital asking for Beth, and, combined with Chad’s engagement—not to Beth!—she decides “she would have to leave the hospital and the city,” because she cannot face “what a fool she had been.” It seems to me that a little facing up would be good for Beth, but it’s not strength of character but of Mother Nature in the form of a weak blizzard (only 12 to 14 inches of snow, kids’ stuff!) that keeps her in town, trapped on duty as the nurses who live farther afield are unable to show up for work for 36 hours—these can’t be real New Englanders! The stranger is brought in with a heart attack, triggered by standing outside Beth’s rooming house waiting for her, and soon it’s revealed that he’s not out to harm her, but to tell her his mentally ill daughter was the one responsible for kidnapping Bunky, and that the baby is alive and well as one can be when they’re living in Florida.

If nurses can’t get to work, at least planes are running, so Beth is off to the airport, but not before she hears “the voice in her own heart telling her that she was in love with Bill Holloway,” which is especially tragic because she still has to leave town forever, as “she could not drag him or his fine family” into “the publicity, the gossip which would spread, like a flame in a high wind, throughout the city where Bill was building up a reputation as a successful young doctor.” She’s assuming he wants anything to do with her, a bit of a stretch in my opinion, but these VNRN docs aren’t always the smartest of guys.

Of course, Bunky’s mother Harriet couldn’t pick her own child out of a lineup, and only Beth knows about the birthmark she had never revealed to Harriet, knowing that Harriet “had always had a passion for perfection. She had wanted everything she possessed to be flawless.” Summoned by Beth to collect their newfound child, Harriet and husband Ben arrive and so too does Bill, insisting, “I’m taking over!” After he and Beth are married, he suggests, “your past will be nobody’s business,” and besides, it wasn’t her fault! Initially I was hopeful: “No one can be completely free from human errors,” Bill scolds her—everyone, that is, except Bunky’s mother. “If she had been home that day, never letting the baby out of her sight the way most mothers are happy to do, the whole thing might not have happened,” he explains. “It’s rottenly unfair that she slid out of taking any of the blame!”

And so it’s a happy end for everyone except Harriet, who now has to take care of her own child, at least on the plane ride home and until she finds a new nurse. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to be satisfied with Beth Martin, who has been narrow-minded, jealous, and immature from the beginning, only to be transformed with the turn of a page into someone who recognizes all her past mistakes and is held accountable for none of them. There are some enjoyments to be had from this book, and not just from the fabulous Lou Marchetti cover (but who is the blonde? Surely not Nurse Elinor!)—it is fun to be exasperated with horrid Beth—but not many. The dilemma about Nurse Martin is why anyone would care about her, but it needn’t be yours if you just decline to open the book.  

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