Monday, May 16, 2022

Community Nurse

By Arlene Hale, ©1967 

When Leah Larkin, R.N., left the large city where she had worked as an office nurse, she felt that she was following her lucky star. For the handsome Cal Havelin, a visitor to her city, had stolen her heart and taken it back with him to his peaceful home town. And Leah was certain that in the quiet valley her dreams would be fulfilled. Once settled there she would make her mark as a community nurse—and win Cal’s love. But Leah was soon to discover that reality never follows the smooth path of a dream.


“I’d like for you to meet Dad. He’ll like you. Even if he’s past seventy now, he still appreciates a pretty girl.” 

“It’s indecent for a woman to look so lovely so early in the day.”

Leah Larkin, RN, is fed up with city life! “Here patients were just patients. She barely saw them long enough to do more than administer to their needs and say goodbye,” she thinks as she packs her bags. I’m not sure if she’s expecting to sit down to high tea with every patient who walks through her door, but she seems to have some unrealistic expectations about becoming besties with them all. Based on these dissatisfactions, she’s decided to set sail for Green Hills, a small town hours away—which, not coincidentally, is where Cal Havelin lives. Cal is a man she had dated for a few months, but then one day he’d done the ’60s version of ghosting her: “It had been two months since he had kissed her good night with his usual lighthearted smile and told her he would phone again soon.” She’d never heard from him again.

But “Cal had become too important, too necessary and too vital to her,” so she’s pointed her car down the highway—and, upon arriving in Green Hills, into the path of a young boy on a bicycle. But it does mean she quickly scores an introduction to local medico Dr. Rod Goodman, who shows up to care for the squashed lad. She asks for a job as a nurse in town, but it seems they’ve already got one, with little interest in the services of another one, especially one who’d run over little Bobby Walker on her first day in town. Asked to vouch for her character, Cal shows up to claim her, tells her she’s beautiful, touches her face, and kisses her a couple times, “lightly, like a brother.” Instead of listening to the warning sirens, Leah rushes back to her motel room, “took a brisk bath and changed clothes to be ready for him.” Guess what? The phone doesn’t ring, and the door remains silent. Finally she picks up the paper and spots a photo of Cal with Deloris Wentley, “her arm linked possessively through Cal’s.” Oh.

Leah learns that Dr. Rod’s brother’s wife, Michele, lives with Rod, but all the nurses he hires to care for her quit before too long. Gossip is that Rod is a masher, but Leah goes out to dinner with him anyway, all the while pining for Cal. “Oh, Cal, where are you? Why do you let this happen?” she cries as she applies her makeup for her date. During dinner, Rod talks about the town’s underfunded hospital and points out that the Havelins are the richest folks in the area. As he drops her off, he says he’d like to see her again, and she answers, “So you can persuade me to ask Cal for money for your precious hospital?” Leah has seen the 22-bed hospital—little Bobby is lying there in a coma—which has only a couple aides and one nurse, who has told Leah that they are understaffed and underpaid, so it’s bizarre that Leah would take this high-minded attitude.

Cal shows up eventually and offers her a cabin his father owns and doesn’t use any longer. “Now come here and show your gratitude,” he commands, and she obligingly kisses him a lot. He invites her to his father’s retirement party, where Cal’s father Sam tells Leah that Deloris is bad news, that she is pushing Cal to make big changes at the plant. “She wants him to be a big duck on the pond. Ambition! It’s the root of all evil,” he declares, and it’s certainly an odd sentiment for a self-made man. Except it’s not Cal’s ambition that’s the problem. “Deloris has put him up to this,” Sam snarls. “Deloris and her high-minded ideas!” Why her ideas are so appalling is unclear, particularly as we’re told, “She was not a woman to be overlooked. There was a brain in her head, a drive to her will.” OK, that was a rhetorical question.

Outside of parties and dates, there’s not much for Leah to do, since no one wants to hire her. Fortunately, everywhere she goes, people get injured or sick, so she ends up nursing a man who’d had a stroke and a boy who catches a fishhook in the face, and therefore has lots of opportunities to see Rod. And it pays off—well, not financially, but Rod does tell her he loves her. She goes out on dates with him—and kisses him too—because “he was one of the most appealing men she’d ever known.” But “it was Cal she loved. Rod had been merely a substitute. That had to be it!”

The book has so many threads it’s like a Four Seasons bedsheet. One evening Rod and Leah are out together when Michele walks in with a date of her own. Rod inexplicably tries to drag Michele out of the place, her date beats him up, and Rod doesn’t fight back, saying that he “deserves” to be beaten up, but won’t say why. Rod asks Cal for money for the hospital, saying, “If there was a major disaster in this town, or some kind of emergency at your plant involving a good many of your employees, we couldn’t begin to take care of them.” Will these people ever learn? You never say quiet when you’re working at the hospital, and you never say disaster when you’re a character in a VNRN. Then the employees at the hospital start acting squirrely; one of them tells Leah, “You can tell Cal Havelin from me that he’d better get smart and start keepin’ his eyes open. He’s heading for trouble, big trouble. You mark my words, miss!” Little Bobby Walker, who’d come out of his coma and been discharged, relapses and has to go for brain surgery. Sam Havelin has a heart attack—did I mention Leah seems to be a jinx?

There’s lots more, including the inevitable d******* at the plant, a dramatic rescue from the flames, an alcoholic exposed, changes of heart, and a “long, low foreign sports model with bucket seats of flaming red leather.” And lots of kissing! In the end, this book feels more than a little frenetic, and it’s hard to forgive Leah and Cal’s hypocrisy, not to mention the villainization of Deloris because she wants to do more with her life than just play golf at the country club. Author Arlene Hale wrote about a hundred novels, and as I am fond of lamenting, many of them nurse novels—I’ve read 23 of them, 75% earning C grades or less, with another 11 waiting on my shelves, and probably at least as many out there in the world to be tracked down. My work is not all glitter and glamor—but especially not when I’ve got one of Arlene Hale’s books in my hands.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Island Nurse

By Dorothy Daniels, ©1964 
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Nurse Diana Carvell studied long and worked hard to plan her future, but the blueprint didn’t include Ethan Sloane, who stormed into her life with the crashing impact of a wave against a rock. He affected her as no man ever had—not even Dr. Barry Latham, whom she expected to marry. Was she strong enough to resist this brooding, mysterious young islander who was carefully guarding a secret? More important—did she really want to? On a tiny island, at the height of a hurricane, a beautiful girl faces her moment of truth and makes a decision that will come as a thrilling surprise …


“It’s doggone careless of Barry, letting you run around loose.” 

“There is something to the old movie and TV business of boiling lots of hot water. Keeps folks too busy to interfere with the doctor.”

“May I examine you? I promise the fee will not be too high and my medicines all taste like peppermint candy.”

Diana Carvell is planning to marry Dr. Barry Latham, who is in his final year of residency as a surgeon. Curiously, though she works as an OR nurse, she has never been in the OR with him—until one day when she is on the scene when he inexplicably walks away from a routine appendectomy. Word is Dr. Latham doesn’t have the nerve to be surgeon—odd to be finding this out on his fifth year of residency—but then it is revealed that he was just upset because his dad James is being admitted with lung cancer. Diana is enlisted to care for James after his surgery, which fortunately cures him completely, and then the Lathams recruit her to come to their summer home on an island off the coast of Bar Harbor, Maine, to watch him recuperate. She agrees to do it, although it must be confessed “she was considering breaking off with Barry because of his mother’s complete rejection of her”—the woman has not been overly friendly when she comes to visit her hospitalized husband. But she and Mrs. Latham have a quick chat, in which she tells Mrs. Latham, “You believe I’m not good enough for your son,”—a strange way to win the affection of your maybe-future mother-in-law. But it works, temporarily at least, and Diana jets off to Bar Harbor.

She’s picked up on the pier by Barry’s longtime friend, Ethan Sloan. Ethan is about to start his fourth year of medical school—he’s running a bit behind because he insists on paying his own tuition without loans or help from any of his rich friends. Ethan has an overly arrogant manner, telling her on their ride to the island, “I’m going to marry you.” He continues this conceit without a break, except for the time he tells Diana, “I’m not that vain,” and she has to be helped up off the floor when she’s done rolling around laughing. Oh, wait, no, what actually happened is that she agreed to several dates with him, including a late-night swim and smooch on the beach, and before long she is “almost running in her eagerness to see him.” When Barry shows up days later, now finished with residency and planning to work at the island hospital here and there for the summer, she decides “there was no point in holding anything back,” and fails to mention the kissing or the fact that Ethan is planning on marrying her.

Barry is also a picture of contrasts. Though he is Boston “Back Bay, Choate, Harvard,” Barry had decided not to follow his father into finance, showing “a great deal of spunk and ambition,” but in school, “his approach to medicine and surgery was casual. He did work hard and well, but there wasn’t a need for him to excel above others so he never really tried.” When he shows up on the island, he pursues waterskiing and boat racing with reckless abandon, working toward the big boat race at the end of the season. But Diana has work to do caring for James and helping out at the hospital; “she’d never be content, as Barry was, to spend the whole summer simply having fun.” Soon enough, he misses a call to help a man with a gangrenous wound because he’s off on the mainland buying a speedboat—but worse than that, he also fails to come back in time to pick her up for the big dance at the Latham house!

Ethan’s there to dance with her, though, so not all is lost, and she tells him, “When I saw you, I felt like turning cartwheels,” the gymnastic floozy. Unfortunately she doesn’t have time to demonstrate because Barry turns up, Ethan disappears, and Alicia Atwell’s appendix acts up. Diana and Barry get her to the hospital, but then Barry starts acting squirrely—and though Diana talks him into the surgery, it’s “not the sure, hard sweep of the blade an experienced surgeon would have used,” and he worked “almost too carefully, Diana noted,” taking 40 minutes to do a surgery that could have been done in 15. Afterward, “he was shaken and drenched with sweat. When he removed his gloves, his hands were shaking.” (Shades of Nurse Ann in Surgery!) But then she remembers he’s been running around all day with his new boat, which must be why he did so poorly. And she lies to the island MD, Dr. Evans, when he asks for the truth about Barry’s medical skill. “Barry is a poor doctor, an incompetent surgeon,” he tells her. Curiously, Diana declares, “I don’t believe he’s a bad surgeon. I think he’s inexperienced, that’s all. I believe in Barry Latham, as a man and as a doctor.”

Dr. Evans decides to take a week of vacation, curiously at the height of the season when the island is most populated, leaving it alone to be mishandled by Dr. Barry. But just as Diana and Ethan are dropping him off on the mainland, a hurricane blows in—the worse storm ever! Will Barry be able to find a spine and help the injured? Who will Diana decide to marry?

I’ve been known to gripe because a huge disaster plays out in a few paragraphs, and now I’m biting my tongue—this one takes 15 pages, and it drags. Parts of the book had interest and real humor, but so much of it didn’t hang together—is Barry afraid or arrogant? Does Diana believe in Barry or doubt him? At least she’s not quitting her job after she lands her man, but neither man was much of a bargain, so it was hard to feel too pleased with her choice. Overall there just isn’t enough to recommend this book.

Hope Wears White

By Florence Stuart
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1961
Cover illustration by Martin Koenig

Nurse Barbara Ritter looked up into Dr. Wade Fulton’s eyes. “Say you love me, darling. Say it once, please,” he pleaded. She turned her head away. “Oh, let me alone. Don’t talk any more about it. What does it matter how I feel about you? You’re going to be married to another girl.” She had lost her heart to a man who belonged to somebody else. Would time heal the hurt? Barbara found the answer to her question in this moving novel of love, friendship and dedication to a notable profession. 


“If I had my teeth in, I’d bite you, honey.” 

“Later they drove down to the village to look at the bright lights, all five or six of them.”

I’ve been feeling a little burned by Florence Stonebraker in recent years. She has written some amazing books, no question about it—five of her books have earned A-grade reviews—but she has also gotten seven C’s, so you never know if you’ve got a gem in your hands or a dud. The result is that now, as I read her books—and Hope Wears White is my 19th—if it starts out well, I am nervously waiting for the point where the story tanks. Fortunately, this book sparkled from beginning to end—but apprehension marred my enjoyment somewhat; these are the bitter side effects of this job, but I hope my work here can spare you the stinkers and deliver you only the best. 

Barbara Ritter is a nurse from the very tiny town of Springdale, Arkansas, population 2,734, where she was adopted by the local doctor and his wife. Unfortunately, she played the Cinderella to her younger sister Fern, the pair’s biological daughter: “Fern had always gotten the best of everything, while Barbara did the work of two or three servants.” Barbara has turned out all right in the end, though; after her father died, Mrs. Harriet Hope, a wealthy local widow, loaned Barbara tuition money for nursing school. Now, after four years away from home, Barbara is returning to show everyone her success. (It’s a flimsy excuse, but there it is, and we have to live with it.) Fern has not fared so well: “She acts very strange of late. She is moody: up in the clouds one minute; down in the dumps the next,” explains Mom, while others are less kind, stating simply that “Fern has some deep-seated neurosis and is seriously in need of psychiatric help.” Fortunately, there is a new psychiatric hospital in town, endowed by Harriet and run by Dr. Wade Fulton, who is quite the hunk.

Harriet has insisted that Dr. Wade hire Barbara to work at the hospital, and her first interview with Wade starts off very well, despite the fact that “I hadn’t counted on anyone quite so ornamental,” as he says, since everyone tells Barbara that she looks like Elizabeth Taylor. Barbara displays a fair amount of sass: “Do you suppose I’ll be safe, working day in and day out with this irresistible male?” she asks fellow Nurse Kitty Standish. When Wade tells Barbara he is engaged to a woman back in New York, she slyly asks him how often he writes her, saying, “I’ll bet the poor gal is all aquiver with excitement, waiting for those cards to arrive.” But the interview quickly sours, and later Kitty declares that Wade is “afraid that he’ll fall in love.” In short order Wade all but admits this to be true: Apologizing that they got off on the wrong foot, he touches her arm, and the sparks fly.


Meanwhile Fern has developed a huge crush on Wade, and is sending him love letters and turning up in his office to bat her eyes at him. One evening Barbara goes to the family house to discuss Fern’s behavior, telling her that its less than rational. She suggests that Fern seek professional help, and Fern completely wigs out. Screaming that she will kill Barbara or herself, she slams out the door and hops in the car. Barbara, for some equally insane reason, climbs in with her, and before too long Fern has driven them off a cliff. Miraculously they both survive—and Wade confesses his love, while simultaneously declaring that he cannot marry her because he is engaged to this New Yorker.

Unfortunately, there can be no easy happiness for the Barbara and Wade, because Wade is one of those annoying martyr types “whose inner strength was also his great weakness. It was unthinkable for him to let down someone who depended on him.” And so, rashly engaged years ago to a woman who has turned out to be not at all suitable for him, “it was his duty—Wade’s absolute duty” to stick with Helene Robbins, even though she has refused to marry him until he gives up his job in Arkansas and returns to New York to take up a posh practice, which he has refused to do.

Sadly, Barbara accepts the situation with little of the spine she has demonstrated to date, but she does have two feisty friends in Kitty and Harriet, both of whom exhort her to fight for her man. “No man makes up his own mind when it comes to affairs of the heart,” declares Harriet. “The girl has to make it up for him. You have to.” Barbara doesn’t, though, because she has a sister who truly hates her. Realizing where Wade’s affection lies, the scorned Fern writes a letter to Helene in New York, telling her that Wade is being seduced by the tramp he works with and is about to wriggle off the hook. Instantly jetting to Arkansas, Helene declares she will go through with the wretched wedding even though she does not love Wade, because “like every girl with good sense, I want to be married to a man worth marrying,” she frankly tells Barbara. “Wade is a successful doctor, he’ll make a name for himself, he’ll make good money—once I get him back to New York where he belongs.”

It’s not hard to imagine how this scenario is going to wrap up, though the specific details were a surprise and even funny. The writing is smart, crisp, entertaining, and often amusing, if not of the sort of humor that translates well for the Best Quotes section. I’ll acknowledge that the plot is not completely logical, and it was disappointing that Barbara, who started out with so much starch and fire, completely wilted. But the supporting cast is built of admirable characters who are very enjoyable to watch as they chew the furniture and toss off fabulous lines, such as the time Kitty scolds Barbara for working so hard in her new job: “What are you trying to prove? That you’re ten women? Or simply that the rest of us nurses are lazy slobs who should get vitamin shots to jazz up our metabolism?” We do get a good handful of Florence Stonebraker’s go-to tricks: the unloved adopted daughter, the psychotic woman, the murder attempts, the Ozark setting, the names Fern and Kitty. Here, luckily for us, she serves them up with panache and freshness, giving us a book worthy of the hope any reader has when she picks one up.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Nurse for Mercy’s Mission

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1969 

When Kay Lanyan came to visit her aunt and uncle at the isolated lumber town of Mercy’s Mission, the pretty young nurse thought it would be just a brief vacation. Her life seemed complete, divided between her work in a big city hospital, and the attentions of Andy Collings, a brilliant, charming intern. But working in a modern hospital and Andy’s happy-go-lucky attitude had not prepared Kay for the idealism and dedication of young Dr. Ian Davies. Soon Kay was at his side, meeting every medical challenge as she helped Ian serve the poor and needy of Mercy’s Mission. Never had she felt happier, more fulfilled—until Andy Collings appeared on the scene to throw her heart into desperate turmoil. For there was a difference between devotion as a nurse and love as a woman—and how could she make that choice?


“Lee couldn’t even remember her name—said when a gal looked like that, who needed a name?” 

“Sit down and I’ll pour you a cup of coffee. It’s great for solving the problems of tired maidens.”

Kay Lanyan, RN, has a common ailment—her boyfriend is an ass. Dr. Andy Collings, intern, seems to spend most of his time paying his fellow residents to cover his shifts so he can go out with Kay. Helps when your Dad’s a rich lumber magnate, but not so much if you have any interest in being a competent, hard-working doctor. Needless to say, Andy does not—he aspires to have a cushy practice catering to “wealthy patients who were not too sick to appreciate a smooth bedside manner.” He’s also a rude, ungrateful jerk who insults Kay’s best friend and one of the (poorer) residents who routinely covers Andy’s shifts, sneering that “your fat friend will probably be there with Talbot, which is a pretty good match, if you ask me. One’s as much of a drag as the other.”

Sadly, though Kay is disappointed with Andy’s attitude about medicine, she still seems to like him—and says nothing at all in response to his nasty remarks about her best friend. “People who were not rich or beautiful or both did not find favor with Andy Collings, and it was sad that they did not, she thought. It was even more sad that Andy did not know that he was hurting himself.” It’s not clear how, since Kay still gets all twinkly when she thinks Andy might be calling.

And he doesn’t, for months after she decides to take a job in the poor Oregon mountainside village called Mercy’s Mission, working with Dr. Ian Davies, who is everything Andy is not. You’d think that moving to the other side of the country would be a death knell for their relationship, but Kay thinks that Andy “had no reason to doubt that he had her love,” though she is constantly comparing the two and finding Andy sorely wanting. “Ian, she thought, is so much more a doctor, so wonderful a person—Dr. Ian Davies would keep going as long as anyone needed him, because he was dedicated to Medicine. Ian, she thought, didn’t know what it meant to be selfish; he probably never had dreamed of a practice like the one Andy wanted for himself, of patients who were wealthy, a little neurotic, not too sick. If only Andy were more like Ian, she thought.”

So Kay and Ian spend most of the book racing from one dire emergency to another. There are a few minor side stories, like the brief appearance of a “luscious brunette,” as Andy repeatedly insults the poor woman who has decided that Ian’s hardscrabble life is not one she wants to share, and there’s also an even more brief malpractice scare. In the end, Mercy’s Mission is saved by a huge investment by Andy Collings’ father, and Andy shows up to tour the town—will he undergo a completely unbelievable change of heart? Will Kay throw over the solid, hard-working, dedicated professional she’s been leaning toward the entire book for a shallow, mean, selfish ass?

Overall, the book isn’t badly written, and is reasonably entertaining, with a primary focus on medicine over men. But the end is surprising and unsatisfying, I’m sorry to report, though not as bad as it could have been. As my New Hampshire Yankee grandmother would say: “Have some chicken. It’s kinda tough.” Or maybe just have Jello salad instead.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Nurse in Danger

By Fern Shepard 
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1963
Cover illustration by Rudy Nappi

“Be careful, Anne. This is a serious mental case we’re up against. We’re all in danger as long as she’s allowed to run around loose,” Dan said. Nurse Anne knew it was true. Margaret Slater was not a normal person. She was beautiful and rich and she was a destroyer. Sooner or later she would succeed in destroying someone—some helpless victim of her irrational, jealous fury … but who would the victim be? When would she strike? Margaret needed help—psychiatric help. Brad Portner was a wonderful psychiatrist, but love was blind … he was planning to marry Margaret!


“I can’t marry you, love, as long as you insist on working at that loony pit.” 

“Psychos rarely make sense, you know that. That’s what makes them psychos.”

“You had this twenty-four hour virus. Too bad the love virus doesn’t disappear as fast.”

I would give a lot to know why author Florence Stonebraker was so obsessed with psychiatrists and lunatics; of the 19 books I’ve reviewed, more than half revolved around an insane character. So once again, here we have the Stonebraker classic: beautiful Margaret Slater is engaged to psychiatrist Brad Portner, despite the fact that from early on everyone declares she is “sick and needed help. Her parents should have taken her to a psychiatrist years ago.” And that’s just on page 32; before too much longer, they’re worrying that “we’re all in danger as long as she’s allowed to run around loose.”

But she is, of course! Margaret is literally insanely jealous of her adopted sister Sherri, whom at book’s open she’s assisted in a suicide attempt by providing the bottle of benzos. It’s not Margaret’s first attempt at ending Sherri’s life; as a child she’d tried to drown Sherri. Now she’s beside herself that Sherri has become a patient at Brad’s hospital and rages around the campus screaming tirades about Sherri and Brad’s nurse, Anne, who actually is in love with Brad but on the verge of quitting so as to escape daily confrontation with her unrequited love. But the scenes soon prove too much for Brad, and he attempts to break up with Margaret, who in a drunken rage drives them both off a cliff at 100 miles per hour. Miraculously, Brad escapes without a scratch, and Margaret only has one—to her face, which destroys her incredible beauty, and now righteous Brad decides “he must marry her as a matter of honor” because of this devastating injury. Now it’s just a question of what happens to push Margaret into gong “berserk,” as the book calls it, and whom she will attempt to murder, and what the collateral damage will be to Nurse Anne, and whether Anne ends up with the doctor or the longtime beau she does not love.

The book is written better than some Stonebraker novels (Stop Over Nurse) but nowhere near the level of her best (City Doctor, Doctor by Day). I just never felt any real interest in any of the characters, except an occasional second look at Margaret on occasion, such as when she “had flung herself on the couch. She wore a soft blue wool dress with a chinchilla cape-jacket. Her golden hair glistened.” But even the climactic scene is dull: Anne’s danger is played essentially offstage, as it’s told from her point of view—but she’d taken two tranquilizers at bedtime and slept through the whole thing. So in the end, Nurse in Danger is not really dangerous, it’s just dull.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Nurse from Hawaii

By Ethel Hamill
(pseud. Jean Francis Webb III), ©1964
Cover illustration by Edrien 

Gail Ingersoll, born and raised in Hawaii, had longed for months to return to the beauty and warmth of the Islands. But a sense of duty had kept her in Vermont, where she had gone to nurse old Miss Abigail Ingersoll, the last of the family on the Mainland. Now Miss Abigail was dead, and as soon as Gail had recuperated from a recent bout with pneumonia, she could begin making plans to go home. Vermont was covered with snow the day Dean Mathias and the small child in a red snowsuit came to seek shelter in the old carriage house—not even asking permission, if you please. Dean Mathias, with his sultry good looks, his pantherlike grace, could leave at any time, Gail decided, but it would break her heart if he took the small blonde Clancy away with him. There was some mystery about the pair, Gail was sure—something that had brought them from California to Vermont. Until that mystery was cleared up, and Clancy was quite safe—Dean was threatening to leave and take Clancy with him—Hawaii must wait. Only by giving up her dream could Gail realize her full potentialities as a nurse and find a love—or rather, two loves—that would make her renunciation an easy choice.


“The expensive, ugly wallpaper showed lighter rectangles where other pictures had hung; past Ingersolls had bought themselves the best, but with no eye for beauty. And now, indestructible, their mistakes survived them.” 

It was with great pleasure that I realized that Jean Francis Webb, one of my favorite VNRN authors, had written a nurse novel that I hadn’t read yet. This is the youngest of the six, written three years after the delightful Aloha Nurse, and it almost seems like it might have been the child of a second mother, as it has none of the camp or wit of its older sisters. But it is a smooth, gentle story that feels written, with a small (if not altogether obvious) mystery at the end, and worth reading, if for different reasons. 

Gail Ingersoll was born and raised in Hawaii, but for unclear reasons came to New York to work as a nurse. There she met Old Dr. Hawkstrom, who hails from the tiny town of Cutler, Vermont. She happened to have the same name as an elderly, wealthy woman desperately in need of a nurse, and as fate would have it, the two are second cousins twice removed, and this familial bond (though Gail had not been aware of the existence of old Abigail) compelled her to move to Cutler and nurse the old bat for four years, through what sounds like Alzheimer’s, until the woman had run out into the winter night and drowned herself in the pond. Gail has inherited the entire fairly large estate, and is casting about for something to do with it—she’s considering starting a hospital in town—when a tanned Californian surfer with “almost a dangerous face” is discovered in the carriage house with an ill five-year-old child named Clancy.

Gail immediately takes over the little girl, moving her into the house and falling unreasonably in love: “She hadn’t known a day ago that Clancy existed. Today, the tiny creature on the sofa bed seemed the most important person in the world.” She has Old Doc out to inject some penicillin, and the doctor seems strangely taken by the little girl, as well. It’s not too hard for us to see the writing on the wall: Dr. Hawkstrom’s daughter Beth had run away to California and hadn’t been heard of since. The little girl calls the man by his first name, but everyone assumes he is her father. He’s a cool, suave snake, and Gail warily puts up with him because she wants to keep Clancy—and of course the girl shouldn’t be moved for weeks after this little cold that she’s suffered.

Eventually Gail proposes to give Dean a stipend that would allow him to spend his life surfing in Hawaii if he will let her adopt Clancy. He comes back with a counter-proposal: That she come with him and Clancy to Hawaii, and, he tells her, “I’m perfectly willing to marry you first,” sealing the offer with a “hard and virile and questing” kiss. Another catch is that she can only have Clancy if she keeps her inheritance—but mercifully, she does not consider this for a moment.

Then Old Doc’s son, Dr. Jon Hawkstrom Jr., arrives in town, and Gail finds the air a bit thin and electric when he’s around. She’s sure he’s going to help her with her plan to convert the old mansion into a cottage hospital, but he insists he has some research projects he can’t abandon, and off he goes. Then Dean is on the brink of pulling out with Clancy, and stops to say goodbye to Gail—just as Doc Junior returns to town, and a lively conversation ensues in which all is revealed!

If the plot, in the retelling, seems a little dull, the story is assuredly not. The depiction of this snow-bound Vermont village evokes the Lucy Agnes Hancock books of the 1940s, calm and sweet; the tone is even, dare I say, a little Robert Frosted. Lovely sentences abound: “Spring seemed to be stirring in its sleep, under white blankets.” And: “I’d hate to see you crack your heart on the impossible.” Peripheral characters are well-drawn and charming, and there’s a compelling if tiny story of a woman who the town thinks has run off with the owner of the feed store. Gail is shown on several occasions to be a smart, competent, dedicated nurse with no idea of quitting her job, even when she’s a wealthy woman: “I’m a nurse and I always will be,” she insists. Completely devoid of the delicious camp of his past books, in this book Mr. Webb has instead created a lovely, simple story that, if of a different style than his earlier efforts, still demonstrates that he was a gifted writer. And one whose works I have now, sadly, exhausted.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Nurse of the Wine Country

By Ruth McCarthy Sears, ©1971
Cover illustration by Edrien King

After the death of her father in Korea, Margo Hale and her mother, Tonia, lived with Margo’s Aunt Elinor—and when Tonia gave up her fight for life without the man she loved, Margo looked upon her aunt as her sole relative. Dimly, she knew that her mother’s people, the Spanish Margiols, had vineyards in California, but she also knew that the Margiols had renounced her mother as an outsider. Then, at Elinor Hale’s funeral, Vincent Margiol appeared—to command Margo to come to the Big M to nurse his seriously ill sister, Maria. Margo’s first impulse was to refuse this imperious uncle, but second thoughts told her that she had nothing to gain by remaining in San Francisco. Dr. Greg Forbes was not interested in a poor young nurse, and Jay Dexter, although charming and wealthy, seemed like a boy to her. She would go to Mendocino and satisfy her curiosity about her mother’s people. To her delight, Nurse Margo found a whole new world with the Margiols, who ruled firmly, but always fairly and with integrity. And she lost her heart completely to her Aunt Maria. But that was before she had been rebuffed by Nikki Margiol, the doctor in the family and a Margiol only by adoption. All that was left for Margo—now that Aunt Maria was recovering her health—was to return to San Francisco …


“She told herself that she had been too eager. Any man liked to be the pursuer. She must be more aloof, less available.” 

“‘I must hurry home,’ she said regretfully. ‘Something terrible has happened to Aunt Elinor.’” 

“I love you—and Uncle Harry died!”

“Mr. Margiol, your sister seems to be in a coma.”

Author Ruth McCarthy Sears is really one of the worst, with a C- average over six books—though she did give us the possibly spectacularly awful Jolie Benoit, R.N.—and here she cements her reputation with a bizarre story of a near cult in the Margiol family. Margo Hale’s mother was a Margiol, but left the family enclave in Mendocino to marry Margo’s father—who then promptly died in the Korean War. The poor woman then “had been waiting for the early death that would reunite her to her man,” and fortunately, a dozen years later, “Mrs. Hale gently expired,” leaving a 12-year-old orphan. What a relief!

Margo’s Aunt Elinor has taken her in and loaned her the money for nursing school: “I consented to your choice of this line of employment only because it would helpful later when you marry,” the spinster tells her niece, before she, too, gently expires while Margo is out on a date, inconveniently. She and her beau walk in to find the poor woman dead in her chair, and Margo elocutes, “Is Aunt Elinor just sitting there so naturally but devoid of life?” Alas, milady, such is precisely the present state of affairs.

Margo has been struggling with her relationship with Dr. Greg Forbes, who is a poor young doctor struggling to make his way and feeling the demands of his purse more than the demands of his heart. He’d been starting to turn his eye toward the daughter of a wealthy doctor who would be able to jump-start his career, and had therefore been neglecting Margo of late. So Margo is feeling a bit lonely when her mother’s brother, Victor Margiol, turns up and insists that Margo come immediately to the family enclave to nurse Aunt Maria, the elderly matriarch, who is sick. Margo asks if Maria has been seen by a doctor—and curiously is told that she has not. “In the Margiol family we make our own doctors and lawyers. Whatever we need, we educate our children to be. So far, we have no Margiol doctor”—though we soon learn that there is a doctor, Nikki Margiol, who is off serving his intern year in Baltimore. But never mind, right now Margo is commanded to work for the family. “Margiols must all be together. No more marrying with outsiders. No, no more of that,” Victor tells her—apparently implying that incest is to be the rule—though later this is contradicted when we are told that first cousins are not to marry. “It’s against the religion, and besides that, it’s bad for the strain.” Phew!

Margo is outraged at this proposal! “You mean, you’re proposing to select a husband for me? That I am to be a virtual prisoner until such time as you decide to make a match for me? What kind of crazy dynasty is this?” Can they give her a week to pack her bags? When her 16-year-old cousin shows up to collect her in a dusty jeep, she is astute enough to recognize that the vehicle is “Vincent Margiol’s way of humiliating her for her arbitrary insistence upon ‘terms.’” On the drive to the family compound, she learns that her chauffeur has been selected to be the family teacher, and his brother, presently too young to drive, is to be the dentist—a job likely to be easier for him because by the time he is ready to go into practice, everyone’s teeth will have rotted out from neglect. “You have to have discipline,” she is told when she expresses her horror that they have no say in choosing their vocations. “Otherwise, the family would fall apart, you know?”

Arriving at the ranch, she is brought to elderly Maria, where she checks her comatose patient’s pulse and diagnoses pneumonia. Mysteriously, however, after bathing the patient and changing her nightgown, the old lady wakes up, cured! But Margo is kept in Maria’s room, not to meet any of the five other uncles or the other aunt, or the wives, or any but one of the 23 cousins, until Dr. Nikki shows up for Christmas—who, meeting her for the first time, grabs her wrists so hard it hurts, and accuses her of coming to get money out of the family—never mind that they are in fact paying her for her services and all but kidnapped her. “Poised, arrogant, imperious, even audacious,” “egotistical, spoiled, and downright rude,” so much so that he uses an occasional Spanish word with his aunt, and “now he’s taking over the sickroom,” with his stupid doctor’s orders—which, having just graduated from medical school six months ago and not even finished his first year of residency, he is entirely qualified to give—so she stomps off to her room and pins her hair up “into a severe French knot. Since the doctor was determined to disapprove of her, she would be as efficient and unfeminine as possible.” So there! Naturally, on Christmas Eve, he kisses her under the mistletoe, “and closing her eyes, she gave herself up to the wonder of swaying lights and singing violins.” They dance a lot, and he walks her back to the house and proposes to her with his dead mother’s wedding ring, but then an old boyfriend of Margo’s from Palo Alto turns up and Nikki stomps off, barely to speak to her again.

Now she’s looking for an excuse to leave, because “this place had become so painful to her since Nikki’s repudiation of her love.” Love?!? Since when, and how is that even possible, after one night of dancing? But it takes several more months before Aunt Maria is over whatever she had, and then Margo is back at her old hospital, where four months after she’d left she feels like “a stranger,” because “there was no one in San Francisco, not a single person, who cared whether she lived or died.” She may be the only VNRN heroine who’s never had a friend at work. But just as she’s sitting down for the first time in her new room, Dr. Greg calls and asks her out. During dinner he reveals that his wealthy uncle died and left him a bundle, and he wants to marry Margo—but somehow this is a terrible disappointment to Margo, who feels “it was money, after all,” again very confusing, because it’s not her money, and if the poor man couldn’t afford to get married, why is it so terrible that now that he can, he wants to marry her? Margo suddenly realizes she’d never loved Greg and walks out of the restaurant—only to see Nikki, who’d stopped into the hotel for cigarettes and is finally willing to talk to her again, so that’s the ending we are supposed to think of as happy. It’s hard to understand how Margo goes from despising Nikki to being in love with him in the space of about two weeks, and is engaged to him basically on the basis of one single pleasant evening she’s had with him, rejecting the evidence of the countless unpleasant interactions they’ve had.

Bizarrely, the Margiol cult is eventually held up for us as a model society, and somehow a plan to convert the city of Mendocino into a large-scale version is underway—though a few months earlier there hadn’t been enough money to buy a pair of horses for Uncle Carlos, now they are funding a clinic and buying horses and cattle as well. “How many of the ‘moderns’ you spoke about in the cities would find solace from all earthly cares in these surroundings, and earn their needs from this good earth?” asks one of the uncles. The kids who are supposed to be teachers will now teach all of Mendocino, and the supermarkets “will be a community affair, supplied by the farmers—the same system as the Margiols have employed for generations, but on an encompassing scale,” the uncle explains. “Who knows? It might be a contribution of worth to a storm-tossed and confused world.” Margo buys into it, thinking that “they knew all the joys of play and dancing, laughing and loving. And the joys and satisfaction of something even deeper, too—a strong and vibrant morality, a respect for the rights of their fellows.” As long as you get to dance and sing, who cares if you can’t decide who you marry or what you do for a living? Soon Margo is drunk on the Kool-Aid, and only needs to feel horrified by a pro-choice demonstration to sign up completely. Because if these “teens demanding the lives of helpless infants of whom they themselves had been the instruments of creation” had been brought up in the Margiol way, “there would be no illegitimate babies to dispose of, because of respect of the rights of others.” It’s a very confused logic, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

This is a very strange book, one without regard to common sense or prior established facts, or to basic research into winemaking or even Mendocino (which had a population of more than 50,000 in 1971 and was not likely without dentists, medical clinics, or teachers). Nowhere near as daffy as Jolie Benoit, R.N., this book is aggravating in an un-entertaining way. The C grade is really a kiss of death—neither bad nor good enough to enjoy—and Ruth McCarthy Sears is the queen of the C’s.




Friday, March 25, 2022

Nurse Harlowe

By Jane Arbor, ©1954

Gillian Harlowe, staff nurse at St. Ranulph’s Hospital, had told herself over and over again that it was sheer folly for her to fall in love with that distinguished surgeon, Adrian Pilgrim, whose interest in her was obviously confined to approval of her professional skill. Worse – he seemed almost to welcome the idea that she might marry his charming, reckless young cousin Colin, while he himself was busy squiring the sophisticated (and very determined) Elspeth. Yes, she knew she ought to put him out of her thoughts. But it isn’t always possible to persuade one’s heart to listen to reason.


The cover illustration completely sums up this book: Plot devices you’ve seen before, assembled with little skill, and achieving a mediocre result. Those story lines we’ve met numerous times in the past:

1. The heroine, Gillian Harlowe, at 23 is fifteen years younger than the man of her dreams.
2.      Dr. Adrian Pilgrim “had never given any sign that he recognized anything but the trained dexterity of her hands,” but she Gillian falls in love with him anyway.
3.      Gillian had been in love with playboy Colin Fenmore four years ago, but he’d dumped her after a summer of fun—and now he’s turned up in her ward after a serious car accident that may leave him crippled for life.
4.      The only way Colin is going to pull him through his recovery is if Gillian pretends that she’s in love with him.
5.      Dr. Pilgrim believes Gillian is going to marry Colin.
6.      Gillian believes Dr. Pilgrim is going to marry sexy vixen Elspeth Paul.
7.      The Ward Sister, Clarice Hugh, is a bitter, mean shrew because she had lost her fiancé 20 years ago.
8.      Clarice is transformed into a warm, kind human being when her ex-fiancé returns for her.
9.      Dr. Pilgrim kisses Gillian at the Nurse’s Ball, but she thinks he means only to insult her by it.
10.   Despite a recent promotion to charge nurse that she says means a great deal to her, Gillian plans to throw over her career when she is married.

And that, essentially, is all there is to say about this book. The writing is perfectly tolerable, but the story a straight, wide highway through the desert: It’s clear where you’re going, and you’ve seen before what little there is along it. I think the most emotion I felt during this book was when the fiancé quotes Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew to her in the final pages: “‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper; Thy head, thy sov’reign.’ Are you really content, my sweet, to have it so?” And she replies. “It’s all that my life could ask—” It wasn’t a pretty emotion, but it was one. If it’s not an emotion you would care to have yourself, you might want to consider giving Nurse Harlowe the slip.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Princess of White Starch

By Katherine McComb, ©1963 

Nurse Flower Palmer was young, lovely, and in love. Jimmy Scott, her fiancé, was the Prince Charming of any girl’s dream—handsome, fabulously wealthy, and very much in love with her. But there were others who were determined to do something about it. Two women in the Scott mansion hated the young nurse. And there also was the dark-haired, moody, unpredictable young doctor at the hospital, whose anger and contempt and sudden passion had shaken and frightened her. When tragedy struck, all of them pointed accusing fingers at Flower.


“You don’t think much of women anyway, though I suppose your mother was one.” 

“Who did he think he was, anyway, one of the Kennedy boys?”

“If you weren’t my best friend I’d inject air into your veins, or something.”

“All laymen think doctors and nurses have it easy, and go into shock when they get a bill for saving their lives.”

“Are you a native angel?”

How awkward to have a literal flower child for a heroine. Nurse Flower Palmer, who has been at LA County Hospital since she graduated from nursing school month ago, is “no bigger than a bar of soap after a big wash,” 5 foot 2 and 110 pounds, and “just because she was small and looked sixteen instead of twenty-three nobody ever seemed to take her seriously.” Take, for starters, Dr. Lester Dean. “I was just wondering why they sent a grammar-school babysitter to take Miss Reynold’s place,” he tells her when she shows up to work the emergency department. But he is just a cynical old meanie who wishes the suicide attempt had been successful because the patient will “try it again the next time she starts feeling sorry for herself. And she’ll probably keep on until she succeeds.” He also tells a woman whose throat is slashed her husband, “It’s the inside scars that can never been healed.” Super helpful! Even better, before the shift is halfway through, he grabs her and kisses her, “hard, bruising, demanding.” She is outraged, so much so that when he asks her out to dinner she “almost said yes before she thought. Then she remembered his rudeness and shook her head.” That’ll show him! Of course, we know how this is going to go: “She had never met such an arrogant, pick-headed person, and just when she might have started liking him.” Which she will, after a lot of sparring. 

This book, like many other VNRNs, includes a natural disaster, but here the twist is that it’s on page 25, not the penultimate chapter. During the earthquake she meets a man whose legs have been broken, but good news! His nephew, Jimmy Scott, is hunky and drives a robin’s egg blue sports car. She helps get Jimmy’s uncle home, which is an ocean-front mansion in Santa Monica, and then agrees to do some part-time nursing for the man around the edges of her regular daytime job. Of course, it takes Jimmy about ten minutes to propose, though she points out the only known each other two days and it might be a good idea to get to know each other first.

All of a sudden, Flower takes a sharp U-turn away from her usual sensible and smart attitude. “She thought again, as she had many times, about leaving the hospital.” After only a month on the job? “Of course there was one way out—she could marry Jimmy Scott.” Um, yes, that’s one way out, but aren’t there may be other, less permanent options? Two months pass in a few short pages, and she’s said yes to Jimmy and given notice at the hospital. Three years of training, and she quits in three months. “You belong to me,” Jimmy tells her, “and that’s all you need to belong to.” He gives her a huge diamond ring which she refuses to take off at work, though I expected this is a little problematic when managing a Code Brown.

The only person who isn’t happy for her is that stinker Dr. Dean. “You don’t honestly believe that Jimmy Scott will allow his wife to bathe, give enemas and carried bedpans for male patients, do you?” Which was the point, of course, so it’s not exactly the zinger he might have liked. And then he kisses her again, the cad. Six more weeks quickly pass, during which Flower moves into the family manse and wedding planning proceeds apace. Suddenly Mr. Scott has a stroke, and now the wedding is off, and Flower can keep nursing, right in the comfort of her fiancé’s own home. Conveniently, Mr. Scott’s doctor goes on vacation and turns the case over to Dr. Dean, who can come over and glare at Flower on a daily basis. Unfortunately, Mr. Scott has a few more strokes, and, one day when Flower is home alone with him, he sends her off to get lunch, and when she comes back, he’s at the bottom of the pool. Almost everyone seems to think Flower has given the old man a push—everyone except Dr. Dean, of course. How will she clear her name?

Well, that’s not really important. She does, of course, and gets a man, after a stupid little misunderstanding that we really didn’t need. Overall, this is book is somewhat mixed. Flower is delightfully spicy, and tough, to boot. One irritating visitor suggests he should have the procedure so he can have her for a nurse as well. “What do you think I could have cut out, Nurse?” Flower snaps, “Your ego,” and promptly tosses the joker out of her patient’s room. But she quits nursing at the drop of a hat, so it’s hard to have a lot of respect for her after that. (Yes, it seems she’s going back to it in the end, but still, how fickle can you be?) Some parts of the story, particularly the evil plot to frame Flower, seem quite thin—but then the description of Mr. Scott’s strokes, each one whittling away a little bit more of his vitality, seemed painfully real. There are things in this book that make it worth reading—quotations from the poet Shelley among them—but it won’t be the most delicious meal you’ve ever tasted. If it’s landed in your lap, I give you permission to have at it, but you needn’t go chasing it down.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Sisters in White

By Suzanne Roberts, ©1965 

Seeing Vicki and Nicki Evans striding down hospital corridors together in their crisp, white uniforms and perky caps, people always did a double take. The nurses looked exactly alike—they were identical twins. Which made for a certain amount of fun around Community Hospital. Fun for everybody but Vicki. For Vicki was the dedicated and hard-working one, whereas her carefree and vivacious sister had never failed to capture the heart of any man she wanted. And now she had set her cap for Vicki’s special man. This meant trouble—in this case, double trouble.


“Any girl who would wear a red satin bouffant dress with three sequined petticoats just wasn’t the kind of girl who’d be happy emptying bed pans.” 

“I’m not supposed to be safe. I’m a nurse—remember?”

If you are unlucky enough to remember those horrible Wrigley’s Doublemint gum commercials with the vapid blonde twins masticating in unison, the cover illustration and back cover blurb of this book may revive some nauseating memories. Certainly author Suzanne Roberts, who has until now earned only C grades, doesn’t make a reader feel confident that anything other than a saccharine, stereotypical blandness awaits. But while I won’t promise you double your pleasure or double your fun with the Evans twins, I can say it’s not half bad. 

Vicki Evans is the dedicated one, Assistant to the Ward Supervisor at Chicago Community Hospital. She’s so serious that little student nurses tremble when she approaches—but worse than that, she never gets any dates! “I worry about you, Vicki,” her spinster boss declares. “It’s one thing to be a dedicated nurse, but quite another to make nursing your entire life. You need to get out more!” But there’s only one man for Vicki, and that’s similarly serious Dr. Keith Bryan. So serious is he, in fact, that “the only time Keith really seemed deeply interested in people was when they were sick.” She asks herself that age-old question, “Why can’t he ever see me as anything but an efficient machine?”

The trouble really begins when Vicki’s sister, who had to be named Nicki (go ahead and roll your eyes, you’ll feel better), shows up. She’d managed, somehow, to become a registered nurse too, but had quit upon graduation to be a flight attendant—maybe because she’s so, well, flighty. “‘Go ahead and get all the A’s,’ Nicki had once said good-naturedly. ‘I’ll settle for the B’s, honey. As long as B stands for boyfriend!’” Nicki is running away from a man who’d lost interest and has decided to go back to nursing. Well, maybe. “They surely wouldn’t put me on a ward that was—terribly depressing, would they?” she asks. And because she’s cute and blonde and vivacious, and because she bats her eyes at Dr. Keith, they don’t; she ends up working under Vicki, and never mind how inappropriate that may be. Immediately Nicki shows her true colors by never showing up on time, by dropping a pair of sterile gloves on the floor and then handing them to a doctor to be used in surgery, by taking two-hour breaks, by lying to everyone about that time she saved all those people when her plane crashed. And she starts chasing Dr. Keith.

This is where we’re supposed to hate Nicki for stealing the only man her sister could ever love, but in truth we can’t blame her—because Vicki, the dope, never tells Nicki how she feels about Keith. “She was determined not to let Nicole know that she had a crush on Keith. Because once a man decided to fall in love with Nicole, there was usually no stopping him.” It seems clear that Nicki and Keith are not right for each other, even if Nicki knows better than to wear her red dress and her jazzy jewelry on a date with him, because the goal is to just land a man, not to get one you might actually be happy with. But as he dates Nicki, he and Vicki keep exchanging these long, meaningful glances, when “that quick, electric, breathtaking spark seemed to flow between them,” until Nicki interrupts the moment.

And here’s another instance where we can’t hate Nicki: When Vicki, finally sick of Nicki’s ineptitude, tells her she shouldn’t be a nurse, Nicki flings herself at her sister’s feet. “‘I’m going to change,’ she said, her voice firm. ‘It’s more than just wanting to prove to you that I can be a good nurse. It’s trying hard to do what’s best for the patients. I want that to be my big reason for being a good nurse.’” And though she does continue to make stupid mistakes, she seems to be genuinely trying, reading a few medical journals (though two is all she can manage) and fretting, “Maybe you won’t believe this, Vicki, but it’s terribly important to me. Nursing, I mean. I know you and maybe a lot of other people think I’m an addle-brained somebody and only fit to serve coffee on jet planes, but now that I’m here at Community, I want to be the kind of nurse that you are.” And, when she’s transferred to work in surgery, the toughest ward in the hospital, and after three weeks, she is improving so much that even Vicki has to admit that Nicki is doing well: “I watched you when you assisted the resident in brain surgery today. You were just great. Time was when you’d have fainted dead away.” Retaining consciousness is a low bar, but Nicki is finally accomplishing something!

The problem is that Nicki is a slow learner, though when you think about it, it’s a lot more realistic that she isn’t immediately able to change her personality overnight. And when she “goofs,” as she calls it, she begs Vicki to bail her out. Initially Vicki resists, refusing to cover for Nicki when she’s late for work, but then she takes responsibility when Nicki drops a tray full of medication and doesn’t tell anyone, so the med count is off at the end of the shift. And in a fateful scene we are amply warned is coming (“neither of them had the slightest hint of the horror that was going to come”), Nicki leaves a postop patient for five minutes to freshen her lipstick because she knows Dr. Keith will be coming up to see the patient soon, and Vicki walks in to find the man hemorrhaging from a “gaping wound” unbelievably left after a lung surgery. Nicki again pleads with her sister to save her: “They’ll probably fire me. Please don’t let them do that to me! I was just beginning to be a really good nurse; you said that yourself. I don’t want to lose everything and if you just cover for me,” she cries. “Tell them you told me I could leave. Please help me! I swear to you I’ve learned my lesson, Vicki! I know now how much nursing really means to me.” Vicki, stupidly, agrees, saying, “I won’t cover for you again, Nicki. Not ever.” Which is what she said after the dropped medication incident, but never mind about that.

So she lies to Keith—and believing her capable of this gross error of conduct, he cancels what would have been their first date. Interestingly, no one else in the hospital thinks it’s true—a student nurse stops her in the hall to says she doesn’t believe it, and Vicki’s friend Dr. Bixby also immediately sees the truth and interviews the patient, who identifies Nicki by her perfume and her singing—neither of which Vicki would ever bring into a patient’s room. Vicki tries to cheer up Nicki, saying, “You’ve got to go on believing that you’re a good nurse. You’ve got to hang onto that dream, because nursing could be the most beautiful and important thing in your life,” and adds that they’ll go to Keith in the morning to tell him the truth. In the morning, though, Nicki has packed her bags and run, nobly first stopping at the hospital to leave a note for Keith confessing all. Discovering this when she wakes, Vicki puts in a full day at the hospital, and then she decides to try to find Nicki at O’Hare. The airport was not as busy in 1965 as it is now—well, before Covid, anyway; adorably, it takes her ten minutes to search every ladies’ bathroom in the airport, and more than eight hours after leaving Vicki’s apartment, Nicki’s plane still has not taken off, so when Vicki finally catches up with her, they have time to argue in a coffee shop—until that plane crashes just outside them on the tarmac.

It's an interesting book because at least Nicki shows real growth as a character, even if she remains a flawed individual despite her apparently sincere efforts to improve, which make it a more complex story than most. Vicki, unfortunately, is interesting only in that she seems to diminish as her sister grows—she makes only one small effort to be friendly to Keith, and despite what everyone believes about her character, she still lies for her sister on two occasions. There is real humor in the book, such as when a resident tells Vicki as they sit down for dinner at the diner, “Don’t order any cream pie. I pumped out three stomachs last night and they all—” Suzanne Roberts, in the eighth book of hers we’ve read, has finally served us a cream pie we might actually want to eat.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Nurse Adele

By Hilda Nickson, ©1966
Also published as Season of Mists

Staff Nurse Adele Palmer had always brushed aside Sister Margaret Bowen’s bitter comments on her romance with Norman Wayne as the jealousy of a frustrated woman—until it began to dawn on her that Margaret might be right after all …


“I’ve known many an otherwise fine and intelligent woman be attracted to the dopiest man.” 

“No wonder women surgeons and doctors were not popular. In the main, they were over-conscientious and inclined to interfere with matters out of their province. They seemed naturally to have an eye for detail and for domestic matters, traits which the wise professional woman used to advantage, traits which could be valuable but which were so often misused.”

“Men? I guess some of us will put up with anything to get the woman we want. Rent, rates, mortgages—even children.”

Every nurse heroine I’ve met lately seems to be working happily on the night shift, and Nurse Adele Palmer is such a one. “She always found night duty so immensely satisfying. A night nurse had a much deeper, closer relationship with her patients, could help them in a way which often contributed to their recovery far more than drugs or even the surgeon’s knife. The murmured confidences, the heart-to-heart talks in the small hours when the rest of the ward were wrapped in their own dreams. Then, a nurse became friend, physician, priest and councilor, the problems of another human halved by being shared.” When I worked nights, there were a few hardy nurses who did actually prefer it, but most seemed to be forced into it by the demands of their family life. 

Adele, the youngest of three children, lives at home with her parents. Her father is a cold, aloof man who barely speaks to his daughter and discourages her from bringing anyone home. Her mother aids and abets the old goat, but fortunately the couple are travelling a lot, he on business and she going with him because “her parents were still so much in love that they could not bear to be parted for long.” She won’t be lonely, though, because she is going out with Dr. Norman Wayne, with whom she has quickly fallen in love and is planning to marry. Though one might be forgiven for thinking that what she is really in love with is the idea of moving out of her father’s cold house. “How wonderful it would be to have a place of one’s own where once could really be free. Adele was beginning to what that more than anything else, and dreamed of the home she and Norman would one day set up together. Their children would feel absolutely and completely free to bring anyone home at any time. She must talk to Norman about this.”

Fortunately, Norman is dragging his heels about getting married—she seems to want to have it over and done within months of their starting to date, so anxious is she to move out—ironically because he loves her parents’ home so much that no rinky-dink flat, all they would be able to afford, will do. What he really wants to do is move in with Adele’s parents, not at all comprehending that Adele would rather live under a bridge than with her parents.

Three other people round out the list of dramatis personae: Nurse Margaret Bowen, a thirtysomething angry woman who “was a good nurse in many ways, but was inclined to adhere too much by the book,” who has an “intimidating, dominating personality” and a “pessimistic, soul-destroying view of life.” Standing up to Margaret one night on the floor when the older nurse is convinced that there is hanky-panky going on in the kitchen (the junior nurse was making tea), Adele does what anyone would do when forced to work with such a monster: She invited her to come stay with her for a week while her parents are out of town yet again. While visiting, the two have minimal chilly conversations in which Margaret strongly disapproves of not just Norman but every male on the planet. The stuff of great friendships.

Two other doctors round out the cast: Dr. Susan Kent, a cool, unfriendly surgeon who insists on flicking on all the lights and flinging back the covers on the sleeping patients on Adele’s ward. (Adele, admirably, resists this unnecessary treatment, but in the end she is forced to apologize for her insubordination, and never mind that she’s right.) The other is Dr. Ian Patterson, who was once engaged to Susan; he’s a kind but shadowy figure with whom Adele has maybe three conversations with until the day they start making out in the woods.

And that’s really about all there is to say about this book. Adele and Norman spend a lot of time looking at flats, none of them proving suitable for Norman. Adele, out of the blue, decides she’s really in love with Ian—while she’s still engaged to Norman—but happily catches Norman smooching Dr. Kent, so that makes everything easy there. And Margaret is given a personality transplant, her incessant, angry sniping about men, so tiresome to the reader, melts away into wreaths of smiles when she meets a nice man who likes her. Even Adele’s unhappiness with her father is smoothed away with a single honest conversation. Pretty much every character in the book is a shallow, self-deluded fool whose fundamental psychoses melt into rainbows at the lightest touch. Adele often demonstrates confidence and backbone as a nurse, but she has none of these traits as a human being, and her successes at work are minimized while her successes in her personal life are essentially accidental—“Adele had too much pride to do the chasing,” we are reminded again and again, so she makes little effort to get what she wants. Her relationship with Margaret cannot be called a friendship, but she certainly chases after this unpleasant, bitter woman, and though it pays off in the end, it’s impossible to understand why she pursues that relationship so determinedly. A perplexing, uninteresting character, it’s ultimately not rewarding to spend any time with Nurse Adele.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Surgeon of Distinction

By Mary Burchell, ©1959

Maxwell Perring was a surgeon with a special distinction about him; “star quality” it might have been called in another profession. Nurse Alma Miles admired his work, but had never thought about him as a man. All her thinking of that sort was centred on Jeremy Truscott—and he was presenting quite a problem.


“You can’t address anyone as ‘sir’ when he’s proposing to you.” 

“Few people, she found, can resist the exquisite temptation of talking about themselves, if a sympathetic audience seems available.”

“She wondered if anyone else had ever been so silly as to indulge in romantic nostalgia over an appendectomy.”

“Don’t praise him too affectionately. It puts a frightful strain on my regard for him.”

Some nurse novels have plots so intricate that it takes many paragraphs to convey the story. This charming story of Mary Burchell’s is not such a one, but she has the talent to execute a simple story that is nonetheless layered and emotionally complex that the lack of story line is no hindrance at all.. 

The plot, such as it is, is that Nurse Alma Miles has been seeing Jeremy Truscott, and has been hoping they would become engaged, when he starts blowing her off—and eventually she sees him going out with Nurse Geraldine Grayce, who had “a withdrawn, almost enigmatic quality which was not entirely friendly.” “She was quite courteous when spoken to, but no actual warmth emanated from her.” To escape from her heartbreak, Alma accepts a job at another hospital working with distinguished Dr. Maxwell Perring. Initially one might be concerned that he is one of those love interests: He has “a quiet assurance which bordered on arrogance, and the faintly sardonic curve to his mouth showed that he was not a man who suffered fools gladly.” He’s a brilliantly gifted surgeon, but he also remembers to tip the waitress: “It’s nice to have someone really knowledgeable at one’s elbow,” he tells Alma after her first day working alongside him. He’s warm, friendly, and respectful gently humorous, and “very good-looking,” of course!

As one of many quite astonishing coincidences in this book, Jeremy is run over right outside Alma’s new hospital, and Dr. Perring and Alma perform the life-saving brain surgery. But when Jeremy wakes up, he does not remember Geraldine, only Alma—and is convinced they are engaged. Sent to his flat, Alma finds a ring with Geraldine’s name on it, and bringing it to Jeremy, he proposes to her. She accepts, in true VNRN trope, because “he must not have his recovery jeopardized by the faintest hint of the situation”—but she is an honorable, honest person with no intention of holding to the lie, and so tells Dr. Perring the whole awkward story, and gives him the ring to hold, because “it isn’t mine. I can’t bear the sight of it. I can’t go on living a lie like this!”

But gossip gets out, as it is wont to do in a hospital, that Alma and Jeremy are engaged. Fortunately, it only takes 15 pages before Jeremy remembers all, and Alma honorably gives him up. Miserable to lose Jeremy a second time, Alma goes out for a walk and wanders into a ballet—and amazingly, Dr. Perring is there alone as well, in the seat next to hers! He takes her to dinner afterward and suggests that she can escape the hit to her reputation by becoming engaged to him, though he is fully aware that she is in love with Jeremy.

She agrees, because she has a deep esteem for Dr. Perring and thinks that marriage to him could be a moderate success—and then we slowly watch the unfolding as an upstanding, honorable woman dumped by a shallow cad but now allied with a like-minded, dependable man evolves in her feelings. There’s a silly misunderstanding in the end in which the hitherto strong and outspoken Alma is inexplicably unable to correct a stupid situation, but this is the only black mark on this otherwise fine, subtle book.

Alma is a worthy heroine: She is an accomplished scrub nurse with a strong sense of humor and (most of the time, anyway) a dignity and backbone that allow her to insist on and command respect. Max could have been one of those older, colder men who are forced on us as a love interest but who are in fact frightening and creepy, but he is finely drawn as a dignified surgeon with a real personality outside the OR. The writing can sparkle quietly, such as when dawn breaks on a heartbroken Alma who had cried all night: “Monday morning came and Alma was still alive.” The only other flaw this book has, outside of the ubiquitous misunderstanding, is the large number of stunning coincidences on which it hinges, but this is such a minor problem in what is after all a work of fiction, particularly in view of the many lovely moments this book offers the reader. How satisfying to find not just a surgeon of distinction, but a book of distinction as well.