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 Pressley 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.