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?

GRADE: B-

BEST QUOTES:
“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.”

REVIEW:
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!

GRADE: B-

BEST QUOTES
“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.”

REVIEW:
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.

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:
“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.” 

REVIEW:
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 …

GRADE: C-

BEST QUOTES:
“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.”

REVIEW:
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.