Monday, May 9, 2022

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.

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