Thursday, December 29, 2022

Paula Wayne, Wasteland Doctor

By Isabel Stewart Way, ©1962 

With looks and a figure that belied the seriousness of her profession, young Dr. Paula Wayne had come to the California wasteland to take over her ailing Uncle Eric’s practice, and to join his fight against the come-lately faction trying to put up another hospital in the desert. It was a bitter contest, and old Doc’s will to live hung on the outcome. It didn’t help matters when, unwillingly, Paula fell in love with Dr. Joel Leander, who led the opposition—but the real trouble came with Mike Comarra, richest rancher in the desert. An animal of a man, well-aware of his influence, he threatened to switch his support to Joel if Paula rejected his advances. “Life” to Paula had always meant the antiseptic facts and colored illustrations in her medical books. Now, she faced a reality she was ill-equipped to deal with. It took the primitive desert and emotions burned raw by the sun to mature her, to teach her that as long as there was honey, there would always be the taste of vinegar.


“Well, if we have to carry on the fight, I’ve sure got the best of it—with such a gorgeous enemy! No holds barred, I trust?” 

“Fact is, I never did see a woman doctor this close before!”

“Maybe you weren’t an ethical doctor, for those few moments, but you were all woman, and a damned fine one!”

Dr. Paula Wayne, fresh out of medical school, has come to the desert outside Palm Springs to take over her uncle Eric’s general practice after he is laid low by a heart attack. She’s not exactly excited about the prospect: “There could never be enough challenge for her in the life Uncle Eric lived—managing his small ten-bed hospital and attending his patients who were scattered over a large area of the desert,” she thinks to herself. But she is faced with challenge almost the minute she lands, because the only way she can get out to the small town from the airport is to accept a ride with Dr. Joel Leander, who is her uncle’s arch-nemesis. 

Joel is under the impression that Uncle Eric’s practice and Wayne Hospital are not up to snuff. “The equipment’s out-of-date and it’s inadequate,” he tells her, pointing out that the hospital’s nursing staff is headed by Tori Travis, who has no nursing degree and chronic tuberculosis to boot. Actually, Joel’s explanation seems reasonable, that Eric shouldn’t have complete control of the community’s only medical facility without input from others. Paula thinks so, too—and also that Joel himself is pretty gorgeous. “She had wanted to impress him, she admitted in all honesty, and she had wanted to do it as Paula Wayne, good-looking blonde female, measurements 36-26-34, and not as Paula Wayne, M.D.!” He is impressed, and the pair are soon kissing.

Paula soon finds that Uncle Eric really hasn’t been maintaining a modern practice, when on her first day she meets an old woman with a gallbladder infection and discovers that the woman has few records and fewer tests. “How could her uncle have treated a chronic case like this, over a period of time, without insisting on full GI tests?” It won’t be the last time that she encounters shoddy methods, and slowly she begins to come around to Joel’s way of thinking—until, while reapplying makeup after mussing hers while making out with Joel, she sees a negligee on his bed, and decides this belongs to his nurse, Diane Holsworth, whom he’s also been dating.

This sends Paula into a very peculiar tailspin. “Just what was the matter with her, anyway? Had she suddenly gone neurotic? Or was she what her roommate at General used to prophesy she would eventually become—a frustrated virgin?” Paula “had chosen to remain a virgin, but not strictly from moral reasons,” but because “sexual continence seemed a cleaner, more organized way of life.” But now she thinks if she hadn’t seen someone else’s underthings in Joel’s bedroom she would have slept with him that night, and what seems to be bothering her most is that she “had let him know she was willing and ready to be kissed! So she was a frustrated virgin, after all.” 

Her morality struggle is compounded when she meets rancher Mike Comarra, a commanding presence against whom she is warned by three different women before meeting him, and who immediately make the pass at her despite the fact that he is married and she is only at his house to treat his wife’s migraine, which he attributes to the fact that he wanted to “visit her bedroom.” He asks, “Dr. Paula, just what can you give a man who has a frigid wife?” Well, she can give him a kiss, just six pages after her encounter with Joel. Then things really get interesting, because when Paula tells him it was a mistake, he declares that he is going to throw his support behind Joel Leander’s push for a new hospital if she doesn’t sleep with him. She refuses, and soon Joel is sending out of flyer for a town meeting to discuss building a new hospital, with funding from a real estate pal of Mike’s. It’s not frequently that we encounter such blatant sexual harassment in a VNRN, and this may be the most blatant case I’ve seen to date, actually.

Paula hears that one of the people at the meeting who will speak out against Wayne Hospital is going to bring up Tori’s tuberculosis, so she packs Tori off to Los Angeles for a whirlwind day of tests, which again, Dr. Eric had never bothered to run. At the meeting she steps forward to tell them that Tori doesn’t have active TB, but another lung disease that will eventually require an operation. As fate would have it, Joel is a would-be thoracic surgeon chomping at the bit to establish a dedicated service in the desert for all the folks out there who need pulmonary surgery, which would be likely about five, tops, but what of it? Tori ultimately agrees to have the operation but—and you knew this was coming—only at Wayne Hospital, with Joel as her surgeon! And, at the same time, she calls out Paula for her hypocrisy when Paula wants Tory to tell Eric that she loves him, while holding herself apart from Joel. Tori is a feisty, admirable character who greatly enriches the story.

The book plays out pretty much as expected, but the ending is a sweet twist. The most interesting thing about this book is its discussion of sexual harassment, as much as it’s capable of doing for the time in which it was written. None of the men seem to understand why Mike’s family is no longer a patient of the Waynes, and when Joel makes an inaccurate guess, “A lot you know about it! Paula thought, with a little flare of exasperation. Men didn’t realize all the truth about Mike Comarra.” And when Uncle Eric finds out that Paula has lost Mike’s support, she hints at what had happened, but Eric snaps, “Surely you realized that risk when a female turns doctor! You can hold a man in line, can you? A decent man doesn’t venture past the boundaries a decent woman puts up!” To her credit, Paula thinks, “You certainly are living in the past!” and asks him, “What does Mike Camara know about the rules for a decent man?” Not that it changes anything, because she makes no attempt to out Mike as a sexual predator.

Instead, she tackles the problem from the wrong angle, thinking not about the dynamics of power but instead about sexual desire, her own and other women’s, feeling particularly empathetic when confronted with a Hispanic ranch worker of Mike’s who bears one of his children (stillborn). She also examines her own sexuality, and chastises herself repeatedly for having “betrayed herself as a desire-filled female!” She renews her vows of chastity, deciding that “sleeping around was a careless messy habit,” and then several times she refers to Joel’s nurse as a “hussy” for having apparently slept with Joel. She’s a bit judgmental for a doctor, and her opposing attitudes toward the Hispanic woman and Joel’s nurse are not examined. Unfortunately, Mike is never called out for his behavior, and in the end is reconciled with his wife, though it is doubtful that this is going to improve his behavior. It’s a simplistic attitude, but one that could be understood given that this book predates #metoo by about 55 years.

Ultimately this is the best of the four books of Isabel Stewart Way’s that I have read, with interesting themes and glimpses back on the mores of an earlier time. Paula is a strong, independent woman and an excellent doctor, even though she is “as man-conscious as any pubescent girl!” If the ending is not difficult to foresee, it is also a relief that the male doctors value and lean on Paula’s strength and talents as a doctor, and don’t brush her off as soon as they start to work in partnership with her. Some of the characters are interesting, even if the writing style isn’t especially outstanding. Overall it’s a decent enough book, one worth reading, even if it insists on dismissing the desert as a “wasteland.”

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Marry Me Nurse

By Virginia Nielsen, ©1969 

“Funny how when a confirmed bachelor finally decides to get married, he can’t wait to find a minister!” Navy nurse Jo Mellor had to agree with her friend Pixie, but what was even funnier was Jo’s own reaction. She was in love with Lt. Jack Hurley, wasn’t she? She wanted to marry the flyer, didn’t she? Then shy couldn’t she set the date? Because it would mean giving up her career, or because—deep down—she was beginning to wonder if Jack was the right man for her after all …


“There aren’t many men who really listen to a girl. It’s irresistible.” 

“She’s a born chief nurse—all that starch!”

“’I don’t know why he makes me so nervous,’ she wailed, ‘unless it’s that he’s so wonderful!’”

“The doctor is not permitted to yell at his patient, so he yells at his nurse. This is one of the reasons he has a nurse.”

“You never knew a man until you saw him behind the wheel of a car.”

This book is made more interesting—but also more confusing—by the fact that heroine Lt. Jo Mellor, R.N. is serving in the U.S. Navy. She’s assigned to a remote clinic on Oahu, thirty miles from Waikiki, where there is also an airstrip, and there she meets—and is quickly rushed—by the sexiest man alive, pilot Lt. Jack Hurley. “No man should have a face so startingly beautiful,” she sighs, and three pages later she’s wondering in italics, “Maybe this man is the one?”  She’s not the first nurse to think this, as he’s already dated and ditched her best friend Pixie and her nurse nemesis Lisa. 

In the meantime, she has to put up with grumpy Dr. Henry Taylor, who is stuck in this godforsaken outpost lancing boils and treating rashes—and numerous plane crash victims—instead of performing surgery, his first love. “Brilliant and conceited, totally immersed in medicine,” Dr. Taylor’s “high-handed, hard-boiled manner is infuriating!” And he’s constantly needling Jo because she cares about her patients—but she’s able to get the five-year-old with Legg-Calve-Perthe’s disease to hold still for the X-ray that proves the diagnosis.

If Dr. Taylor is abrupt and snappish, flyboy Jack isn’t winning any points, either. At a picnic on the beach when it is discovered that someone needs to go across the street to the café for cups, Jack refuses the mission, saying, “My plan-of-the-day is to lie around and be waited on by an adoring slave.” I know, it’s difficult to forgive his misuse of hyphens, but referring to his new girlfriend as a slave also merits our disapproval. Then there’s the fact that he’s peeved when she saves a man who’s been bitten in the leg by a shark. “I have a thing about sharks,” he explains later, and Jo is so relieved by his selfish attitude! And when he proposes within a week of meeting Jo, he insists that she quit her job: “No wife of mine is going to nurse anybody but me.” When she reminds him that he does not outrank her, he denies it: “As your husband, I will always rank you. That’s understood.” I don’t understand it, but I’m not Navy.

She’s understandably a bit depressed on duty the next day, and when she tells Dr. Taylor why, he points out the obvious, that marriage to Jack will not work out. “You are as engrossed in nursing as Hurley is in flying,” he says. Then comes the tedious part of the VNRN classic trope, where Jo tries to convince herself that if she really loved Jack, she would be willing to give up her career, comparing herself to her friend: “Pixie would not hesitate a half second before giving up everything to go anywhere on any terms if Dr. Ernie wanted her. If he were as demanding as Jack, Pixie would love it.” Um, sure. Soon the derogatory adjectives start piling up: Jack is “a little arrogant,” telling her what to wear, and “she wondered what insecurity made him want all her attention, every minute of her time. It was a demanding sort of jealousy.”

Then the next trope is trundled onstage: There’s a terrible storm and flood, and Jack crashes his plane on landing, breaking his leg. Dr. Taylor saves the leg but can’t salvage Jack’s career, so now Jo is tied to a man she doesn’t want, because she can’t break up with him now! “He would never know that she did not love him. No love or desire of her own could be strong enough to break the bonds that Jack’s dependence imposed on her.” Does anyone else think she’s kidding herself to an alarming degree?

Of course, she’s rescued at the end—prompted not by her own honesty or self-preservation but by the realization that Lisa loves Jack more than she does, because Lisa brings Jack a putter, symbolizing his recovery, while Jo brings a cribbage board, symbolizing a prolonged stay in the hospital. Now she’s free to phone in a cancellation of her resignation and arrange a tête-à-tête with Dr. Taylor, which, curiously, is played off-stage, after we’ve closed the book—which, at 222 pages, had plenty of room for less important scenes.

The book is full of Navy jargon, never explained—OOD, BOQ, Captain’s mast (apparently some sort of investigation), personnel called Waves—which makes it bumpy for civilians. There’s also a baby mystery about syringe and penicillin pilfering, and the solution to this question is also anticlimactic, a page-filling device that does nothing for the book’s improvement; if anything, it’s mostly confusing why so many people are involved in such a stupid crime. I never appreciate a heroine falling for a man we’ve been set up to dislike and who shows few, if any, redeeming qualities, or why she would continue dating a man who turns out to be an ass. It’s a perfunctory book with little enthusiasm for anything other than the Navy, so unless you are eager for an occasional armchair glimpse of Hawaii or the Navy, there isn’t much to recommend this over-long, yet simultaneously thin, book.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Mollie Sloan Special Nurse

By Millicent Morgan
(pseud. Rudo Globus), ©1962
Cover illustration by Jo Polseno

Mollie Sloan, R.N., was a good nurse, so good in fact that a group of doctors from the hospital where she’d trained used her exclusively on their most difficult cases. She had a nice apartment, money in the bank, friends galore, but something was deeply troubling Mollie. It came to a head when Eric Hart, a young concert pianist at the peak of his career, was admitted to the hospital. His right hand was completely paralyzed, though organically there was nothing that matter with it. Dr. Paul Desmond, his doctor, immediately put Mollie on the case. But in the end it was more than curing Eric so that he might return to his career. For in the process Mollie discovered that she must make one of the most difficult choices in her young life. It involved not only her work, which she loved, but two men. The trouble was that it seemed to her that she was in love with them both!


“The truth of it was that people were more dangerous than bacteria and a cure for ‘people’ was as elusive and far-off as ever.” 

“Next time I see you, I’ll expect a sexy smile. That’s why you women are here.”

“Some day, of course, she would marry, have children, fulfill her role as a woman.”

“None of you smart people have any idea what the nurse really does. There seem to be two schools of thought. One is that a nurse is a drudge, forever emptying bedpans, making beds, giving shots, handing out pills and taking temperatures. The other thinks that all we do is sit in a room with someone like you and play gin rummy. Well, both are wrong. We’re something special. We’re not little doctors and we’re not glorified maids. We’re the extra part of medicine, the ones who give patients something that makes it easier to stand illness, the cold impersonalness of the hospital, the mechanics of treatment.”

“A nurse isn’t supposed to look the way you look now. Fix your hair and straighten up.”

“I’m very proud that you can admit that you’re wrong. Most people try to find excuses to prove that they were right. That’s when I mean by running away. They think it’s easier that way. But it’s the hardest way in the end. If they faced up to things and told themselves the truth, they could easily solve problems. Never run, Mollie. Stick it out, fight it out, demand the truth of yourself and do what the truth demands you do. When you’re older, you’ll learn that somehow you can deal with any problem if you tell yourself the truth and don’t run away.”

“From now on I’m just an unemployed gal waiting for some man to make an honest woman out of me.”

This book is like a nurse novel heroine’s runner-up boyfriend. He is so handsome, and he makes your heart pound—but in the end he turns out to be arrogant and selfish, and he runs off with the wealthy patient. The philosophical question to ponder here is whether your ultimate disappointment nullifies your initial excitement.

Mollie Sloan is the greatest nurse ever! She explains, “I’ve got a funny kind of auburn hair, I’m five feet two, my eyes are hazel, and I’ve been told that I have a cute figure and gorgeous legs.” She is a private-duty nurse, and has a half-dozen doctors who can’t live without her. “They would tell her that she was the only nurse in all of New York City good enough for this case—oh yes, this was a case for that special something of Mollie’s, Mollie’s Magic Touch.” In her first year as a nurse, “on Grand Rounds, the attendings, the great men, asked her opinion and took it seriously.” Which has happened in real life exactly never.

Here, though, she’s called to care for misunderstood, overwrought, emotionally traumatized musical genus Eric Hart, a brilliant pianist who was raised by an abusive mother and who after a weekend of debauchery following a smash concert at Carnegie Hall develops conversion disorder—psychosomatic paralysis of his right hand. Mollie’s casual boyfriend, Dr. Paul Desmond, is a neurosurgeon who asks her to take on the case, because she is the only nurse in all of New York City good enough for this case, as we’ve already heard.

The patient isn’t told that his problem is psychological. “If we had years and years, we might try psychoanalysis and reveal the truth behind the conflict, but we haven’t time,” Paul says, because if Eric is unable to use his hand for months or years, his brilliant career will be ruined! After chatting him up for a week in the hospital, Mollie is allowed to take Eric out on unethical Saturday night dates, during which he begins to open up to her—and to kiss her. Highly unprofessional! But she is not allowed to come off the case because “Eric has made a transference to her,” a psychological term that goes unexplained but here means a deep connection to a therapist. Paul “was certain that she was the key to Eric’s recovery, the one factor motivationally strong enough to make Eric want to use his hand.”

Meanwhile, we are told repeatedly that Mollie and Dr. Paul are Just Friends. “She and Paul had never gotten past the point of enjoying each other’s company. They were attracted to each other and affectionate as all get out, but the words that changed friendship into a serious romantic feeling had somehow never been spoken.” “Was it possible that she was in love with Paul? Good heavens, no! They had known each other too long. Their friendship was so fine, why ruin it with sentimentality?” “Paul was too totally absorbed in his work and snorted contemptuously at physicians who married too early, giving up crucial years of creative work to support a wife and too many children.” But, surprise, now that Eric is demonstrating a strong interest in Mollie, Paul begins to recognize that his casual attitude about Mollie is a sham. “It was not until Eric had threatened to take her away that he had come to realize that he wanted to marry her.” But is it too late?

When Mollie ultimately manages to cure Paul—by tumbling off a cliff and requiring two equally powerful hands to pull her back to safety—Eric’s feelings for Mollie become more than a little alarming as he demands she stay with him morning and night, even though he no longer needs a nurse. “After all, he owned her now, didn’t he? Hadn’t he saved her life and hadn’t she given him back his right hand?” Unfortunately, no one seems to feel that the admittedly nutty Eric’s behavior is off base.

How does Mollie decide which man she wants? She chats up her old superintendent of nurses and spends a day wandering the hospital where she had worked before leaving to do private duty—and ultimately makes a heartbreaking decision. Though Mollie has many times asserted and demonstrated her devotion to nursing, she decides that “nothing ever really can take the place of a man and children.” “Something else had entered her life, something more important than work.” Numerous nurses tell Mollie that as much as they love their jobs, “if a man ever showed up who could give me the kicks that I get out of my work I’d quit in a minute.” I know that in 1962 this was a prevailing attitude, but this book does not question of that sexist, illogical line that we find in some VNRNs. I do wonder if this book takes that position in part because it was written by a man, who can’t appreciate the prison he is sentencing Mollie to.

The language and intellect in this book is quite sophisticated, reminiscent of a JeanneJudson novel, and it has a similarly complex understanding of Eric’s psychological problems, which gives it a touch more realism than the usual VNRN. But Eric’s alarming stalker-like attitudes pass without comment, and the beliefs about a woman’s place in the world, make this book in some ways even more disappointing because initially it gave me such hope. Is it better to have loved and lost than to have read another dull Arlene Hale story? I think maybe it is, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still let down in the end.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Doctor’s Challenge

By Marjorie Moore, ©1939 

When Doctor Trast told Judith that she was a useless, incapable creature, unfitted for anything but luxury, she decided to prove him wrong by taking up the most exacting job in the world—nursing. “You won’t last three months,” he said, and waited …


“Mind you do what the doctor says. I certainly couldn’t cope with you dropping on the floor all over the place!” 

“I pity your poor patients. You’ll probably mend their bodies and break their hearts!”

“She’d always heard that to play two rounds of golf in a day was an excellent effort for a girl, but at the moment she was inclined to believe that making a dozen beds was in infinitely greater effort.” 

Judith Ganet is a wealthy, worthless lass who drifts from party to party—and indeed is waking at noon with a terrible hangover, just in time to go out to another cocktail party at 1:00 when she faints dead away on her bedroom floor. Her stepmother Elaine drags in the first doctor she can find, who happens to be a stern, scowling sort, Dr. Simon Trast. He tells her that her lifestyle is a waste, and she is “unfit for anything but luxury.” She stamps her foot and tells him she can do anything she wants to! And the next minute she’s made a bet with the doctor that if she works as a nurse for three months, he has to take her out to dinner and apologize for all those mean things he said about her dissipated way of life. 

Soon she’s waking up in a narrow, lumpy bed at St. Jude’s Hospital as a nurse-in-training. You’d think the jokes about how she doesn’t know how to mix a glass of Ovaltine would be more forthcoming, but the author missed that opportunity. Instead we learn that Judith—who “deep in her heart was dissatisfied and restless”—“had only been in the hospital a short time and already she felt different, curiously elated as if, with the will to do it, here, in this atmosphere of friendliness, she could regain something which she had thought lost forever; a spirit of joyous, carefree happiness, and curious though it might seem, a freedom born of bondage.” She goes to lectures, works hard, studies lots, and dates seldom. She makes real friends with her other fellow students, and hates Dr. Trast, who pops in to her ward now and then to needle her. “He’s the most impossible man I’ve ever met,” she tells a new friend. “I couldn’t fall for him if he were the last man in the world.” Hmph.

For his part, he has told her early on that he’s in love, and she thinks it’s with nurse Pat Shane, one of her new friends—in fact, she’s convinced that the pair are secretly married. She’s dating Simon Trast’s brother Nigel, who is also training to be a doctor, but is a bit more like Judith and had flunked a major exam, so he’s in hot water. But though he presses her for dates, she insists he stay home and study instead—and soon he’s passed his exam, but Simon is furious that she is dating Nigel.

Of course, the reader can easily see all the misunderstandings glittering in the sun, even if Judith herself is completely unaware of them. But the book unfolds gently, and the major climax of the plot is not the ubiquitous explosion or a tornado, but a skeleton that falls over when Judith is trying to move it back to its corner after lecture and it cuts Simon’s head. This is not a complicated book or a terribly sophisticated one, but nonetheless it’s quite pleasant and enjoyable. Judith is a feisty heroine who is a good match for Simon precisely because she challenges and stands up to him. When her ex-boyfriend says, “She’d be a very fitting ornament,” he is told, “Haven’t you learnt yet that Judith is no longer solely ornamental? She is a useful member of society.” If in the end she caves a bit and tells Simon, “I think I loved you from the first moment you began to order me about,” and if it doesn’t seem likely that Judith is going to carry on with nursing now that she’s found a man, these are minor disappointments in an otherwise pretty little book.