Saturday, April 1, 2023

Senior Nurse

By Josephine James, ©1960
Cover illustration by Stan Klimley 

As a student nurse, Kathy Martin knew her senior year would be hard—with new responsibilities and longer hours. But she also knew there were beautiful, happy days ahead … there were her friends at the hospital, and, above all, there was Steve. But suddenly Kathy’s world clouded over … a missing locket … a hospital crisis … and a handsome new patient whose gentle sensitivity drew Kathy toward his own shadowy world … Suddenly Kathy’s heart had to choose: duty—or love?


“Nurses can’t give out any information. That—and a few other little things—is what doctors are for.” 

Oh, boy! Kathy Martin is so excited to be starting her senior year as a nursing student in San Tomás, California (a suburb of San Jose)! She’s rooming in a house with her five besties, and you’ll never guess the hijinks they will get into! Kelley Jones has the house in a crunchy uproar with her new hobby of making mosaics out of beans and rice—and that stuff goes absolutely everywhere! Gail spends most of her days in a dreamworld all because of Berkeley premed Jim Telford, and then Jenny Ramirez takes a job at a supermarket as the demo chef Miss Instant Hotcakes to help a nurse’s aide with a tragic past—she was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp—pay for nursing school. When all her housemates troop out to watch her at work, hilarity ensues! 

Kathy has a young man from home, firefighter Steve Kovak. Their relationship is fairly casual—no thudding hearts or grieving tears when Kathy is deposited at school for a long year of almost complete separation. So when Kathy meets a blind young man named Gordon McKinley, who happens to have a heart condition that makes him prone to heart attacks and which is likely to prove fatal in the near future, it is not hard for her to get caught up in what is clearly a relationship driven more by her Florence Nightingale impulses than any actual romantic feeling. Gordon is an intelligent man who frequently quotes poetry—“courage, a sense of humor, talented—he was a remarkable person.” But nothing in the descriptions of her interactions with him make us think that she views him as other than a shiny new toy or at best a lap dog who needs extra care. Then when Gordon has a serious heart attack and lands in Kathy’s hospital, that does seem to seal the deal for her in a most artificial way: “Gordon did want her and need her! She saw a life ahead dedicated to his service.” Doesn’t that sound like fun?

She breaks an important weekend trip with Steve to watch Gordon graduate from college, and Steve is smart enough to realize that her deep pity is going to beat out her apparently tepid affection for him, and he breaks up with her. Now she’s free to be Gordon’s permanent full-time nursemaid—the only question remaining whether Gordon thinks this is a good idea, because Gordon’s mother, an otherwise kindly woman, clearly doesn’t think it is, even if she did initially encourage the relationship.

In the crevices of this plotline are multiple other mini-stories—an explosion at the cannery that leaves many people gravely injured, including the nurse’s aide who’d survived the Holocaust; a missing locket that is presumed stolen, and the senior nurse gang’s so-called Do-It-Yourself Detective Agency that tracks down the guilty party; various senior activities that require skits and songs; Kathy’s concussion that makes a patient of her for more than a week. Kathy’s senior year eventually comes to a close, and Kathy, lacking any real drive to do anything in particular with her career, enlists for a year of service in Alaska, though this effectively puts her out of reach of her two uninspiring beaux.

Overall the book is not unpleasant, just even more simple and superficial than most VNRNs. Only at one point does the book—which admirably includes characters who are not white—briefly touch on the racism encountered by some members of the class: “If you’re a Negro, like Miss Johnson, or even a little darker than the average, like my people, with mixed-up Indian and Spanish ancestors, or Oriental-looking, like Yo—well, the way things are, you have to work harder to make your performance better than other people’s. To be accepted,” explains Jenny Ramirez. Kathy’s response is to nod slowly, “hating to admit the unpleasant truth,” then quickly change the subject, which is never brought up again (though the scholarship to continue studies is given to Jenny Ramirez, and the Asian character is planning, bizarrely, now to pursue an MD).

At the book’s conclusion, the question of whether someone spark any whisper of passion in Kathy’s cardboard heart is only partially answered, and not in any satisfying way. If this book is intended for a teen audience, as it seems it is, then it works a little better, since we do feel a little uncomfortable about young girls marrying off before they’re old enough to order a cosmo (unless they live in West Virginia)—though they regularly do in other VNRNs more clearly intended for an adult audience. Kathy’s rapprochement with one of her young men occurs with remarkable sangfroid, and though Kathy encourages the fellow to kiss her—“it’s the proper thing at graduation,” she tells him—the act occurs offstage, and is no doubt as decorous as the graduation proceedings were. Senior Nurse would probably seem like a better book if you’re thirteen, and if it’s not especially enticing for those who are decades older, at least it reminds you that life once was a lot more simple than it is today.

NOTE: After writing this review, I realized that this book is Number 3 in a 13-book series featuring Nurse Kathy Martin that includes Peace Corps Nurse (book 12), which I have already reviewed. I am not a fan of series, because they tend to be pretty awful (looking hard at you, Jill Nolan, and Dr. Jane—only Marilyn Morgan is worth reading), but also because they necessarily are not really romance novels—how many men can you end up with without seeming like an unstable serial dater? I will, therefore, not be racing out to finish up the series.

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