Saturday, June 24, 2023

Peter Raynal Surgeon

By Marjorie Moore, ©1960 

This is the story of Kay Somers, nurse, and Peter Raynal, a popular and brilliant surgeon. The strongly opposed forces of their respective characters bring them into a constant conflict which comes to a head when Kay is confronted with the loss of her position at St. Jude’s Hospital, and the breaking of her engagement to the ambitious young farmer who has been a life-long family friend. The story is set against the background of Hospital life and Kay’s own rural home, and brings into relief the diverse qualities of her nature. Her gradual change of heart is brought about through her affection for an ailing child, a reciprocated affection which pierces Kay’s natural armour of reserve. It is the child Christine’s influence on Kay which forges the first link of understanding between herself and Peter Raynal, an understanding which is destined to change the whole course of Kay’s life and bring her the joy and happiness which she had once believe lost to her for all time.


Kay Somers is an unusual heroine—because it must be confessed that she is kind of a bitch. Early in her nursing career she has been promoted to head nurse of Number Two Surgical Ward, and she is an efficient and highly competent nurse, but she is unfriendly, unbending and arrogant. She is described as “standoffish, unfriendly and reticent, harsh and exacting with her juniors,” and in her first scene with Dr. Peter Raynal, she is frankly rude to the point that he calls her out on it. 

The problem is that Kay “should never have entered a large hospital, should never have undertaken such a career at all.” We are told that “nursing didn’t suit her temperament, she was too sensitive, too withdrawn,” making her one of the few VNRN heroines who is described as being ill-fitted for her career. The curious result is that she has become a superlative nurse but a horrible human being with just one friend, Janet, the only person who recognizes Kay’s inner warmth.

But she has a letter from her childhood sweetheart, Robin Aldon, who is coming back after seven years away in Australia, and the pair plan to be married within a month. “All I can say is God help the man; I hope he’ll enjoy being married to an iceberg!” laughs Peter, and he’s actually being quite kind in his description. It’s a frankly terrible idea to marry a man you haven’t seen in seven years, but no one can talk Kay out of it. She gives notice at the hospital with plans to take her three weeks’ vacation and get married, then return to the hospital for one final month of work before quitting forever.

But a week before leaving for home, Dr. Raynal gets a late-night call that his niece, Christine, has badly broken her leg at boarding school. Kay uncharacteristically offers to go with him to pick her up and bring her back to the hospital, and the pair manage the trip without excessive frostiness, but upon meeting young Christine, the daughter of Peter’s deceased brother, Kay is instantly smitten. She cares for the girl tirelessly, and when it’s time for her to head home, she offers to take Christine with her, as the child has essentially been abandoned by her mother.

At Kay’s home in the country, Christine is taken in by Kay’s mother, a kindly, devoted woman, while Kay works to improve the house she and Robin will be living in after their wedding in two weeks. Meanwhile, Robin is working every minute putting the farm to rights—aided admirably by Kay’s sister Penelope, who is an earthy, strong, down-to-earth woman who wears work pants and muddy boots. Penelope is training to be a veterinarian and so helpfully knows a great deal about farming and animals. Kay, meanwhile, “was so heartily sick of the endless discussions on milk yields, feeding stuffs and early crops.” Furthermore, she can’t understand how Robin can be so insensitive not to care about the ghastly curtains and getting the kitchen set up: “I know I just couldn’t live in that house the way it is,” she declares. “The very idea of starting married life in that musty-smelling room with that awful iron bed made Kay shudder; it couldn’t be done, it just couldn’t!” And worst of all, the housekeeper insists on serving lunch in the kitchen, with the vegetables served straight from the saucepan! Insult to injury, Peter Raynal will insist on coming over to see his niece, but he unexpectedly spends an afternoon helping Kay with the furniture at the new house—turns out he’s something of an expert, and finds an unnoticed Chippendale table in the attic! Gosh, I wonder how this situation is going to turn out?

Eventually the obvious occurs—Penny confesses that she’s fallen in love with Robin, and points out that Kay hasn’t spent more than a few hours with him in the ten days he’s been home, so how can she be so sure that she loves him? “You’ll never make him happy, you couldn’t, you don’t even try to understand him and just nag and nag,” Penny weeps, begging Kay to postpone the wedding. Kay has begun to have doubts of her own, and so agrees, going back to the hospital unmarried, but determined to leave in a month as planned. But then what will she do? Casting around for another job, Kay decides, “I want to give up nursing. I’m utterly miserable in my work, nursing just isn’t my career, I can’t bear to think that I shall have to carry on like this for the rest of my days.” But now she’s decided she can’t marry Robin after all, and she needs a job to support herself, so she’s stuck … unless she can get married …

It's not often that we meet a heroine who is intentionally unlikeable (more frequently, unpleasant characters are, in my opinion, just badly written), and it’s also rare to meet one who doesn’t care for nursing. The problem with Kay as a character is that there is no believable reason for her to transform into a warm, friendly person when she is outside of the hospital and then be an angry quarrelsome shrew just because she is inside one. She experiences no real crisis that makes her reconsider her past deplorable behavior, and she even reverts to it in her month back at St. Jude’s. She does not grow as a human being, which would have made me like this book even more. But this flaw notwithstanding, Marjorie Moore has given us an excellent, slowly sketched story that gently unfolds without many jarring wrinkles. Kay’s relationship with Peter grows easily, even if she is too frequently gratuitously mean to him; one other quibble is that in the end we are treated to the hackneyed trope that “I’ve always cared for you, but pride and perversity made me behave towards you as I did,” an unnecessary and disappointing detail we could have done without. We also have a chapter that happens after the marriage, which I have seen only once or twice before. All in all this is a well-written, sweet story with a few unusual tricks up its sleeve, making it easy for me to recommend that you spend some time with Peter Raynal, Surgeon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Theatre Nurse

By Hilda Pressley Nickson, ©1960 

Catharine Manton was beautiful and efficient, and “her” operating theatre was perfectly run. Why, then, did the new R.S.O. declare that he couldn’t possibly work with her, even if it meant that he—not she—would have to leave the hospital?


“True greatness did indeed go hand-in-hand with humility.”

“Some surgeons are like that. They love to dramatize.”

Catharine Manton is a young but highly skilled nurse, so much so that she’s been promoted to Theatre Sister, which in the UK means she is the head nurse in charge of the OR. She’s kind, efficient, organized—and also, of course, very beautiful. This is a big problem—when the new chief surgeon, Dr. Peter Wingate, shows up, there is big trouble! He pales the minute he claps eyes on her, and “there was no mistaking the scorn in his eyes now, and the look of bitter contempt.” He declares that he cannot work with such a young nurse, apparently having nothing against her except her youth and looks—and possibly also that he first came across her in the arms of Dr. Ray White, staff anesthesiologist, whom she’s known since she was a girl and has no romantic inclinations toward. It is a curious feature in nurse novels that the heroines frequently go on dates and kiss men in whom they frankly state they have no interest.

By a huge coincidence, the biggest slacker nurse in the hospital, Sylvia Cleveland, is transferred to the OR the day before Dr. Wingate arrives, and soon it becomes clear—eventually widely known—that the pair are very close, engaged even! This makes Catharine’s ability to discipline Sylvia, and leads to more trouble, but the whole story of Peter’s animosity is unclear; we overhear him moaning to Sylvia that Catharine looks “so incredibly like Evelyn,” and soon he’s given notice that he will leave the hospital. Unfortunately, he must stay a month or two until they find a replacement—how will the pair be able to work together in that time?

In the meantime Catharine dates Ray, much to the increasing consternation of her best friend Nurse Sue Hickey, and also steps out with another surgeon, Sir John Watkins. Too early in the book, we are suddenly told that Catharine is in love with Peter. He has been nothing but mean, prejudiced and even slanderous of Catharine, but all of a sudden, literally dropped from the blue into a paragraph, we learn that “she had fallen in love with a man who could barely stand the sight of her. What could be more ironical, more heartbreaking?” Stupid plot twists rank high in heartbreak, but even I must admit are not worse than that.

Now, driven by Peter’s accusations that she’s a silly flirt—and Sue’s increasing hostility toward her, which stems from Catharine’s continuing to go out with Ray when he tells her he’s in love with her—she finally decides to stop seeing anyone at all. Then, driven by her curiosity, she heads off for a surgery conference at the same hospital that Peter had come from, and there meets a friend who had once been on the staff at her current hospital. The friend tells Catharine that Peter the previous year had done a nephrectomy during which the patient died, and that he had blamed himself for being distracted by surgery nurse Evelyn Kilster, with whom he had been engaged, even though it turned out that she was a mean, cruel person.

Then she heads back to the hospital and waits around for Peter’s term to expire. Meanwhile she grows increasingly fond of nurse Sylvia, whose prior claims have ruined her hopes, and Peter even kisses her “cruelly” a few times—another plot device that is not a good one, and is in fact rather creepy, particularly since after the first time, he snarls, “I hope that satisfies you. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? You, with your soft words and your limpid blue eyes. I hate and despise you!” This man needs therapy—and she needs a restraining order.

Of course, everything and everyone is sorted out in the end. Catharine, with her sturdy professionalism and faith, assists Peter in a nephrectomy in which no one dies or is distracted and his confidence is restored, and there’s a little twist in regards to Sylvia and Peter. Unfortunately, there are a number of loose ends that never get tucked away—Catharine is convinced she’s seen Sylvia somewhere before, and how the initial nephrectomy patient actually died or why Peter thought he had killed them, but we never learn the answers to these questions. Overall the book isn’t badly written, and I did enjoy some of the characters and relationships. But the falling in love out of nowhere with a man who doesn’t deserve it is one of my least favorite tropes. So I just couldn’t love Theatre Nurse, either.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Visiting Nurse

By Alice Brennan, ©1962 

Lovely and dedicated Arleen Anderson, a visiting nurse in the slum section of Saltboro, Michigan, knew that she would need both her courage and love of nursing to face the daily visits to her poverty-stricken patients. But Arleen also had the admiration of two very desirable men:
Mark Wynter—the talented and handsome doctor who gave Arleen the courage and the hope that she needed.
Guy Newman—the promising young businessman who love Arleen and wanted her to become his wife.
Arleen’s choice was clear—a glamour-filled life with Guy, or a challenging existence with Dr. Mark … 


“Is dirt contagious too, nurse lady? I know the answer to that one. It sure is.” 

“You look very snazzy. Not at all like your usual dull, demure self.”

“If something is within your reach, it loses its value for you.”

“There’s no victim so sure as the one who is certain she’ll never be a victim.”

“I promise not to beat you. Or make you milk cows. Or bring me my breakfast in bed.”

“A husband never keeps you up too late. Only a beau does that.”

When we first meet Arlene Anderson, she is being whistled at as she walks down the sidewalk to start her job as a VNA. “She was, womanlike, very much aware of the compliment the whistle implied.” And not so much aware of the insult. When I was young this was common practice—and downright frightening if you were walking past a construction site—and it’s not missed by me, anyway. She works in the slums of Michigan, where she seems to have only two or three patients that suck up all of her time and emotional energy. One is Neelie Ryan, a sweet older lady bedridden by arthritis (though she is likely not much older than 60), who has only her devoted if alcoholic and unemployed husband Al to care for her. Neelie is always convinced that her household’s good luck is just around the corner, and wants above everything else to see the swallow migration in Capistrano, California. 

The other is a family of ten, and the mother, Anna Luigui, has just birthed a baby that she had no desire for. It’s a compelling argument for birth control. Anna mostly lies around drunk while the baby is left wet and hungry and dirty, and Arlene pops in now and then to change, bathe and feed the poor little muffin. The oldest child in the household is a winning lass named Rose who has a fondness for tight skirts and the leader of the local gang (adorably called the Roosters), Peter Rossi. Arlene makes the mistake on her first visit of giving one of the younger kids a candy bar, and the poor thing is immediately assaulted by all its starving siblings in search of some desperately needed glucose. Arlene, horrified by her naivete and the desperate nutritional status of the children, shows up next time with a whole bag of candy, even though “she knew candy wasn’t the answer; that the children needed eggs and meat and vegetables and milk.”

Her heart bleeds way more than it should for someone whose job it is to care for people in dire poverty, and she is constantly haranguing everyone to help these two poor households. “Would you prefer steak or chops for our welfare clients, Miss Anderson?” snipes the head of the welfare division. “Perhaps caviar and avocado might appeal to their taste. You do your job, Miss Anderson, and let us at the Welfare Department take care of our own. We do the best we can on the funds we’re allotted.”

She has many conversations with the “dedicated” (uh oh) Dr. Mark Wynter, who lives in the tenements and ministers to its occupants, seldom getting paid for his Sisyphean efforts. “You have to develop a certain callousness,” he tells her over one of their many cups of coffee at Barney’s coffee shop (where the owner promises, “It’s safe to eat in here; you ain’t liable to get ptomaine.” Great.). “You can’t help them all; you don’t have the time or the money or the know-how to change things. So you plow along, helping as best you can, and yet always knowing that no matter how hard you work, you aren’t going to change things for the majority of them. If you succeed in changing the life of just one, that has to be reward enough.”

In her off hours, her sparky roommate Evelyn tries to liven up her life. “Honey, what you’re lacking is good old-fashioned fun. That’s my diagnosis,” she decrees. “The prescription is some nice, wacky dates with some nice, wacky guys, and I’m going to see that the prescription is filled.” The man she comes up with is Guy Newman, who is a slums-raised businessman who was able to escape and make a successful life for himself. He lives in California but seems to make a lot of business trips to Michigan, where he wines and dines and dances Arleen around—and quickly declares that he’s in love with her, that “you should be some man’s wife. You should have a man to protect you and take care of you.” But Arleen’s little heart had been broken by a man years ago—he had proposed, then asked for the ring back because he wanted to marry a woman who was richer and with more prospects than small-town Arleen. Now she’s never going to love again!

But she’s going to date a lot, between coffee and even movies with Mark, who kisses her a lot but promises little, and his dedication to his work and his poor patients is regularly held up as indication of his terrible suitability as a husband. “Heaven help a woman if he ever did get around to proposing to her. She’d starve to death!” To her credit, Arleen is never impressed with these arguments. “If I had wanted life to be safe and secure, I wouldn’t have picked out nursing as a career—especially not this particular kind of nursing.” It is a credit to her that she persists in spite of the incredibly depressing nature of her work, but unfortunately we are never given any reason for her motivation, or any basis of her strength; she just keeps showing up, even after one of the worst gang members, Lonnie, kills a bird in front of her just to demonstrate his own power.

There’s a power struggle going on with the Roosters between Peter, who is seeing Rose Luigui, and Lonnie. Soon Lonnie and the rest of the gang are caught breaking into a doctor’s office in an attempt to steal drugs. Invalid Neelie’s husband Al is beaten up, taken for the suspected narc, but Peter tells the  gang that he’s the one who did it. His life is now clearly in danger to everyone except Arlene, but after Rose finally clues her in, Arlene manages to save pretty much everyone and land herself the man she wants in the last chapter. One wonders what she’s going to do when the next batch of patients comes along.

This book has some interesting philosophical questions, namely how to care for people you can’t really help in a meaningful way, or whether it’s better to care too much as Arleen does or to become callous. These questions are not satisfactorily answered, and it’s not clear how Arleen is going to carry on in this work and still pay the rent after she’s purchased fans and candy for all the patients under her care. The issue of escaping the slums is also treated in contradictory ways; Guy explains how his bad upbringing made him poorly fit to work hard at a job, but says that his benefactor persisted until Guy got himself sorted out; Peter’s exit, on the other hand, is immediate and apparently an easy sell. The characters are not especially interesting or complex, and I was not invested in yet another I-refuse-to-fall-in-love-again-until-I-do trope that was not particularly well executed. Arleen has some admirable qualities, but when she’s the blandest character, it’s hard to get too excited about the book.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Prison Nurse

By William Neubauer, ©1962
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

Young Nurse Vivian’s heart went out to the inmates at Clairmount County Correctional Facility. She knew that a good nurse had to be unemotional, but she also knew that behind those forbidding walls young girls were being treated like animals! In the hospital recuperating from a near fatal clubbing she had received at the hands of some would-be-escapees, Vivian found herself the center of city-wide attention. Newspaper editorials lauded her heroism; the Mayor himself came to her bedside to bestow civic awards. But when Vivian argued that the Facility ought to rehabilitate its inmates instead of brutalizing them, the young nurse made a powerful enemy of the Mayor whose plans called for closing the Facility and shipping the girls off to adult prisons. It would take every bit of Vivian’s courage and determination and the dedicated help of her fiancĂ©—a young lawyer who represented a group in opposition to the Mayor’s program—to save, and help the inmates who knew Vivian Hartwell as their Prison Nurse.


“A degree or a badge simply announces to the world that you have received a certain measure of education and training.” 

“Too bad you have a heart. It does get you into trouble.”

“The best years of almost any woman’s life are those between fifteen and twenty-one. It’s the time for dates, for conquests at dances.”

“I’m strictly cornball. Daddy, you’ll have to let me buy some shorts. All the kids are wearing them. I won’t be embarrassed like this!”

“Does it matter if a rattlesnake bites you because he’s bored or because he’s mean or because he don’t know better?”

“We must examine this brain. We eliminate the consciousness, the resistance. We address ourselves to the subconscious mind. We record. We study. We untangle the tangled. Then into the world one day there walks the finest of creations, a sane woman.”

“I read somewhere that a successful man always has a woman behind him. I’ve simply got to get me some woman behind me.”

As part of her regular hospital duty, Nurse Vivian Hartwell spends two days a week at the Clairmount County Correctional Facility for Girls in Washington state. It’s a harsh place, complete with solitary confinement, ugly gray uniforms and lockstep marching to chow, “grinding discipline for those who have not grown accustomed to the disciplines of study and work.” Vivian, however, has other ideas, that the kids should have “punishment, yes; discipline, yes; but as a mother punishes her child—with understanding, not vindictiveness. They are at the Facility to be rehabilitated, not to pay grim penalties for heinous crimes.” When Vivian is assaulted while stopping a prison break long enough for the escapees to be caught, she doesn’t decide that maybe the bitches deserve what they get; rather, the fame of her heroism gives her a platform to express her unchanged philosophy. “When you treat children like criminals you convince them they’re criminals. And when you demonstrate to children that society is harsh, even brutal, you don’t create women who will love society,” she explains. “I just hate to see anyone denied a fair chance to become an average woman. Very emotional, I know, but there it is.” Unfortunately her opinions are not well-supported by the town mayor, who blackmails the hospital chief by threatening to veto the city’s funding for the hospital if Vivian isn’t fired for speaking out. 

When told of the chief’s awkward position, Vivian nobly quits her job. Hospital staff who will be assigned to the Facility now that she is no longer there to do it become concerned about their own safety at the Facility and refuse to work there, so Vivian is hired as full-time nurse at the prison. There she interacts a lot with 15-year-old Alicia Malone, who is in for assault and who appears to be constantly plotting her escape, which pretty much everyone should realize.

The mayor, meanwhile, is plotting to close the Facility because he believes that having a prison in town stunts business interest and community growth; he wants to sell the facility’s land to an electronics corporation for a factory that would create new jobs. He’s thwarted at every turn, though, by Vivian’s crusading, which results in, among other things, the mayor’s daughter Hazel being elected president of the Friendly Sisters club, which collects dresses for the prisoners so they can look nice—the first step toward better living through fashion—as well as funds to send the inmates to professional school upon their release. “The world is tough enough even for a well-dressed gal,” notes the mayor’s own secretary, who goes on to deliver a lovely speech to him about how Vivian, who has heart and the courage of her convictions, will triumph in the end because she has ideals and he does not. You kind of have to feel sorry for the poor guy.

Alicia Malone continues to bide her time, meanwhile, watching the relaxing guard. Vivian knows this, but is unable to convince Alicia that an escape attempt would just buy her more time in confinement. “But they had to break it up. The Friendly Sisters came to the infirmary, the last stop on their protracted tour. Candy for the patients! Cologne for the patients! And Alicia smiling sweetly upon one and all saying, ‘Honest to God, I sincerely mean this is just the nicest afternoon of my life.’ Meanwhile the mind of Alicia was going clank, clank, clank in a never-ending, relentless sort of way.” And Alicia does escape, in an ingenious way—but Vivian is just as ingenious, and saves the day—and the kid, which you knew would happen. She even plays her war with the mayor, brilliantly tidying up the mess. Then it’s “back to the jute mill! Walk the million miles, soothe the uncomfortable, close the eyes of the dead. Wonderful life.”

The most bizarre thing about Vivian as a character is that throughout the book she keeps insisting that she’s really not that interested in nursing. “I’m not the dedicated type, I’m afraid,” she lies. “I enjoy being a nurse. I enjoy being useful. I enjoy the prestige of being in a profession. But I want more than a glorious life of service. I long to have a husband, children, a middle-class home, a nice car, fine clothes, even a jewel or two.” And of course she scores a diamond from her lawyer beau, Bill, at the end, when he graciously agrees, “you won’t have to quit until you want to.” Thanks!

The book also includes a paragraph that I have to wonder is autobiographical: “She bummed a ride from a crippled man who’d come to the clinic to be measured for a new leg brace. The man had obviously contracted polio when just a child. His torso was abnormally burly, but he had an abdominal sag and looked pathetically shrunken from the waist down. He lived at peace with his handicap, however. ‘Always glad to give a little nurse a helping hand. Makes up for the bad times I used to give them when I was a kid. In this boys’ ward I was in, we were always playing tricks on the nurses. Like once for a nurse’s birthday, we packed a white rat in a box and wrapped the box real pretty.’” (Remember that author William Neubauer contracted polio as a child and walked with braces and crutches his whole life; read more about this fascinating man here.)

This is a truly fun book. The characters are well-drawn, compelling and complex. The nursing supervisor—author Neubauer has a real soft spot for nursing supervisors—is a crisp but lovable woman who is always delivering maxims with a twinge of humor such as, “Hartwell, do you know why I constantly remind you a nurse is never emotional? Emotionalism is a lack of discipline. An undisciplined mind rarely copes effectively with emergencies of any type. Tears in your eyes? Tell me, Hartwell, could you assist at surgery right now? Of course not.” The plot has a few twists at the end that you actually could not have predicted, but it’s not too confusing—which admittedly can happen in a Neubauer book—to follow. I am a big fan of William Neubauer, who was a truly interesting individual and a great writer, and in Prison Nurse he has completely lived up to my confidence in his abilities.