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 fiancé—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.