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.

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