Sunday, October 15, 2023

Second Year Nurse

By Margaret McCulloch, ©1957
Cover illustration by Ethel Gold 

From the window by her patient’s bed, Jan looked down on the entrance to the nurses’ home. As she watched, a familiar green car swung around the drive. A moment later Dorinda came briskly down the front steps and took her place beside the driver. “Dr. Bartholomew, the young surgeon, wasn’t it?” the patient asked. “I didn’t recognize the nurse.” So this was what the other nurses had been trying to tell her. Dorinda—her own roommate—was dating Hank Bartholomew too!


“I guess it’s all a part of growing up. Learning to like what you’re doing—instead of always doing what you like.” 

“‘Washington’s Birthday is such fun,’ she told Jan when she invited her. ‘All the cute little hatchets and cherries and things.’”

I’ve been thinking about the difference between VNRNs that are written for a teenage audience compared to those intended for adults. This is the third that I can recall having reviewed (see also Candy Stripers and Mary Adams Student Nurse), and they do generally seem more superficial, unsophisticated, and condescending than the grown-up variety, and the heroine never actually ends up with a fiancé, much less a serious boyfriend. And so I waded through Second Year Nurse, which needed its 222 pages to introduce us to at least 75 different characters (I lost count), many of them patients with stories only casually touched on before moving on to the next paragraph. Even patients who we are told affect our eponymous nursing student Jan Russell deeply, such as a young woman with an infant son and husband who dies inexplicably before her thyroidectomy, we receive in just a couple paragraphs, turning the page on them with no real experience of Jan’s feelings or any lingering effects of the tragedy.

Though most of the book is about the many, many other students and patients Jan encounters, she also has a few boyfriends. Her high school steady, Randy, dumps her early on when she leaves for nursing school: After she insists, “I’m crazy about my nursing and I’m going right on with it,” he snarls, “Go on back to your bellhopping and bedmaking! You might even catch yourself a medic. That’s all nurses go in training for.” So between hospital shifts and classes, she accepts a few dates with Dr. Hank Bartholomew. Though “it was still hard for Jan to call him Hank,” she decides that “recently there’d been an increasing depth in their relationship. Not that there’d been any mention of marriage,” we are told, because that’s usually what happens after the third date. Well, I could be wrong on that point because soon Dr. Bartholomew is dating her roommate Dorinda, the daughter of a wealthy woman who serves on the hospital board of trustees—not that that has anything to do with it—and eight pages after what is apparently Dorinda’s first date with the doctor, she is sporting an engagement ring, so maybe there is something to it after all.

Jan also has about three dates with Bruce Baird, who works in the lab and also as a janitor to earn money to put himself through medical school—and he’s hoping to become a general practitioner like Jan’s father had been. But he is usually pretty busy, so she doesn’t see him much. Then, toward the end of the book, Randy’s mother is seriously ill and Jan assists in caring for her, so now Randy decides maybe nursing isn’t so bad, after all. “I think it’s a marvelous thing for a girl to do,” he admits. “I was awfully dumb.” Which man will Jan end up with? Well, like I mentioned at the start, these teen books don’t really give you much of a love story to close the book on, so on the last page all we see is Jan is running down the stairs happily for her next date.

I’m not really sure what the focus of this story is, because it doesn’t offer many details about actual nursing, nor does it give you a romance. Essentially stopping in the middle, the book gives us no resolution to Jan’s plans for her career or her love life, and 222 pages is a lot to spend on a story that goes nowhere. I can only conclude from my admittedly small sample that teen readers weren’t taken very seriously in the 1950s and 1960s—I understand that attitude is what in part what inspired the Woodstock era—so I can’t recommend that an intelligent adult such as yourself spend your time with a book that doesn’t respect its readers.

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