Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Nurse for Rebels’ Run

By Jane Scott (pseud. Adeline McElfresh), ©1960
Lovely, dark-haired Nurse Nora Kane, on temporary assignment at wild, mountainous Rebels’ Run, fought side-by-side with young Dr. Morgan Terry against the disease, ignorance and poverty besetting these proud mountain folk. How different the gruff “hillbilly g.p.” was from the suave young specialist, Dr. Tom Morrisey, waiting back home to marry Nora! Would she choose to be the wife of a fascinating, socially prominent doctor—or remain at Rebels’ Run and reap the deeper, richer rewards of her noble profession?
“There’s more to medicine than pills and powders and knowing when to prescribe them.”
Nurse Nora Kane has taken a six-month temporary job in the deep recesses of West Virginia at the request of her Uncle Jed, who’s been the local G.P. for 40 years and whose nurse has gone on maternity leave. She’s also taking a six-month break from her fiancé, Dr. Tom Morrissey, who is demanding that she quit her job after they are married. So already you know how this book is going to play out. We’ll get 80 pages of snide comments about the fiancé, interspersed with declarations of an undying love that turns out to be a complete delusion by book’s end. So let’s get right to it, beginning on page 6: “Could she give up nursing and still be happy? She loved Tom Morrisey with every fiber of her being. But was love, alone, enough? Could she, if she married Tom and did as he demanded, be utterly miserable and still make him happy, make him a good wife?” It’s curious to me that her main concern about consigning herself to a life of misery is whether she’ll make Tom happy in spite of it. Talk about peculiar priorities.
Anyway, Uncle Jed’s partner is Morgan Terry, and Nora gets off on the wrong foot with him almost at once when, trained under the grasping tutelage of Dr. Tom, Nora can’t understand why Morg, as he is unfortunately known, wouldn’t insist that a woman come to the clinic to have her baby instead of slogging out into the woods to deliver it at her squalid house. One of the first patients we meet is Miss Meliss, born in 1871 and now 90 years old, who is an avowed Confederate and asthmatic. Morg clearly respects her beliefs; “his voice softened” as he tells Nora that Meliss “continues to hold the banner of the Confederacy high.” Morg spends a few paragraphs musing what it must have been like to live in the South during the Civil War, “hated and dreaded Union soldiers riding arrogantly, searching, accusing, and, more than once when they found the Confederate they sought, capturing or killing.” War is certainly a terrible thing, and I don’t mind the depiction of the war from the Southern civilians’ point of view, but sympathy for Confederate ideals, even mildly hinted at, is a little uncomfortable.
If Morg isn’t wildly impressed with Nora, it’s curious that he’s engaged to a wealthy young socialite, whom he  believes is a lot like Nora: “Miss Kane was too much like Paula—too pretty, too sure of herself, to certain that other people’s worlds moved as smoothly on their axes as her own always had.” He later thinks, when Paula disagrees with him and voices the strong opinion that he should raise his fees, “Paula needed the spankings she should have gotten as a child, when, if Paula grown up was any criterion, she certainly should have had them.”
And the book unfolds as you know it will: After a few weeks of tenderly caring for Miss Meliss in her cabin accessible only by a 2-mile footpath and all the other flea-bitten locals, Nora begins to re-evaluate her dedication to nursing. “As bone-tired as she became during the week hours of the morning, she enjoyed every minute of the time. She felt strangely at home, as she had not felt at home during a year in Tom’s elegant, modern suite of offices.” Before too long she’s “prettying up” for Dr. Terry, telling herself all the while that “he didn’t know she existed—which was the way she wanted it, she told herself with firmness,” but we know better, don’t we, readers?
Then, her time up in Rebels’ Run, Nora goes back to her home in Vermont, spurred by an announcement in the paper of Morg and Paula’s engagement. But in the interim “she had metamorphosed into a young woman for whom, now, there could only be a career—not a career and marriage, as she used to dream.” So she pouts around the hospital, and Tom tries unsuccessfully to kiss her: “The hint of savagery that been in his first, interrupted kiss was a surging passion now; it was a long, hard, hurting kiss that became angry as he sensed her lack of response.” This is not the first time I’ve come across men using a kiss as a weapon of sorts, a moderately chaste rape, to punish women who don’t love them, and needless to say I find it rather appalling. It does, however, signal the end of any pretense of a relationship between Tom and Nora. Then, when a letter arrives from Rebel’s Run saying that Morg and Paula are not married after all, so Nora decides to indulge in some “shameless chasing” and she heads back to West Virginia to be private nurse for Miss Meliss. Morg turns up the next day to check on his patient, finds Nora there, and that’s that, in a quick but relatively cute ending.
Frankly, I would have bet a lot of money that this book was written by Peggy Gaddis, because it has all her classic elements: feisty old woman, inaccessible mountain cabin, references to spanking, rich spoiled fiancée, grasping rich fiancé, good-hearted elderly G.P., pro-Southern sentiment, strong heroine who experiences a change of heart about the rubes she’s forced to care for. It’s not actually a bad story as far as nurse novels go, but the formula is so tired by this point that the fact that I can recite along with the story line is a not insignificant drawback. If you can overlook that flaw, however, it’s a book worth reading.

A Nurse on Horseback

By Adelaide Humphries, ©1959
When Nora Williams completed her nurse’s training and went home to the lawless West, she was determined to stay in this remote country where a nurse was so desperately needed. But then one day, on a lonely mountain trail, as Nora was riding to a sick child, the silence was shattered by the bark of a gun. Suddenly Nora knew that the bullet was meant for her! Who was trying to keep this dedicated young nurse from her task of helping the poor and defenseless in this wild country?
“Every young girl likes to pretty-up at the end of the day for the evening ahead.”
“I should think such a beautiful girl could demand for more. And having a professional career is not altogether what I had in mind, though probably that will lead to marriage, too—which must be what you most desire for her.”
It’s true, as advertised on the back cover blurb above, that this book starts off with a fairly literal bang when someone takes a shot at nurse Nora Williams as she ride—horseback, of course—to see a patient not long after arriving in the west to live out her days on her Aunt Til’s ranch. She believes, though, that the shot was made by a hunter, and she’s more concerned about the fact that her horse threw her and then ran off, leaving her with several miles to walk before reaching her destination. And it’s really not much more than a device to place her into close contact with the cowboy who comes riding down the path, Dan Corby. Naturally, Nora draws a gun on him and accuses him of having fired the shot “at my mare—or at me!” which is not what she had just been thinking a few moments earlier. He offers her a look at his gun to show it hasn’t been fired, and when it’s clean, she asks him for a ride and swings up behind him onto his own horse, the floozy.
Anyway, all that and her nursing visit over, Dan takes her home and is promptly hired to be ranch foreman. The ranch is in financial trouble, of course, and the mortgage is owned by banker Burt McCulley, who is pressing Til to sell the ranch. But Til has a trick up her sleeve; a young man who invested all her life’s savings for her is coming to deliver the enormous profits he’s reaped in a week. The day Thomas Jeffries is due on the ranch, Til rides out to meet him, but comes back alone, and Thomas never shows up—until a week later, when he is found murdered in the desert. And it’s discovered that he’d lost all Til’s money to boot! Which means that Til won’t be able to pay off the mortgage, and is a suspect for murder!
To solve both these problems, Nora lies to the sheriff about Til’s whereabouts that day and then dates banker Bart, who proposes on the first date: “I might remind you that if you marry me, all your worries—your aunt’s worries—will be over,” he tells her, the suave lothario. To reassure her that he is not motivated to propose because of her aunt’s property, he points out that she will make a good mistress of his own huge ranch since “you come from good stock.” To her credit, Nora thinks, “You might have thought he was picking out the finest breed of cattle,” but she winds up accepting him anyway, and the fact that this will make her essentially a whore isn’t discussed.
Then Aunt Til fires Dan, for reasons she fails to explain. And starts coughing a lot, and staying in bed, and talking about dying. And confesses that it was she who shot at Nora, because she wanted Nora to go back to the East Coast and never find out that the ranch was heading into foreclosure. It’s an overly lame note that could have been avoided, and it doesn’t even make sense—how could Til possibly hide the fact that the ranch had been lost to the rest of her family, no matter where they are, when she has to find another place to live?
Things go from bad to worse for Nora and her beaux: Dan is arrested for the murder of Thomas Jeffries, because apparently he’d been riding the range that night as well, and Jeffries’ saddlebag is found in Dan’s bunk. And Bart’s unimpressive reputation is further sullied when Nora learns that Bart’s men are burning down the ranches of farmers who won’t sell out to Bart. Then the sheriff shows up at the ranch with Nora’s little gun—the one she’d threatened Dan with in the first chapter, remember?—which was discovered near where Thomas Jeffries’ body had been discovered, and has been found to be the murder weapon. The sheriff is about to arrest Nora when Til—hold onto your hats, friends—confesses to the murder. Before the sheriff can drag her off to jail, however, Til conveniently collapses and dies in Nora’s arms. To top off one perfunctory, obvious scene with another, the final chapter finds Nora nearly drowning in a river, to be rescued by Dan and discovered to have broken off her engagement to Bart.
The problem with this book is that it bitterly disappoints: Early on it manages to depict Dan and his interest in Nora in a completely believable and appealing way, only to totally squander your emotional investment with a whole host of absurd and obvious scenarios that dot the remaining three-fourths of the book. I truthfully mourned the book that could have been. So while I can easily recommend that you pick up this book, I have to also suggest that you strongly consider putting it down again after page 30.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Nurse in Love

By Isabel Stewart Way, ©1963

To Julie Stone nursing was more than a profession. It was a way of life, and she approached it with competence, determination, and dedication. But to handsome Merc Albeny, the intern whom she intended to marry, medicine was only a hobby. His real profession was women. Then, into the tangle of two young lives, came Dr. Dave Banner. Dr. Dave was old enough to advise Julie on affairs of the heart, both medical and romantic—but young enough to care. Nurse in Love is a deeply moving story of medicine and those who practice it. Under each white robe beats a heart you will want to know and understand.
“He wore a beard and his greasy dark hair was ducktail-cut; even his skin had a dingy look. A beatnik—when beatniks were no longer in style!”
“Any girl likes to have a handsome boy friend drop in at such times; it gives her prestige by certifying that she is attractive!”
“A doctor can always make a good impression by coming late, after he’s been delayed by a big emergency!”
Julie Stone is working at Sea Memorial Hospital in California when she is abruptly told by the nursing supervisor that she is going to take a new job, with local neurosurgeon Dr. David Banner, and will be moving out of the nurse’s dormitory and into an apartment with Dr. Dave’s two other nurses over the upcoming weekend. Uh, OK. Julie “felt a wave of rebellion, and opened her mouth to tell how she felt about the high-handed way the affair had been arranged. But habit stopped her—the habit of taking orders from the Superintendent of Nurses. So she swallowed her resentment and did as she was bidden.” These VNRN heroines really need some gumption.
As further proof of that, Julie is engaged to Dr. Merc Albeny, a brash, charming, attractive intern who won’t marry her until he is established. “She loved Merc—how could she help it?—yet something seemed wrong. Instead of the rapture of being in love, Julie felt irritation and troubled questioning, and a queer vague unhappiness when she was away from Merc and his blond charm.” She’s apparently not accustomed to saying no to doctors, either, or she’d be out of this jam in a jiffy.
In Dr. Dave’s clinic, she meets beautiful, 17-year-old Carlinda Haynes, who has epilepsy and as a result has been all but written off by her wealthy parents, who are so “ashamed” to have an epileptic as a daughter that they reveal the secret they had not even told Carlinda, that she is adopted, lest anyone think she had inherited this shocking disease from either of them. Julie helps convince Carlinda to go through with the long series of tests with Dr. Dave, who she is convinced will be able to cure Julie. Merc, meanwhile, is using Julie to butter up to Dr. Dave, in the hope that the well-established and highly regarded attending will be able to throw the new resident some work with rich patients who might benefit his practice down the road. Julie is horrified by Merc’s grasping ways, but instead of dumping Merc, she just feels disloyal for her unflattering opinions of Merc, and never mind how accurate they may be. Then Merc decides that he can best take advantage of Julie’s growing bond with Dr. Dave by getting engaged—and now that they’re engaged, “It seems foolish to wait, if we still do have to wait,” he says urgently after kissing her “vehemently” on a moonlit beach. Uh, yes, you do, pal.
Back at work, Carlinda is found to have been suffering the effects of an undiscovered subdural hematoma, and one quick brain surgery later, she is back to normal! And so great is their relief at their recovered patient that Julie and Dr. Dave kiss in the clinic hallway! “And it was as if it were the first time she had ever been kissed,” of course! In an attempt to resolve the issues this little episode has raised between them, Dr. Dave decides to tell Julie that he is in love with her. “Can’t we let it go, now? Can’t you bury it, and go on just as we have been going on—working together?” Uh, sure, Doctor. Everything is soon put to rights, however, when in a shocking coincidence of crossed paths, Julie discovers Merc and Carlinda kissing in the gift shop, and Dr. Dave wanders in as well just a minute or two later, and chews out Merc, who is supposed to be on duty in the ED. Carlinda tries to take the blame, but Dr. Dave declares, “A doctor needs will power to refuse, and the ability to make his own decisions,” two qualities, it must be pointed out, that Julie utterly lacks as well. The only possible hope we are given for her is at the very end, when Merc proposes and she declines, and then tells Dave that she wants to marry him and “bear your children,” if you can keep your gorge down when you hear it.
This is a pleasant little nothing of a book, a faint, floral perfume that quickly wafts away. Julie is far too passive and vapid to be an enjoyable heroine, even when she’s pounding on Dr. Dave’s chest in the final pages and he calls her a “spitfire,” the liar. It’s not badly written, and the antiquated ideas—that epilepsy and out-of-style beatniks are mortifying, to name a couple—are amusing, and if you are interested in neurosurgery, you get to witness a couple of well-described surgeries, but that’s really all this book has to offer, apart from a great cover illustration.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Desert Nurse

By Marguerite Nelson, ©1964
Three’s a crowd—and blonde Nurse Nacie Williams knew it. But in her new job as district nurse, she was suddenly one-third of a trio. Two men loved Nacie—and she cared for both of them. But only one meant love. Only one could be her future. Was it the handsome doctor? Or the young high school principal? Why couldn’t she decide?
“Nacie didn’t trust a living room as spotless as this one. It showed a tendency for its housekeeper to dwell on trivialities and sometimes let the big issue—the important things—slide by unnoticed.”
“You’re too beautiful to be a nurse. Nurses should be bony, homely animals—then no doctor or patient would fall in love with them.”
Nurse Nacie Williams is, I am sorry to report, “a small, beautiful girl with sea-blue eyes and glistening blonde hair, trim in her white uniform, her nurse’s cap perched at a jaunty angle.” She’s the county’s school nurse, overseeing elementary and high schools in Mountain City, in the California desert, including both the mainstream population and the Wapi Indian Reservation. As the book opens, she has two major concerns on her hands: Enid Marconi, who has fainted in English class, and the gentlemen she is dating, Principal Hal Edwards and Dr. Gary Morgan. Enid seems healthy, but Nurse Nacie soon discovers that Enid’s father hasn’t had a job in eight months and has run through his unemployment insurance. If nursing ever wears thin, she should consider detective work.
Anyway, Nacie suspects that Enid simply isn’t getting enough to eat, but instead of chasing down this lead (maybe detective work isn’t going to work for her after all), she exerts an enormous amount of energy getting Enid a free physical, wrangling with doctors and their office nurses and Enid’s father for more than a week before grumpy Dr. Hanson finally gets around to it. In the meantime, we hear a lot about Enid’s headaches and the extensive differential diagnosis that could have led to the notorious syncopal episode. Nacie’s attempts to cure the child of whatever unknown disease might be ailing her even go so far as coercing a male student to ask Enid to the school’s Get Acquainted Hop—which, in a school with only 200 students, seems unlikely to be necessary. In the high school of that size that I attended, the biggest obstacle to dating was not that you didn’t know the other students, it was that you were related to at least 20 percent of them. In any event, Nacie’s endeavors in this regard are for naught when, on the weekend of the big dance, the boy hitch-hikes to Los Angeles and enlists in the Army, we can only hope for reasons other than to get out of the date. Nacie sighs in relief: “Let’s not try this caper again,” she tells co-conspirator Hal. “It might backfire, and with serious repercussions.” Uh, right.
Having missed the obvious lesson, Nacie looks around for something else she shouldn’t get involved in, and drops by the electrical union office to beg for a job on Mr. Marconi’s behalf. Here, though, she meets with more success: The union boss surprisingly agrees to move Mr. Marconi to the top of the list for a job that starts next week. And on his first day, Nacies spots Enid in the line for the school’s hot lunch, when previously the girl had been bringing her own lunches—a story Nacie has doubted but never bothered to check out. A week later Enid is blooming and walking down the hall with boys. “Enid had only fainted from malnutrition,” Nacie sighs with relief, having done not one thing to feed the child in the past weeks.
This little problem solved, Nacie can now worry about her boyfriends. She sees both Gary and Hal regularly, and gets involved in some fairly hot necking in their cars at the end of her dates. The shameless hussy, on a date with Gary, “her arms had gone boldly around his neck,” though after kissing him “long and ardently,” putting her arm around his neck seems hardly bold. She’s repeatedly worrying that “she was getting involved—deeply—with two men. Had she led them on?” she wonders, after all that smooching. “The ultimate goal of ‘going steady’ was marriage,” she decides, then frets over whether she will have to quit the job that she loves when she has children—though she has protested loudly to each man that she is not engaged to either of them and has no obligations to be exclusive. She likes to worry, this Nurse Nacie.
Her solution to this problem is to start telling Gary and Hal that she’s busy and refusing their dates. This plan backfires, however, when she runs into Hal out with another woman. “Fate had dealt her a cruel blow,” she moans to herself, then puts her head on Hal’s chest while they are dancing and tells him, “You and I are just friends.” When she’s not leading him on, she’s a big tease.
With the boys out of her life, Nacie has little else to do but stir up trouble, largely among the innocent juvenile Wapi population. After she notices that little Johnny Woodchuck has red eyes—he’d just been working on a lathe in shop class with no eye protection from the sawdust, but she doesn’t think for a second that has anything to do with it—she’s like an evil hawk, swooping out to the Wapi school unannounced to inspect the sanitation of the bathrooms and haul poor Johnny out of class to scrutinize his eyes and give him the third degree about whether he’s been following his treatments. She obsessed with the idea that there might be a trachoma “virus” (it’s a bacteria, actually) loose on the reservation, and lo and behold, Johnny actually shows up a few weeks later with actual conjunctivitis, poor kid, and now she is a rabid nightmare, locking up the entire elementary school population in the building and refusing to let them out for 36 hours, until every child has been given a shot of antibiotics and had their eyes washed out with copper sulfate, an apparently painful procedure, as persecuted Johnny is “grimacing as pain hit him” when she repeats the washings the next day—the kids have had to sleep on the floor overnight—before finally letting them all go home. I hope I do not have to tell you that this treatment is ridiculously over the top, even for 1960s standards.
When cold season hits a few weeks later, she’s out there again, inspecting throats in addition to the boys’ bathroom and deciding, “Almost every Wapi student needed his tonsils out.” No wonder Dr. Gary, an ENT specialist, loves her so; it’s thanks to her he can afford that spiffing new Cadillac he’s been driving around town. But before she is able to start forcing the kids into the OR, one of her beaux suffers a “strangulation” hernia, which is going to kill him in another minute or two, but prompt surgical attention—with Nurse Nacie standing in as scrub, of course—saves his life! Now she knows which one she really loves and they can get married!
Inattention to detail is a cardinal sin in my book, as it were, and author Marguerite Nelson leads us down too many blind alleys (Nacie spends a weekend alone in San Diego where she sees two movies and puts down a “masher,” to name just one bizarre extraneous interlude) and creates too many illogical situations (Nacie tends to a Wapi baby who refuses to eat because he is suffering from malnutrition due to too many flies in the house). The writing occasionally tends toward the syrupy, with Nacie giving us a “silvery tinkle” instead of a laugh, her “glistening blonde hair” referenced a few too many times. My favorite gaffe was a very bad transition, when Nacie is kissing Gary after a date, and tells him, “ ‘Good night, Dr. Gary.’ Nacie disrobed swiftly, throwing her clothes over a chair. She lay on her back in the silent apartment, staring at the ceiling.” For a brief, wild moment, I thought we were in for something really interesting, but no such luck. And so, because this book is far more aggravating than enjoyable, I advise you leave this one alone.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Call Dr. Margaret

By Ray Dorien, ©1961
Dr. Margaret had faltered only once in her determination to follow her medical career, but her radiant dream of marriage and motherhood had been changed, and her character with it, in a moment of tragic discovery. She imagined that this private past was unknown, that she could go on to her work at St. Antholin’s Hospital, but there she met the one man who had unknowingly stumbled on her secret.
“I do disapprove of you driving on Sunday. Oh, I know you pride yourself on being free and independent, but I’m not so sure that it’s good for girls.”
“If you don’t drive away this instant, I shall eat you. You look so delicious.”
“She did not want to be a woman, longing for love. She wanted to be doctor only.”
Dr. Margaret Addam is a fresh young attending about to start her first job at St. Antholin’s Hospital in London when she makes the serious error of taking a two-week holiday in Brittany. There she encounters suave architect Amyas Burdett, and that really is his name. She tumbles for him, of course, and agrees to meet him back in England. She is, in fact, to see him en route to her new job. Picking him up at a train station, she finds him to be a cooler, more remote individual than the ardent suitor he had been in France. He directs her to a hidden cottage, where the pair has a lovely picnic. After washing up the dishes, he passionately urges her to stay the night with him. She agrees, the scandalous tart, and is about to fetch her suitcase when her necklace breaks, and the beads fly everywhere. Searching the floor, she finds all but one. She ties up the beads and has just stepped out onto the verandah to retrieve her nightie from her car when a young woman is heard letting herself in the front door, conveniently located on the other side of the house away from the driveway, and asking Amyas, “Darling, aren’t you pleased to see your wife?”
Oh, the shame! Margaret climbs into her car and allows it to roll down the steep driveway before starting the engine and peeling out onto the main road, almost running into another car in the process. She pulls over a mile down the road to weep over the “tremendous mistake in the most important happening of her life,” and the man driving the near-miss vehicle stops also, to ask if she is all right. She brushes him off and he leaves her to her ignominy, never to be seen again … until she arrives at St. Antholin’s and finds he is Dr. Jack Fanning, with whom she will be working closely! And he is also the childhood friend of Veronica Burdett, the almost-deceived wife of treacherous Amyas!
Margaret keeps her identity a secret by always wearing her hair up instead of loose around her shoulders as she had that day, which proves surprisingly successful as a disguise, though not as a style; Dr. Fanning chides “the very severe way you do your pretty hair. What do you think you are, ballerina or relic of the fight for women’s rights?” Ouch! She also assumes a brisk and cold personality, having decided that her two-week fling with Amyas is all the love she will ever know, that “one side of her life was closed to her.” It’s a ridiculous position to take, made all the more so by the fact that this is a romance novel and any second-grader will be able to predict what happens over the course of the book. Dr. Fanning isn’t impressed with this demeanor, either, and tells her that it’s just as important to listen to a patient’s stories, rambling though they may be, as it is to listen to their hearts, so the patients will bond with and trust their doctors, and adhere to their treatment plans (as valuable a lesson today as it was when this book was written more than 50 years ago). “If you can’t give something more, you’ll never be any good as a doctor, or maybe as a woman either,” Dr. Fanning tells her, and suggests that she get out more.  Initially furious at his criticism, Margaret nonetheless starts socializing with the other new doctors, even dating Jack Fanning more and more frequently, and becoming a kinder, gentler person and doctor in the process.
In the meantime, Amyas’ wife Veronica has found the bead that Margaret dropped at the love nest and given it to her old friend Jack Fanning, telling him she is concerned that Amyas is unfaithful. And Margaret gives the remaining beads to a young nurse friend, who restrings them and wears them to a concert. Jack soon spies Nurse Jones wearing them, but also learns that Margaret had been in Brittany at the same time as Amyas, and begins to suspect Margaret, “his Margaret,” as he now thinks of her, of an affair. Margaret, meanwhile, coming increasingly to love Jack, is planning to tell him “the innocent, guilty-seeming story, and then she would be free of it forever.” But wouldn’t you know it, Jack learns that Margaret gave the beads to the nurse and immediately severs all ties with Margaret. When he tells her it is over between them, he doesn’t bother to ask her for an explanation, so naturally she declines to give him one, saying instead, “I thought if people loved each other, there could be trust and some understanding.” I’m not crazy about this sort of plot twist, as I find it frustrating and a bit facile, but we’re only 12 pages from the end, so it’s short—and too easy—work for Margaret to go home for Christmas only to return and find Jack humbly apologetic, having had an offstage discussion with Amyas and learned the whole truth.
The entire premise of the book—Margaret’s devastating, potentially career- and romance-ending shame of having not slept with a married man—is more than a little silly from our vantage point a half-century after the book was written.  It would have made for a more interesting story if she actually had slept with Amyas, and given a legitimate motivation for all the hand-wringing we witness, but I should know better than to expect much thought from a VNRN. Apart from that, it’s a pleasant enough book, decently written with sturdy characters. If she suffers overmuch from her horrible “mistake,” Margaret is otherwise a feisty gal with a spine, and a pleasant person to spend 140 pages with.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Masquerade Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1963
Kathy Barrett awoke in a hospital bed … When the lovely nurse opened her eyes she remembered the sickening skid, the crash, and nothing else. How did she get there; where were here friends Jim and Lynne? She struggled to speak, to ask questions of the handsome young doctor who stood at her bedside and who looked so much like Jim Stratton. His eyes were concerned, his voice tender as he spoke. “It’s all right, Lynne,” he said. “You’re going to be all right now, Lynne….” This stirring novel is the story of a nurse who is the sole survivor of an automobile accident, a nurse who borrows the identity of her dead friend to find a new home and escape a threatening past, a nurse who lives a life of painful lies while she falls deeply in love with a dedicated doctor.
“You had to keep remembering the miracles and doing what you could to prolong life, even when your patient begged for release.”
The back-cover blurb of this book—and the similar plot abstract just inside the book’s cover—are a serious detriment to the reader, who would be far better off not knowing what’s coming. Because the setup is a bit complicated and requires almost 50 pages before we can get on with the car crash, I for one tended to rush the earlier reading. But that’s a shame, because it’s a pleasant story of a smart, competent nurse with a few issues. Like many a nurse before her, she comes from an orphanage, but she had her best friend, Lynne Haley, to suffer alongside. The two share an apartment, and it’s Kathy who introduces Lynne to the doctor who would become her fiancé, Jim Stratton. This is one of the aspects of the VNRN that I’ve always enjoyed best, the nurse and her roomie sharing jokes and dinner together, but this doesn’t get as much play as I would have liked in what is actually a too-short nurse novel (and it may well be a first that I have said that here).
Kathy’s troubles begin when, her better judgment obviously still on break, she accepts a date with the unctuous hospital administrator, Ralph Knoll. After a steak dinner that includes too many drinks, Ralph predictably puts the moves on, and Kathy is forced to tell the little troll what she thinks of him. So when a terminally ill cancer patient is discovered to have been relieved of his suffering with an unhealthy dose of Nembutal, Ralph is quick to lead the inquisition, declaring that Kathy—who subbed during the dinner hour for the nurse specialing the patient—is guilty of a mercy killing. Though no one believes her guilty, she is nonetheless suspended until the truth can be learned—and the bereaved widow, who just happens to have been given a script for Nembutal recently, is catatonic with shock and can’t answer any questions. So it’s going to be a long suspension.
To pass the time, Kathy drives to Oregon with Jim and Lynne, who is to meet Jim’s family for the first time. En route is the fatal mishap, and Kathy wakes, groggy and dazed, with this hot doctor holding her hand and calling her Lynne (because she had been passing Lynne’s pocketbook to its rightful owner at the time of the accident, and everyone assumed that the ID inside the bag belonged to the woman clutching it; apparently IDs didn’t have photos in the 1960s). At first too dazed to correct Dr. Dane Stratton, then attracted by the idea of the family Dane wants her to become part of, and also concerned that Dane’s poor mother will suffer another heart attack when she learned that the “daughter” she’s now pinning all her hopes on is actually as dead as her son, Kathy goes along with the misunderstanding. She isn’t totally ignorant of the fact that assuming Lynne’s identity could help her out of the jam she’s in at the hospital, but she spends a lot of time berating herself for perpetuating the charade and not coming clean, planning the moment when she will spill the beans, and then letting the moment pass yet again. It’s the sort of inner dialogue that could come across as stupid or overwrought or unbelievable, but Jane Converse is a fine writer and pulls it off seamlessly.
Kathy obviously can’t return home as Lynne and has been pressed to join the family unit, which includes the charmingly boyish 17-year-old brother Petey as well as Mom and Dale. This assemblage of characters is as attractive to the reader as it is to orphan Kathy, who has always longed for a home. As the weeks pass, the deceit becomes increasingly difficult; posing as the schoolteacher Lynne she is unable to chat about educational reform or explain the flawless tracheotomy she performs on a choking neighborhood boy. After she resigns from Lynne’s job she is forced to cash Lynne’s final paycheck. The fact that this is a felony does not pass lightly, as Kathy now realizes that her deception has crossed legal lines, and she worries about how this crime will impact her ability to retain a nursing license if discovered.
The suitor character in VNRNs is usually drawn fairly loosely—this character is seldom as important as his potential as The Possible Husband in the VNRN—and, true to form, Dale is not among the more detailed men we’ve met. Nonetheless, he is a solid, pleasing character. The lead up, when Kathy is finding Dane increasingly attractive, is well-played, and the electricity she feels when he palpates her shoulder fracture (silly as that sounds), or when “brushing against him accidently while they fixed a midnight snack in the kitchen,” is real. Though Dane eventually succumbs to that very bad habit of VNRN boyfriends, pushing themselves on reluctant heroines with over-the-top declarations of undying love and an alarmingly stalkerish intention of remaining her shadow until she falls for him or at least agrees to marry him, he does so in a very mild and organic way: She’s crying after the tracheotomy, thinking he’s about to tell her he knows she’s a fraud, and instead he, “bewildered and helpless,” tries to console her. He ends up smoothing the tears from her face and saying, “You’re the most wonderful thing that ever happened to us … the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me,” and “looking at her with a burning intensity, yet an expression so poignantly tender” before he quickly snaps out of it and gives her two sleeping pills and rushes awkwardly from the room. This I found much more cute than creepy, which is how those scenes usually come across.
Anyway, you know it’s just a matter of time before Dane finds out who Kathy really is and freaks out. You can also guess that there will be a terrible accident at the high school gymnasium, where Petey has gone to watch a basketball game between the Chatsville Chargers and the Bayport Bruins (carrying a sign he’s made that reads, “Bruins, Sí! Chargers, No!”) that causes radio announcers to plead for any healthcare workers in hailing distance to come to the gym right away to aid in the relief efforts. And you can guess that Kathy’s heroic efforts there, and her genuine alarm for Petey’s safety, will go a long way toward getting her through this mess, as does a little surprise twist.
I always open a Jane Converse novel hopefully, because I know what she is capable of (see Surf Safari Nurse). While Masquerade Nurse is not her best in terms of exuberant writing or humor, she has assembled here a good plot and characters, and she writes them well enough that you can really believe them and not snicker more than once or twice at their stupidity. If this isn’t her best, there’s enough here to make it absolutely worth reading, and certainly a lot more than you might find in most VNRNs.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Nurse Under Fire

By Florence Stuart
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1964
Jock had once tried to commit suicide because of his frustrated love for Nurse Ruby Compton. Now he was her patient in a psychiatric clinic and his emotional struggle was starting all over again. Ruby didn’t love him, but she pitied him too much to push him out of her life—even though his mental instability could make him dangerous. Even though being kind to Jock was ruining her chances with the doctor she really loved.
“What’s the use learning fancy words if you don’t trot them out to show how smart you are?”
“Ruby hated the current rage for pants, but she had to admit that Connie looked like a doll in them.”
“You mean I should marry a character who bores me to death, then spend the best years messing around with pots and pans and babies while he struggles through college? And turn into a worn-out old hag before he lands a job that really pays off? Uh-uh. All the fellows I know are pretty much like George. They’re poor, they bore me stiff, and all they’ve got on their minds is going to college for the rest of time and learning a lot of stuff so they’ll be big shots—some day. And they really want to marry just to have some girl around to cook and clean and make life easy for them, while they sit glued to their books. I can’t see it.”
“You’d be surprised how many patients we get who have cracked up simply by driving themselves to make more and more money to buy more and more things which they didn’t really need.”
Ruby Compton is, to my eye, about as deranged as the patients she cares for at the Olive Hill Psychiatric Clinic. Her ex-beau, Jock Jordan (and what a name!), tried to hang himself six years ago when his rich father broke up his relationship with the less socially endowed Ruby, and has since nursed a major obsession with Ruby while living so recklessly that his antics on the freeway resulted in a multi-car crash that left several people critically injured and one killed. Instead of heading straight to jail, Jock’s father managed to get him committed to the booby hatch, but now his time is served and Jock is going home. And insisting that Ruby escort him on the 100-mile drive. Given the fact that she’s had no compunction about serving as Jock’s nurse, it was a long shot that she would agree with her boyfriend, hospital physician Nat Casey, that it would be best if she skipped that trip.
So off she goes—even bringing her 17-year-old sister Connie on the trip. The jaded Connie has designs on the wealthy Jock, and it comes out that she’s even been visiting him on the sly in an attempt to land herself a rich husband. “So what if he is a psycho?” she asks. “If Jock were to fall in love with a cute girl, get out of that place and get married, I’ll bet he’d be as normal as anybody.”
Of the actual road trip, which has been built up for 55 pages, we get not a sentence: After Ruby’s final argument with Nat, the next sentence has her pulling into Jock’s father’s house. Joe Jordan is away on a business trip, though, and Jock’s stepmother Dorothy refuses to allow Jock to come into the house, instead steering him and Ruby—Connie has been deposited at a local hotel—to the gatehouse: “I’m scared of crazy people,” she explains. But Ruby insists that they be allowed to stay in the main house. Once back in his old room, Jock is “brooding and staring, like someone in a stuporous daze,” and Ruby is concerned that this might be one of Jock’s “depressed spells which, once or twice, had come close to being a psychotic breakthrough.” Her solution is to take Jock and Connie out for dinner. Connie is all in favor of this plan: “Hey, it is okay if I douse myself with that perfume that Mom says smells like a hussy’s boudoir?” she asks her sister. But out at the restaurant, when Connie begs Jock to dance, Ruby reminds her, “He’s not supposed to dance. Doctor’s orders.” Because we all know that dancing can cause psychosis, especially the Wahtusi.
So while Connie finds someone else to boogie with, Jock takes the opportunity to beg Ruby, again, to marry him. When she refuses, he asks if she’s in love with someone else—and she lies to him. But when Connie returns to the table and is again rebuffed by Jock, she decides to settle the score by telling him that Ruby is engaged to Dr. Nat. Jock responds by taking a trip to the loo and not returning. In another dramatic jump between scenes, we are back at the oceanfront Jordan house, and Ruby spots someone swimming—gosh, who could that be at this time of night? Instantly she is powering through the waves, dragging Jock’s limp body back to shore, and pumping the salt water from his lungs. The paramedics arrive and bundle him up to bring back to the house (not the hospital), and now Ruby has another disaster to cope with: Mrs. Jordan, and she is pissed. “Lucy tells me what that lunatic has been up to: trying to kill himself again, making trouble and disturbance for everyone,” she shrieks, insisting that it’s out to the gatehouse with Ruby and Jock. Or not; Ruby insists that Dorothy go to her room: “Must I remind you that I am a psychiatric nurse? I have been trained to use force when it becomes necessary.” And it does become necessary, so Ruby seizes Dorothy Jordan in a judo hold and locks her in her own bedroom. What a gal!
Nat shows up unexpectedly, fortunately before Mr. Jordan gets home, so he can break the news about all the goings-on. Amazingly, Pa Jordan lets everyone stay, and in the morning has a heart-to-heart with Ruby in which he offers her $1 million if she will marry Jock. Next thing we know, the whole gang is back at Olive Hill, and Ruby is actually, amazingly, thinking over the offer: “Even if there is no more than once chance in a thousand, I must see that he gets that chance,” Ruby tells Nat. “I cannot have it on my conscience that I might have saved Jock from a living death, and did not.”
Only a bout of pneumonia keeps Ruby from eloping with Jock at once. But that gives Connie time to cook up a plan to prevent the marriage—yes, Connie, the girl who at book’s open deplored poverty, now declares that “what she really wanted was to marry some nice guy, love him to death, have a cute little house, and kids, and all the stuff most girls wanted.” So off Connie goes to see Dorothy, and tells her that $1 million of her husband’s precious fortune will slip through her fingers if Ruby marries Jock. Dorothy instantly reaches for the little pearl-handled revolver she keeps hidden amongst her underthings and hops into her black Caddy with the red leather seats to pay Jock a visit. She tells Jock about the bribe—and that Ruby is planning to go through with it, then have him committed to an insane asylum, annul the marriage and run off with Nat. She offers him her car and some money—$60, the cheapskate—but Jock’s not that dumb. He grabs the gun instead, knocks Dorothy down—poor Dorothy seems to have a “kick me” sign on her back—and heads for Nat’s office, just as Ruby herself is trotting down the Olive Hill corridors with the same destination. Oh, how will it all end?
The four or five final paragraphs of the book are actually quite sweet, but the perfunctory and plodding 17 preceding chapters are a hard slog. When the heroine holds multiple enormously flawed opinions, it’s hard to feel very sympathetic toward the little dunce. Florence Stonebraker pulls out a few great scenes in this book, but Nurse Under Fire is no match for her best works (i.e. City Doctor, The Nurse and the Orderly, Runaway Nurse). I love Florence Stonebraker enough that I could never just dismiss one of her books as not worth reading, but I do have to say, sadly, that you needn’t put this one at the top of your reading pile.