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?
 
GRADE: C+
 
BEST QUOTES:
“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.”
 
REVIEW:
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.
 
GRADE: B+
 
BEST QUOTES:
“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.”
 
REVIEW:
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.
 
GRADE: B+
 
BEST QUOTES:
“You had to keep remembering the miracles and doing what you could to prolong life, even when your patient begged for release.”
 
REVIEW:
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.
 
GRADE: C+
 
BEST QUOTES:
“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.”
 
REVIEW:
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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Celebrity Suite Nurse


By Suzanne Roberts, ©1965
 
Poppy Helden had never forgotten her promise to return to her hometown as a nurse in the little clinic there. But Miami Beach, where she was training, had many distractions. There was the warm lazy sunshine of the beach, and the beguiling attentions of young Dr. Steve Harper. When Poppy’s singing idol, Nicky Farrell, became her patient in the Celebrity Suite, Poppy’s heart began to beat to a new and different tune and she was caught in a clash of conflict … in which both her love and career hung in the balance.
 
GRADE: C+
 
BEST QUOTES:
“We certainly don’t want an interne around who’s slightly psycho.”
 
“You look much too unworried to be a doctor.”
 
“Poppy—don’t fall in love with somebody famous before I get you down to the chili parlor tonight—okay?”
 
“If I’m running a fever, baby, you’ve got only yourself to blame.”
 
Goodness, she thought suddenly, men can certainly complicate a girl’s life!
 
“I’ll bet a wife like you could save a guy millions of dollars a year. I’ll bet you watch for all the sales and I’ll bet you can cook.”
 
“Stop behaving as if you’re still a silly student nurse, dying to get married!”
 
“There are very few girls who look really pretty in the early morning.”
 
REVIEW:
On page one, Poppy is a new graduate, a hard-working hillbilly from a hardscrabble town in the Georgia mountains who borrowed money from the hometown doctor to complete her training. She’s sworn to return home to work after her training, but she’s planning to take one more year at Marymount-on-the-Beach Hospital in Miami Beach to gain a little more experience before packing her bikinis and heading home to the mountains. Unfortunately for her, the nursing supervisor has decided that the experience our little waif really needs is with the idle rich: She’s been assigned to the celebrity suite, where she will tend to just one patient at a time.
 
She’s not too excited about this, as she had hoped to be a little busier. But nursing supervisor Isabel Duncan has other plans. “I think, with the life you have planned,” she explains to Poppy, “that seeing the so-called pampered darlings of the world with their masks off, will do you good.” Why the hospital would waste the skills of someone who is acknowledged to be the most dedicated graduate they’ve seen in years on private duty with just one patient to teach her this trifling life lesson is perplexing.
 
But then, when Poppy gets one look at pampered darling Nicky Farrell, a singing sensation checked in with fatigue to rule out leukemia, it doesn’t do her good at all—she’s suddenly, unprofessionally, off her head over the poor, possibly dying boy, leaving the hospital after her first shift to go sit on the beach and brood all night over him—missing her date at the chili parlor with Dr. Steve Harper. This is a blow to the young interne, who has been planning to marry Poppy for quite some time, though up to this point she’s refused to consider herself “his girl.” Now she’s staying late after shifts to visit Nicky, her heart hammering wildly every time she pulls a thermometer from her pocket and pops it in his mouth (cringe), swooning when he tells her he’s in love with her, and, on her third day on duty, dancing with him and kissing him. She’s very confused: “Which man do I belong to?” she asks herself, as if she should belong to anyone, especially a patient she just met 72 hours ago.
 
Now we enter the middle of the book, which is mainly a lot of moping about whether Nicky loves her, whether she loves Nicky, her feelings for Steve—the fact that she has previously declared that she has none beyond friendship notwithstanding—and “her duty towards the two men who cared about her!” We learn fairly early on that Nicky just has a “glandular infection,” not a fatal illness, but he still insists that he’s in love with Poppy and wants her to come on tour with him. His manager, Joe, fruitlessly tries to warn Poppy that Nicky will leave her for his true love, performing, and tells her that Nicky always thinks he’s in love—the last time to a “crazy chick” who tried to kill herself with sleeping pills after he left her, and whom he never visited when she was in the hospital recovering, the selfish lout.
 
And Nicky now reveals that he thinks that his manager Joe only cares about him for his money, though it’s clear that’s far from the case—and Poppy wonders, “What if that worked both ways? Suppose that Nicky, feeling that no one could truly love him for himself, was unable to love back?” Quite a stretch, but we have to have some reason for Poppy to decline his marriage proposal—the fact that she’s known him less than a week apparently not sufficing.
 
Then Luzette Theibou, a French actress who is all the rage in Hollywood, checks in. “She comes to the hospital every time one of her boyfriends doesn’t jump when she tells him to. She tried the sleeping pill routine” when her last romance ended, Poppy is told—and the startling coincidence between her recent escapade and Nicky’s last girlfriend’s suicide attempt is never explained, though it seems Nicky and Luzette had never met. Sloppy plotting, apparently. Then, when Poppy discovers the patients slow-dancing in the Sun Lounge and Nicky insults Poppy by telling her to bring them some Cokes, it appears Poppy’s “relationship” is on the rocks, because “when a boy told girl he cared, and then proceeded to dance with another girl as if there were no tomorrow, it could be pretty darned confusing!”
 
Suddenly Steve is looking better, but not much: “She didn’t feel that wild and wonderful way around him that she felt in Nicky’s presence, but still, Steve was somebody very nice and comfortable to be with. Like houseshoes, she thought, and she flushed. It didn’t seem like a very complimentary comparison.” Indeed. “Was this love? The easy, friendly, comfortable, quiet thing, where two people sat watching a calm ocean, where two people talked of medicine more than of love or passion, where two people could not see each other for days and when they did, feel as comfortable as they had the moment they left each other.” I hate this device, where the author tries to convince us that friendship is a better foundation for marriage than passion. Call me a romantic fool, but it comes across as lowering your expectations, as putting matrimony ahead of personal happiness: Better to marry a nice man who wants you than remain single and hold out for a man you really love.
 
When Nicky is released from the hospital, he invites Poppy to come to a concert, and seats her at a table in the front, replete with flowers and a quick visit before the curtain goes up. “You know what? I was hoping you’d wear a white dress tonight,” he tells her. “In your white nurse’s uniform, you looked so pretty. White becomes you.” Poppy immediately feels this means that Nicky only loves her as a nurse—but she’s saved from awkwardly running out the door when Luzette crashes the party and seats herself at Poppy’s table, and tells Poppy that she’s in love with Nicky, whom she’s known for only a day—this guy is really something else! Poppy kindly tells Luzette that it will take time for her to convince Nicky that she really loves him, due to his “seeming inability to accept love,” but that they will be married by spring—so it won’t take that much time, after all.
 
On her way out of the music hall, however, there’s a bloody disaster, and Poppy calmly saves the patient and calls for an ambulance. Arriving at the hospital, they’re met by Dr. Steve—and now it’s the young doctor who is making Poppy’s heart miss a beat, nauseatingly enough.
 
This book has two fundamental and conflicting problems: Too much going on, and not enough. The central anguish we are subjected to for pages and pages—so much somber wallowing about who loves whom and whether it’s real or not—seems foolish when the relationship is silly and inconsequential and reduces our heroine to some very tacky, not to mention unprofessional, behavior. The questions about whether Nicky is capable of love, whether Poppy’s feelings for Ole Houseshoes Steve is real love, even the question whether Luzette is the old flame of Nicky’s who tried to kill herself, just clutter the story in an unhelpful way, because the story should be about a real relationship developing between Poppy and Nicky so we can find out if what they feel is substantial and long-lasting or just one of those things. As we have it, this is a trivial story about a pair of shallow individuals who just latch onto whatever is convenient.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cruise Ship Nurse

By Dorothy Daniels, ©1963
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Karen Carlisle thought her frantic flight from the past was over when she boarded a luxurious ocean liner, to become the ship’s nurse. There, among strangers—the richest and most glamorous people in the world—she felt safe. Nobody asked why she was there. And she could pretend she was free like the others. But when an infant was stricken with a fatal disease which only Karen understood, her safety, her career, the love she had learned to cherish above all else, must be sacrificed. Though it might mean disgrace and the loss of her fiancé, Karen Carlisle prepared to reveal the scandalous truth.

GRADE: A-

BEST QUOTES:
“What a bedside manner. You’ll charm the women out of their minor illnesses.”

“I suppose everyone is entitled to a ship romance. It must even be included in the brochure of the cruise.”

“Now run along and attend to your gown and your makeup, all the things that will make everyone appreciate you so much.”

“There’s nothing better than a pizza in Japan.”

“They want a doctor, not a fashion plate.”

REVIEW:
Seldom do we meet a VNRN heroine as smart and as feisty as Karen Carlysle. In truth, she should really be a physician assistant or nurse practitioner, so focused is she on diagnosis and treatment (she had wanted to be a doctor, but financial considerations forced her to drop that dream). This interest surfaces right away when she is assisting society hack Dr. Radcliffe, who is “oozing his bedside best” with a rich, demanding woman with a thyroid tumor. The patient wants an immediate diagnosis, so Dr. Radcliffe pulls out a Vim-Silverman needle for an on-the-spot biopsy. Karen, who had been studying up on thyroid cancer, looks upon the doctor with horror and reminds him that a needle biopsy of a cancerous lesion can seed tumor cells, causing metastasis. He drags her into the corridor and, as she argues with him that the procedure is incorrect and dangerous, declares that he will have her license revoked for interfering with a doctor.

Fortunately, though, also present in the room was her fiancé, Dr. David Logan, who will naturally back her up with this important but outdated doctor. “I’m a lowly resident. I don’t know anything,” he tells her. “A nurse should know even less, but the most important thing she should know is to keep her mouth shut. Damn it, you’re not a doctor. You’re just an interfering nurse who shouldn’t even wear that uniform.” Thanks, Dave. Needless to say, when called to testify before the chief of staff that Dr. Radcliffe had been about to perform a contraindicated biopsy, Dr. Logan “promptly” denied it.

Karen, expecting to lose her license as quickly as she lost her fiancé, is on her way out of the hospital when she passes the room opposite the thyroid patient’s, where she finds an elderly man in respiratory distress. She cannot resist a patient in need, so despite her own problems, she helps him until he is better. It turns out that he had heard the entire exchange, and now wants to help Karen. It turns out that he is the owner of a cruise line, and with one phone call gets her a job on the Prince Thatcher, a luxury liner embarking on a three-month cruise through the Pacific tomorrow.

So off she sails … but her troubles are not exactly behind her, because the ship physician, Dr. Lloyd Dunlop, is more concerned with cocktail parties and bridge games than he is with medicine. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see what is coming next. One patient on board, a Filipino diplomat named Ramon Morrano, is returning to Manila with a fatal lung cancer to die, but it looks like he won’t make it. Karen “had made it a habit of reading all of these journals she could find.” This was how she had known so much about papillary carcinoma of the thyroid; “the hospital library had been at her disposal and she’d studied case histories thoroughly. It was like Karen to do that because her interest in medicine and nursing was such that all this hard work was of vast satisfaction to her if she understood a little more.” So now a little paper about advanced treatments of terminal cancers is teasing her memory. A few hours and a stack of Dr. Dunlop’s virgin medical journals later, Karen discusses a new anabolic medication with Mr. Morrano, who would like to try it—but a nurse can’t prescribe, only Dr. Dunlop can. Needless to say, he is not at all impressed with his uppity nurse. “I refuse to take any responsibility for administering a drug I know nothing about,” he shouts.

Fortunately, Karen has a new friend on board, Pete Addison. Pete refuses to tell Karen what he does for a living and seems to be trailing—and photographing—another passenger, Robert Nesbit, a shy recluse who turns out to be one of the richest men in the world. Karen is upset about this, but Pete tells her that he has given his word to keep this secret and so cannot tell her about it, much as he’d like to. Karen believes Pete to be honorable, and it also turns out that he’s powerful, because he has some of this drug flown by jet from New Jersey to Los Angeles, then on a military bomber to Hawaii. Pete also has a few words with Dr. Dunlop, and soon Mr. Morrano is well enough to take some liquids and even go out on deck to enjoy the views. And remember that Pete is a journalist for a very important and quite conservative news magazine, who had interviewed him once in Washington. “You must never let him become aware of the fact that you know who he really is and what he’s up to,” Morrano advises. “Let him tell you himself, for then he will feel more important and honest. Never bring a young man’s head down out of the clouds.”

And it’s not too long before Pete’s compunction to keep secret his mission fades, and he tells Karen that he is trying to do a profile about Mr. Nesbit, who has always refused any press in the past. But “he has no right” to privacy, Pete states, that the public has “a right to at least know what he looks like,” a curious assertion. And Mr. Nesbit’s six-month-old baby, Melissa, is looking a bit blue about the lips and not taking her food. Dr. Dunlop prescribes a change in formula, but our bold diagnostician Karen has cardiac ideas. When she finds, after a more careful examination than Dr. Dunlop’s, that Melissa is limp, pale, afebrile, and tachycardic, she insists that the baby has more than a minor stomach upset, but Dr. Dunlop furiously denies it. “See that you remember your place,” he snaps. “You are a nurse, not a doctor.”

Needless to say, however, the formula change makes no difference to Melissa, and now the Nesbits are calling for Karen, not Dr. Dunlop. “Frankly, I think you know more than he does and you apply your skill better,” he tells her. Karen is worried, of course, that she’s just adding to her troubles: “I guess I’m not a very good nurse. The first thing we’re taught is to obey the doctor.” But Pete has confidence in her: “If you saw Dunlop going off on a wrong diagnostic tangent, you’d step right in and do what you honestly knew to be right, even if it meant more trouble. You stick by your guns, my girl.” So she returns to the sick bay and promptly starts reading up on pediatrics. When she discusses the case with Dr. Dunlop the next day, he declares that the baby may have acute appendicitis, and Karen is “almost in awe of the man’s complete ignorance.” A blood count proves him wrong, but Dr. Dunlop is afraid to do and EKG for fear of upsetting the Nesbits. Feeling powerless to contradict the doctor, Karen pours out her worry to Pete, who has a talk with Mr. Nesbit. Mr. Nesbit listens to Karen’s reasoning and insists that she do the EKG, but now Karen is in the precarious position of having introduced the journalist to her patients.

The EKG shows ventricular hypertrophy, and Karen diagnoses coarctation of the aorta. The baby will need immediate surgery, but again, a medication, plus oxygen and antibiotics, will help relieve her symptoms until she can have the surgery. She just has to go up against Dr. Dunlop again. “If she was wrong, she was finished as a nurse. But she was certain the medical books backed her up—if she had read them properly—and she knew she had.” In her discussion with him, she is calm, confident, and insistent that he do the right thing, advising that he communicate with a cardiologist by radio—which is promptly done, and the MDs ashore confirm Karen’s diagnosis. In a meeting with the captain, however, Dunlop brings up Karen’s insurrection with Dr. Radcliffe, suggesting that she “has some type of complex and is possibly psychotic. If that’s all, Captain, I’ll return to my party.” But Pete steps up and asks the doctor if he even knows what the proper treatment for the baby is. He does not, unsurprisingly, but Karen sure does! Her treatments are confirmed by the cardiologist ashore, so now all we have to do is get Melissa to a hospital that specializes in pediatric cardiology in the next 36 hours. But Pete—first confessing his occupation to Mr. Nesbit, destroying his film, and tearing up his story—calls on his amazing contacts with the military and arranges a helicopter from a nearby aircraft carrier to swing by and pick up Melissa, Mrs. Nesbit, and Karen, take them to the ship and then to Honolulu by military jet, then by private jet to Los Angeles—the very hospital Karen was to be drawn and quartered at. There, the baby is saved, and Karen is cleared of all wrongdoing in the thyroid case, after sworn affidavits from the cruise ship owner, the supply room manager, and the patient herself showed that Dr. Radcliffe had called for a Vim-Silverman needle. Phew! All that’s left is for Karen to receive Pete’s proposal of marriage over the telephone from Singapore, and all is well.

I’m not really certain that Karen is going to be happy professionally as a nurse, now that her name is cleared—she most positively would not be content as a housewife. But I appreciated both her confidence as a healthcare practitioner, her diligence in doing her homework, and her assertiveness (and her doubts) in challenging the doctor. She is truly an enjoyable heroine, one able to toss of a biting remark when necessary. The writing is slightly above par, and the characters were, for the most part, well-drawn. And when the first class of physician assistants matriculates at Duke in a few years (the first four PAs graduated in 1967), we can only hope that Karen Carlyle will apply.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Vietnam Nurse

By Della Field
(pseud. Fanny Quincy Howe), ©1966
Cover illustration by Mort Rosenberg
 
Natalie Knight of the Navy Nurse Corps had come a long way from Oregon to the battle-torn plains and jungles of Vietnam. But it was a journey of love and devotion. She was looking for Tom, her Green Beret fiancé. He had been reported as missing, but Natalie did not give up hope. She knew that Tom, and hundreds like him, needed her because she was a Vietnam Nurse.
 
GRADE: C+
 
BEST QUOTES:
“You’ll have fun here, a knockout like you.”
 
REVIEW:
Natalie Knight, known as “Lee,” has enlisted to serve as a nurse in Vietnam. Not out of any sense of duty or patriotism, but because she’s searching for her fiancé, Tom Lender, a Green Beret who went missing a year ago during a battle at the Cambodian border. “I’m sure he’s still alive, a prisoner of war,” she tells her roommate, Maggie Jackson. She resists Maggie’s brutal advice to “forget it, doll. He’s bound to be dead. They don’t just turn up again out of the blue.” Not surprisingly, Maggie and Lee do not hit it off, and indeed, Lee “cursed herself for having told Maggie her precious secret.”
 
Lee’s devotion to Tom is not depicted as entirely healthy. As a child, Lee “had been a gawky, even ugly child, that she had been left out of friendships and games and dates for many years.” And though now she is beautiful, “Lee herself still thought of her face and body as laughable.” This insecurity makes her withdrawn, and she’d been completely unsociable with the other nurses on the ship on their way to Vietnam. As a result, she now has essentially no friends on the staff. At one point, “she smiled at the diamond ring on her finger as if it were here only friend,” and that’s not far from the truth. Instead of socializing, Lee spends an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about Tom; Maggie even refers to Tom as Lee’s “dream lover.” We learn that Lee and Tom had been in high school together, he a few years older than she, and she’d only fantasized about hunky Tom Lender, “waited for the day that he would see her,” and it had been hero worship come to life when he eventually discovered her in their college years. Then he’d enlisted, and she’d visited him twice, he proposing just before he was shipped to Vietnam, two years ago. “He had lived in her imagination for many years. In a way, his disappearance didn’t matter to her because he had such a strong place in her mind.” Indeed, “her mind was fixed on Tom at all times.” This is a gal desperately in need of some therapy.
 
But where good psychiatric help is wanting, an interested man will do just as nicely: Lee soon meets another Green Beret, Johnny Winston, who promises to help Lee find out what happened to Tom. He takes her out and she talks to him for hours about Tom, but he clearly is interested in more than her stories, telling her that she is beautiful and that he would like to marry someone like her. She’s fearful and confused, but remembers Tom writing to her that if he should not return, she should find someone else, “and that way the dream will last.”
 
When she’s not dreaming, Lee works in the OR for six hours in the morning, then teaches a class on the medical ship S.S. Charity, parked off the Saigon shore. In the hospital, she meets a Vietnamese woman named Khai, who never merits a last name, and Khai becomes her only real friend. Khai takes Lee on a tour of Saigon, during which Khai lets slip the fact that she is married and that her husband Pham is away, but begs Lee not to speak of it at work. Lee, self-absorbed and incurious, wonders “why he was such a mystery, but then decided she knew nothing of life in this strange country and went to sleep.” Soon Maggie, who is ragingly jealous of Lee’s good looks, is claiming that Khai is Viet Cong and insists that Lee report her, or Maggie will report Khai, and Lee for abetting her. Lee declares that she does not want to get involved, and Maggie rightfully retorts, “What are you doing in the navy? You may be here for romantic reasons, but the rest of us are fighting a war against the Communists. Even little lotus blossom is fighting a war.” An excellent point.
 
Lee eventually asks Khai straight out, learning that Pham is Viet Cong, but Khai professes, war “is no solution and the terrible wounds we see are just a waste. I have no political affiliations.” But soon, tending to the wounded on a daily basis, Lee decides that she hates the men who are wounding and killing the American soldiers she nurses. She begins to feel “anger and rejection of the girl whose husband was a Viet Cong.” She does her best to remember that Khai is a friend, not an enemy, but “what held them together was the same situation that would split them apart: the war and the men they loved. When it came right down to the heart of the matter, each girl would side with the man she loved and thereby renounce their own friendship.” Eventually she asks Khai to see if she can find out what happened to Tom. “She had reached a point where she would, at last, believe what she was told about Tom’s whereabouts; she couldn’t go on dreaming much longer. She could now believe in his mortality and accept the fact of his death.” It’s not clear what exactly has led her to renounce her dream world, so this evolution in her character rings more than a little hollow.
 
It’s not too long before Khai returns with Tom’s dog tags, telling Lee that he had parachuted across the border into Cambodia and been badly wounded, seized and taken to a prison camp, but had died before he’d been tortured. Now that she knows the truth, Lee is ready to pack up and go home, but instead realizes that the American men she has been caring for need her help. “She had a duty outside herself now and it filled her with a new sense of freedom. She wouldn’t go home. She would stay in Saigon, where all her training and experience would be more useful. Out of the ashes of her dream, she would construct a full life for herself, for there really was no choice.” And find a new boyfriend; before too long, Lee is involved with Johnny. “She thought of Tom and promised she would try to make their dreams survive with Johnny.”
 
Khai eventually pulls away from Lee, saying that their friendship is “too difficult” because their allegiances are to different sides of the war. “Americans are innocent. You are a nation of children. Don’t you see? Things are not good and bad, but contain many elements, and your soldiers have adopted the methods of the French, who raped us and left us. How can I be your friend?” This sentence is made more poignant by the story of Khai’s family: Khai’s mother, left a widow in a beriberi epidemic, had approached a local French plantation owner for help saving her children. The Frenchman had aided Khai’s mother, but then “he gave her me as well,” Khai relates. She is angry with her mother for this, saying that she had no principles: “She gave in to him. That’s all. She says she loved him, and she stayed with him until he died. But she was just being a coward.” (Khai tells Lee that her French half is “bad,” saying, “I am Vietnamese first.”) This story also recalls an early scene in the book when Lee and Johnny watch three Vietnamese girls in short skirts and too much lipstick trailing after a group of American servicemen. “Guess what they want,” Johnny tells Lee, the implication being that the girls are either prostitutes or close to it. Johnny, however, is better than Khai’s father, saying, “I don’t want to exploit the war through them.”
 
The climax of the story comes when Lee and Johnny drive out to a field hospital which is attacked by the Viet Cong shortly after their arrival. Lee is asked to go into a rice paddy shortly after the gunfire has ended to help the wounded and finds Johnny, shot in the abdomen. She bandages him and stays with him for hours, until the helicopters arrive, then is driven back to the base to assist in his surgery. He’s sent back to America to recover, and won’t be coming back to Vietnam. Lee, with still a year left to serve in Vietnam, is left behind, “but the future held hopes of peace and joy. Even in the midst of sadness, she knew that better times would have to come. So many people wanted them.”
 
I don’t know when I have been more disappointed in a nurse novel. Not that this book is so much worse than the bulk of nurse novels, but I was looking forward to it after reading Ms. Howe’s only other VNRN, West Coast Nurse, which, if not the greatest book ever (I gave it a B+), was brooding and singular and intriguing. Vietnam Nurse, written three years later, is ordinary and even half-hearted, without much to recommend it apart from some nice travel writing. It devotes little time to the politics of the Vietnam War; Lee says displays little interest in learning about it, saying, “What she had read in the papers was so ambiguous and hard to understand that she had given it up as a loss,” in so doing coming across as a bit of a dolt. And it seems to think we readers are dolts as well, merely brushing over what could be interesting themes, like the difficulties inherent in Khai and Lee’s friendship, letting go of someone who has disappeared, and the effects of colonialism and war in modern times. The hints at complexity that Howe drops and then, perhaps thinking that these ideas would be too complex for a lowly nurse novel, lets lie essentially unexamined, make you long for the better book that has been left unwritten. But whatever the reason, if this book gives you something to think about, it won’t be because you got much encouragement from the author.