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.

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.
“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.”
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.


“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.”

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.
“You’ll have fun here, a knockout like you.”
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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hollywood Nurse

By Patricia Libby, ©1962
Three men called her “Jenny, Darling.” There was Tom, honest and sincere, who wanted her as a “full-time wife.” There was Mike—Mike to her, to others a screen idol and notorious playboy—who had fallen hard for her and had said, “This time it’s forever.” And there was Brad, the young doctor who shared her dreams and her dedication—but was engaged to another girl.
“I’d marry you for your cooking even if you were an old hag.”
“She was incurably romantic despite the fact of being an old maid.”
“ ‘Oh, Tom,’ she sighed in a trembly, little girl voice guaranteed to bring out the protective in males.”
“ ‘I make good home for Johnnie. I give him much love and smiling face. Is right way, Miss Tyler?’
“ ‘It’s the wise way, Koyo,’ Jenny answered. ‘The way to happiness in a marriage. Don’t ever change.’ ”
Jenny Tyler works at the Holly View Sanitarium in Beverly Hills, where unhealthy movie people go to get well. She’s in love with Dr. Bradford Conners, but after he got one look at the chief of staff’s glamorous daughter, Faye Kettering, ambition and testosterone got the better of him and he dumped Jenny to propose to Faye. A business proposal soon followed, and now Brad is the chief’s assistant and medical heir. As the book opens, Brad and Jenny—who still have to work together, of course—are squabbling over the hospital’s central philosophy, which is that the medical staff should only tell patients what they want to hear. Which means that sweet old Western actor Laredo Sims, found to be in possession of an inoperable lung tumor, is left ignorant of his fatal condition. “People in the entertainment business live in a world of pretense,” Brad tells Jenny. “Truth is a stranger to them. An unwelcome one.”
Even Jenny’s roommate, Suzan, prefers illusion to reality. “Don’t be so darn truthful and practical,” she tells Jenny. “It takes the fun out of my dreaming.” Suzan is engaged to Dr. Kris McKenzie, but early in the book Suzan comes down with flu-like symptoms and is found to have an unexplained bruise on her shoulder. You will not be shocked to learn that Suzan is soon diagnosed with leukemia and given less than six weeks to live. You will be even less shocked that Suzan is the only one who isn’t told this. Curiously, Jenny instantly decides that “truth, which had always been the principle she believed in and practiced, must be exchanged for pretense.” Despite the fact that she has taken the opposite view on Laredo Sims’ case, virtually identical to Suzan’s, Jenny decides that she has to “give Suzan hope for a little longer.” When Suzan finally figures it out, she takes it in stride that all her friends have been lying to her, curiously. She and Kris decide to get married—and the hospital staff pools its resources, giving the newlyweds a check for $230 which “meant that they could have a honeymoon.” Today this amount would buy you four days at a Motel 6 and McDonald’s, but I guess there’s been some inflation in the past fifty years.
When she’s not battling illness and illusion at work and at home, Jenny is struggling to decide who to marry. Tom Russell is kind, dependable, and in love with her. “She had only to give him a little encouragement and he’d surely propose. Why not, she asked herself. Tom would make a good husband. He was nice-looking, charming, fun to be with, and they shared similar interests.” Marriage, in most VNRNs, is first and foremost a business deal, unless love sweeps all common sense under the rug. But Tom wants Jenny to quit nursing if they are married, so this—and her love for Brad—keep her single. Soon another beau enters the scene: Mike Ryan, who is a sort of George Clooney–type movie star. Despite his reputation as a lothario, he proposes within a week and is apparently quite serious; turns out he’s been looking for an honest woman, but Jenny’s the first one he ever met in Hollywood. Jenny goes to lots of glamorous parties with Mike and seriously considers marrying him, but in the end decides that she could never be at home in his world of glitter and indolence. “Love wasn’t enough, Jenny wanted to tell him. It took understanding and tolerance and the wanting to share each other’s interests and thoughts for a successful marriage. Mike’s world was pretending. Hers was reality.” Of course, she doesn’t really love him, either, so that would be a bit of a handicap as well.
In the meantime, Brad is still carrying on a low-grade flirtation with Jenny, dancing with her at the hospital ball and fighting with her when her bitterness about being dumped makes her catty. Eventually Brad becomes impatient with all the bickering, and asks her, “Can’t you stop being such a fighter?” This puts her in a tailspin: “Had her job made her so independent that she had become less of a woman? Stand up for what you believe. Speak the truth. There it was again. The principles she had governed her life by were proving to have a high price. Faye was no fighter, that was a foregone conclusion. She was every inch a woman. Softly feminine and seeming helpless. No wonder Brad had fallen into her trap. Dumb like a fox. That was Faye Kettering.” I have to say, I’d take integrity over a wedding ring, any day, but that’s just me.
With all her beaux off the table, Jenny decides to take a job in another hospital in Oregon, close to her home town. When Brad comes to tell Jenny goodbye, he blurts out that he is less than satisfied with his prospects: “My future all decided with no sweat or struggle involved. All I’ll have to do is agree with my father-in-law and cater to my wife. A small price for success, wouldn’t you say?” Jenny is surprised by Brad’s bitterness, especially when he tells her, “You’ve been a banner of truth in a citadel of illusion,” now apparently coming to appreciate the very qualities he despised at book’s open. This leads them both to agree that “truth should be tempered with kindness, even with little white lies sometimes. Just as illusion should never replace reality. There was room and need for both.” It’s a pat lesson, not really earned, and it falls flat.
Jenny is all packed and ready to go, but Laredo Sims is dying and asks that she come see him. There’s this little matter of a forest fire in the Hollywood hills near the hospital, but Jenny talks her way past the fire trucks blocking the road. Unfortunately, she runs out of gas about a mile up the hill, and the flames are about to overtake her as she runs screaming hysterically down the road, but Brad pulls up on a white horse—oh, no, it was just his car—and carries her up the hospital, where she recovers from smoke inhalation for a few days. It’s just a few pages from the end, and you can surely figure out what happens in the final paragraphs. Except poor Laredo Sims apparently dies alone, because he’s never mentioned again.
This book, written before Patricia Libby’s excellent Winged Victory for Nurse Kerry and Cover Girl Nurse, has none of their camp or humor or even interest. It’s fairly plodding, as nurse novels go, and the whole central theme of truth versus illusion is too easily dismissed with Brad and Jenny’s agreement to compromise. I had high hopes for this book, but apparently it took Ms. Libby a bit to hit her stride. Unfortunately, this is apparently the last of the three nurse novels she wrote, so there will be no chance of redemption, except to go back and revisit the two novels we’ve already read. And given their fabulousness, you might want to consider just that.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Resort Nurse

By Rose Dana
(pseud. William E. Daniel Ross), ©1969
Nurse Carol Holly accepted her summer assignment to the Mic-Mac lodge with joy. It seemed full of promise. Her patient was wealthy Arthur Kulas, a stroke victim, a diabetic, but a fascinating art collector and lecturer still active in his career. And the Canadian resort offered the finest in entertainment and sports. Only Walter Pitt, the carefree young man who had pursued her from Boston, and Dr. Bill Shaw, the Mic-Mac’s resident physician, presented a problem; she liked both more than she cared to admit. Then Carol’s lightheartedness came to an abrupt end. Her patient was beaten, his room burglarized. By whom? By one or more of the too-fashionable guests at the lodge? But why? Harried by the mystery, Carol still dedicated herself to her nurse’s duties—until the criminals struck violently again, this time at her!
“Let’s admit, in spite of all the colleges, Boston is not the fun spot of the world for a single girl.”
“My last nurse had an unfortunate addiction to ginger ale. It was one of her more distressing aspects.”
“I hope you’re not given to making touching philosophic speeches like that. I couldn’t bear it.”
“Bart adores bullying me, and I find it so flattering.”
“Everybody acts idiotic at one time or another, but the people I have to deal with seem to make a career of it.”
“If Gabriel was blowing his horn and walls were tumbling all around us, you’d be running after me with a medicine bottle.”
“You are at your best in tennis clothes.”
“Don’t worry your pretty bullet-singed head.”
This being a book by Dan Ross, you know it won’t be long before we meet a woman who will be referred to as “the dark girl” again and again. Enter Mimi Gamal, a Lebanese woman staying at the hotel in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, where stroke victim Arthur Kulas has gone to recuperate. “The name Gamal suggests she could be Turkish,” Arthur explains to Nurse Carol Holly, who he’s dragged along to tend to him on his trip. “But she’s too beautiful for a Turkish woman. More apt to be of mixed blood. They are always the loveliest women.”
In addition to being a racist, Arthur is a gloriously cranky Back Bay Bostonian (Beacon Street, to be precise), a former State Department envoy to Egypt, who puts on lectures about the Middle East illustrated with valuable exhibits from his personal art collection. He’s going to Canada to recover from the stroke that he’s showing no signs of; it’s his diabetes that gives him trouble, so Carol is there to administer insulin shots twice a day and urge him to eat on schedule. But that’s about the job entails, so this leaves her plenty of time to play tennis with various men at the resort.
One of her would-be boyfriends is Walter Pitt, a man she has encountered on the street outside Kulas’ house before they departed for Canada. He stops her with the story that he’s found a lost purse, but when she tells him it’s not hers, he chases her down the street for several blocks, insisting that he’s not “some sort of crazy person”—his persistence clearly proving otherwise—adding that her reluctance to engage in conversation with a stranger marks her as “unreasonable and Victorian,” saying, “Here we live in a swinging age, and you’re acting this way!” Naturally, when she meets him in Canada, she tells him, “I’m glad to see you again,” and takes him up on a game of tennis after he easily convinces her that his being there is a complete coincidence. Later she snubs him after he dances with Mimi Gamal, and her raging jealousy of Mimi keeps her sparring with him for the rest of the book, she all the long fervently insisting that she is not at all jealous! I hope for her sake that no one ever tries to sell this poor dope a bridge.
Her other beau is the local doctor, Bill Shaw. “You seem to attract young men,” Arthur notes drily. “I trust you’re not going to allow a biological urge to get you into trouble.” Given her gullibility, I don’t have much confidence in Carol’s ability to say no. Indeed, Bill soon convinces her to spend her afternoons at the understaffed hospital, since they need her help so much more than Arthur does. Curiously, though, for an overworked medico Bill has plenty of time for tennis with Carol. Bill doesn’t impress much as a doctor when he’s actually working, either; he treats a man for a mild heart attack, and decides, “But we won’t tell him that. No need to scare him.” Later, tending to an accident victim whose leg is clearly broken in several places and bleeding heavily, he chooses to first repair the facial lacerations before determining if the major arteries in the leg have been severed. If the kid bleeds out, at least he’ll look good in his coffin.
A number of people in the hotel profess a deep interest in Arthur’s artifacts, including Mimi, the hotel’s orchestra’s bass player and his wife, tourists Captain Bart and his wife Ellen Hooper, and sea Captain Tim Mullaney—who offers Holly a ride on the street which she accepts because she didn’t want “to give the impression she considered herself above riding in a truck.” It doesn’t take a genius to feel suspicious of their salivating enthusiasm for the valuables, but Carol is not the brightest bulb on the tree, so she drops what should be confidential information—particularly after an attempted burglary—at the slightest hint, including the fact that Arthur has brought a lot of his valuables with him on the trip. Even when she starts to have “the scary feeling that behind all this casual talk there was a pattern, an evil pattern,” she still tells them that the artifacts are kept in locked bags in the hotel suite but that Arthur will probably be taking them out to sort through them at some point. She’ll be lucky not to be charged as an accessory to the burglary that anyone but Carol can see coming a mile away.
Indeed, at the halfway point in the book, Arthur wakes up to find he has been robbed again, but only items of little value are taken. Carol wastes no time in publicizing this fact, along with the information that the cases just have light locks on them. It’s not surprising, then, that Arthur and Carol are soon held captive by four of the obvious suspects, who are after a treasure map they have assumed that Arthur not only owns—which he has already plausibly denied in private to Carol—but brought with him to Canada. The pair is rescued by Walter and Captain Tim, and the would-be crooks escape. Then two more invite Carol and Arthur on a cruise piloted by Captain Tim, with Walter crashing the party at the last minute. Miles out at sea, one of the party pulls a gun and insists that Arthur “hand over” the treasure map—now the assumption is not only that he brought the map on vacation but that he carries it with him everywhere he goes.
Suddenly the plot takes on the velocity of a tornado: In four paragraphs the criminals have been apprehended and investigated, and Arthur and Carol have checked out of the hotel. Now all that remains is for the treasure map to be found and Carol to decide who to marry. Four pages later that has been accomplished, too, and with the nauseating final sentence, we can be shut of this stupid book.
If there is one thing I cannot stand, it’s a stupid heroine. The only enjoyable feature of this book is the witticisms that Arthur tosses off with marvelous frequency, but unless you have the ability to enjoy a dumb book, it may not be enough to compensate for an insultingly flawed story line and a moronic main character.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Nurse Shelley Decides

By Arlene Hale, ©1964
Cover illustration by Mort Engle
“Are you after a fat paycheck, Nurse?” The contempt in Dr. Adam Victor’s voice stung Shelley—but it was true she was leaving the hospital to nurse a private patient, and Miriam Bleeker was very rich indeed. The handsome young doctor looked on Shelley as a deserter—and what made it worse was that Dr. Victor had declared war on the whole Bleeker family … and anyone who was with them was his enemy!
“I’m direct. That’s my big problem. I say what I think. Do you know how many people go around never really saying what they think or doing what they want, or being their real selves? IT’s sickening. It really is.”
Dr. Adam Victor is a tall, hungry-looking young man who yells at all the nurses and “seemed to hate all women in general, nurses in particular and Shelley especially.” Naturally, Nurse Shelley Stevens is drawn to this doctor, with whom she does nothing but fight.  “She didn’t know why she allowed him to upset her so much, but he invariably did.” Well, we know why, don’t we, readers! Shelley has a boyfriend, artist Paul deWinters, but though she loves hanging out in his apartment, she’s not as emphatically gung-ho about him. He doesn’t have a lot of ambition, “content to drift along in his easy-going way,” and besides, “there was always something just not quite right. Something was not complete.” This setup is a fairly standard VNRN ploy, telegraphing from the first page what’s going to happen on the last. It bores me.
Shelley lives and works in a mill town, and the mill in question is owned by the Bleeker family. The operating conditions at the mills are poor, and many workers end up in the hospital after accidents that could have been avoided. This is why Dr. Victor hates the Bleekers so much. But Shelley is asked as a special favor by Dr. Harris, an old friend who encouraged her to go to nursing school, to take a job specialing Miriam Bleeker, who is recovering from a stroke. So though she knows it is going to get her into hot water at work—and sure enough, it does—she takes the job. While she’s living in the Bleeker mansion, she begins to run into numerous mysteries: Why won’t the unions advocate for the workers but are content to let the lax conditions go unchallenged? Why is Dr. Harris, who is the medical director for the mills, also disinterested in pushing for better safety for the workers? What is Dr. Harris’ relationship with Mrs. Bleeker? Why has Mr. Bleeker abandoned the family?
About halfway through the book, Dr. Vincent and Shelley meet up at the funeral of a much-beloved patient and end up at dinner together—and kissing afterward. “I don’t understand. I thought we hated each other,” says Shelley the simpleton. After kissing her silly, Dr. Victor insists that Shelley quit working for the Bleekers, or “we’ll forget what just happened.” She’s shocked, but has enough spine to give him a piece of her mind and go back to the Bleekers.
Eventually, the crisis you knew was going to happen actually does: There’s a big explosion at the mill, and many people are seriously injured or killed. The shock of the accident also sends Miriam into a second and fatal heart attack. This saves everyone from the responsibility of agency: With Miriam out of the picture, her son Blake finally has the spine to throw his cheating wife and the corrupt union boss out on their ears, and start running a responsible business, vowing to rebuild the mill according to the best safety standards out there! Mr. Bleeker is returned to the mansion from the nursing home where he’d been hiding out, and Shelley is obliged to return to her job at the hospital. So now all it takes is for Dr. Victor to come striding over to her, grip her painfully by the shoulders, and command, “You’re going to marry me, Shelley. Just as soon as it can be arranged.” And that’s that, all but the nauseating final sentence.
The writing isn’t bad, but the plot is trite, and Nurse Shelley’s capitulation is more than a little disappointing, especially after the way she has stood up for herself all through the book. And we’re left with the question: What did Shelley decide? Seems to me the decision was made for her. If you figure it out, let me in on it.