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 This insecurity makes her withdrawn, and she’d been completely unsociable with the other nurses on the ship on their way to Vietnam.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.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Hospital Zone

By Mary Stolz, ©1956
Nurse Honey Kirkwood’s cheerful outlook on life made the hospital “routine” a pleasant, humane way to help her fellowmen. When off duty, Honey’s attractive face and ready smile made her irresistible—that is, to all but serious-minded Dr. Vincent Dragone. For Dr. Dragone, nurses did not seem to exist, except as assistants in the O.R. (Operating Room). Honey tried in every way she knew to arouse the handsome young intern’s interest, but his attitude toward her was strictly professional. The fact that three other young men were in love with her did not make Dr. Dragone’s indifference any easier to take. What do I want? Honey repeatedly asked herself. She found what she was looking for in her work … and in the man who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Interns’ purses were just about as flat as their manners, and probably the poor things couldn’t help either.”
“There was a certain sort of clan esprit about the hospital, even if you did need a stethoscope and a microscope and a sabbatical leave to find it.”
“That smile could cause riots.”
“He was going to die, and was taking too long because the hospital gave him such excellent care.”
Mary Stolz was a prolific writer for young adults, and, indeed, Hospital Zone was originally marketed to the young adult market. Here, however, it has been repurposed for the VNRN reader, and if the age of the heroine determines the literary niche, then a good number of VNRNs could likewise be designated young adult fiction. Honey Kirkwood, whose given name will rank alongside Candy and Poppy as the more unfortunate monikers I’ve met in this genre, is a 19-year-old student nurse with at least three beaux and a good idea of how to manage them: “Every time he comes into your mind, you just have to shove him out again, and after a while he quits coming around.”
Most of the book follows Honey throughout her daily life, caring for patients that are kind or mean, getting well or dying, sympathetic or irritating. She lives in a dorm full of lively fellow students, and the dialogue is snappy and smart when she’s with her peeps. As is common with the young adult genre, Honey is grappling with existential problems common to the young: who she is as a person, what she wants from life and her relationships with men. She waxes philosophical about the usual tripe that VNRNs of this period hand out, that “for girls the entire point of life was men.” But she actually sits down to think that over, unlike most heroines we read about who just gulp it down without swallowing. Early on, she does decide that “when you’d found him, and you knew, all the rest would just fall in line because you’d be a whole person and a whole person takes life whole, not in pickings as if it were a tray of canapés.” The nice thing about this is that along her way, Honey meets an elderly woman who tells her that even one’s “true love” fades with time, that there are other loves to be had. Honey immediately discards this as impossible, but the wise patient is proved correct in the end, when Honey fails to land the big fish, another groundbreaking development in VNRNs.
But we need not feel too sorry for Honey, as she is seldom without male company: She dates her three boyfriends, one more than the others, and that one, Joey, proposes about midway through the book. Honey wisely declines to answer, saying, “I’m too young”—and I was mighty pleased that for once a heroine wasn’t finding her purpose in life from a little golden circle. But through it all she’s mooning for the aloof Dr. Dragone, a handsome but inaccessible doctor with whom she has occasional exchanges. At book’s close he’s going to a residency in New York and Honey is left with the realization that she does love him and she can’t have him, but that the pain will pass and she will go on and be a better person for having known, and valued, him. It makes for a far weightier ending than the usual nurse novel, one that’s actually worth 173 pages. Even if it falls a smidge outside the strict definition of a nurse romance novel, I am glad not to have missed this impressive little book.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Star Lansing−Arizona Doctor

By Ruth McCarthy Sears, ©1971
Cover illustration by Gordon Johnson

Young and lovely Dr. Star Lansing loved the wild Arizona country where she was born and raised. Here she dedicated herself to helping the poor but proud local Indian tribe, raising needed funds by treating wealthy patients at the exclusive Desert City spa. But Star faced an agonizing crisis of loyalty when dashing Air Force Colonel Whittaker Blake swept her off her feet. Whit was determined to install a missile site in the area, despite heated community protests, and he asked Star to be his ally. Could Star side against her own people? Could she lower her standards as a doctor in the name of patriotism? Was she truly loved, or merely being used? It took a dramatic medical emergency, and a startling revelation of character, to help Star find the answer hidden in her heart.

What a gal like you needs is a houseful of rambunctious kids.”
“Why would a beautiful gal like you want to be a doctor, of all things? Nurse, maybe, until the right man comes along. But lady doctors scare off the men.”
Star Lansing is a doctor who specializes in tropical diseases. Naturally, she’s decided to practice in Desert City, Arizona, where she caters to the well-to-do folks who come to the area for the spas and golf resorts. There’s a large population of poor Indians on the local reservation, and she moans a lot about the abysmal health care they receive, but she’s too busy cashing checks from her rich patients to help at all on that score; her excuse is that she is burdened with the large, insolvent family ranch that she has to keep afloat.
There are two men in her life. Dr. Hugh McEvers is the other local doctor, but he is “disheveled, charmingly irresponsible, and completely incompetent,” not to mention always late, lenient with nurses, and indulgent with his patients. Impossible man! But he’s fun to be with, so she goes out with him on occasion even if “Star wished that Hugh might be more sincere, more reliable, and that she might permit herself to fall in love with him.” Because Star strangely seems to view every man, no matter how unlikely, as a future husband, until circumstances demonstrate what the reader has seen at first handshake, that the guy is utterly and irrevocably wrong for her.
Meet the other man in her life: Col. Whittaker Blake, who has come to town to build the missile to end all missiles, or maybe just the world. It’s called, curiously, Baby Doll, and everyone is patriotically gung-ho about the project except Star. Her first objection to the plant is that it’s brought a lot of foreigners to town: “Poles, hillbillies, Puerto Ricans, Southerners, Mexicans, Armenians—” and these ne’er-do-wells just get drunk and beat up the locals. Not only that, but “movie theaters were deserted, except for the missile men and their bawdy women who clapped through the serious scenes and yelled with mirth at the comic ones.” To make matters worse, their jerry-built housing is causing real estate values to plummet, and “even the Indian and Mexican household help had absconded from domestic jobs, lured by the compensation” offered at the defense plant. And Col. Blake just laughs at her when she brings up these hardships! The nerve!
But he is awfully cute, so Star quickly gets over her indignation and starts flirting, offering to take him horseback riding out at her ranch, her pulse quickening: “She wanted to know this man in whose hands all the military responsibility rested, really know him.” So she dates him when she can, gets crabby when he doesn’t call, and wonders “when would Whit need and want her as a loving woman? And how long must she wait—wait—until every nerve in her body stopped quivering at the sight or nearness of him and she could utter the words forever crying in her heart: Oh, Whit—love me—love me!” Star is, in a nutshell, a shallow tramp.
Anyway, the problem with this little fantasy of Star’s is that every time she’s actually out with Whit, they invariably fight about how hard he drives his crew and how he insists on sham physicals for the workers so as to prevent delays in the schedule, as a regular exam would take everyone off the job for too long. And he thinks Indians are “lazy and incompetent.” But that’s just a minor hiccup for Star, who has visions of nosegays and white organza. She continues to defend Whit, to herself and to the townspeople, telling Hugh that Whit’s “a serious, dedicated person—one who should be an inspiration to all of us,” and never mind about his utter lack of regard for a fellow human being.
Then, out to dinner with Hugh one night, suddenly he’s the one her heart is all a-pitty-pat for—maybe because Hugh looked “better groomed.” Amazing what a comb and a tux can do for a guy, “something so tremendous, so steeped in magic that it was almost unreal.” In a twinkle she decides that if Hugh proposes tonight she’ll say yes, and I decide that I am thoroughly disgusted with Star Lansing, and the book’s just half over. But the fairy-tale ends abruptly when the Colonel crashes her date, so she tells him off—and this has nothing to do with the fact that he’s been out dancing at the country club with other women, and she’s been stewing over it for the last two chapters. Whit’s response is to ask her to marry him, but though fickle Star “would have been filled with a joy too great to deny a week ago,” now she’s not sure. “She had waited for him to call, yearned for the sound of his voice—was it only a week ago? What was she made of?” An excellent question.
As with many VNRNs, an epidemic pops up to put things to rights. Star and Hugh work relentlessly to track down the cause—good thing she spent all that time studying tropical diseases! It’s leptospirosis, passed around by a litter of puppies sired by her own dog, so it’s curtains for all the canines, including hers—not to mention a few of the missile plant workers, but it’s the dead dog that really puts the kibosh on her lust for Whit, as now she holds him responsible for both the dog’s death and the epidemic as well (though I’m not sure I follow her logic). The rest of the dominoes soon fall neatly into place: A new health clinic for the Indians, a happy ending for Whit and Star’s childhood Indian friend, and—best of all—an engagement ring for Star! So everyone is finally happy at the end: Star can die a happy and complete woman, and we can put away for good this overly long novel about a man-hungry, shallow, and annoying doctor.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Millionaire Nurse

By Katherine Foreman, ©1965
Cover illustration by Mort Engel
$1,160,303.54 is a fortune any way you look at it. And that’s what penniless young Andrea Corbury discovered she’d inherited—just minutes after receiving the R.N. degree she’d struggled so long for. Andrea faced a hard and fateful decision. Would she practice the profession she was dedicated to? Or would she live the life of a gay society heiress—and earn the scorn of the handsome young doctor who loved her?
“He had been a country doctor of the old school, and it was his astonishing contention that the only two things essential to the performance of a successful operation were a surgeon and a patient. All else sank into comparative unimportance. A surgeon’s task was to get results by any means at hand, and how he got them was of no great concern to the patient. A good surgeon, he maintained, should be able to do a good job whether he did it in the most modern hospital or on a kitchen table in a farmhouse. Kitchen surgery had taught him invaluable facts, chief among them being the lesson that clean and swift operating did more to minimize infection than all the bothersome face masks and white gowns ever made. Yes, in his later years he had worked in some very find hospitals, but some of his best work had been done in farm kitchens, in his shirt sleeves, with a few boiled instruments in a dishpan. He hadn’t much use for assistants. They got in the way.”
“It’s against nature for a woman to take no pride in her looks!”
Through great personal hardship and dedicated perseverance, Andrea Corbury has received her nurse’s degree—and no sooner is the papyrus is placed in her hand than she is whisked to a meeting with the attorney of her recently deceased Uncle Jefferson. He had loaned her money for her studies, to be repaid, of course—but now it seems the old geezer was loaded and left it all to her if she actually made it through nursing school. So now the whopping sum of $1,160,303.54 is hers.
Naturally, she and her sister, 17-year-old Joan, go completely to pieces. They buy a huge mansion, renovate it to the latest tastes, outfit themselves in sables and satins, and spend their nights partying at the country club. Much to the disappointment of Andrea’s long-time beau, Dr. Fred Falk, who feels she has thrown away her values; this he tells her when she proposes to him shortly after the interior decorators have had their way with her new mansion. So she starts seeing other men. When she meets society playboy Gerald Maitland at the country club, where the likes of Fred Falk cannot afford to go, she finds Gerald “coldly unapproachable,” and she was “a little frightened of him.” A minor incident with a drunk in which Gerald knocks the poor sap out shows her that Gerald is “a dangerous man,” and that “the polished manners cloaked a tiger.” Naturally he becomes her main beau. What is wrong with these women?
He proposes, but eventually she wises up and turns him down, instead becoming infatuated with Lee Archer, a painter newly returned from Paris who is being pressured by his father to take up the family business. The question of his talent is at best dubious: His canvases haven’t arrived yet from France, the “atmosphere” of Texas is not conducive to painting, and he protests a bit too loudly that art is his true calling! Like all serious artists, though, he spends a lot of time drinking, but Andrea feels that Lee is so in love with her that he cannot leave Grenville, and it’s the torture of being denied his art that causes him to drink, so “to that extent, she was responsible for his drinking.” To save him, then, she decides to marry him, so they can go anywhere and he can start painting again. And believe it or not, Andrea marries Lee before the book is half over.
But at the reception Lee becomes blindingly drunk and scoffs loudly that now he has all the money he needs, and he can go back to Paris and Marie: “All I needed was t’ catch a millionaire sucker,” he sneers. So that’s the end of that marriage—fortunately, we are reminded later, never consummated. And soon he’s been killed in a communist uprising that he has joined somewhere in South America.
So now it’s back to Gerald, who has become a meeker, nicer beau. And meanwhile, Andrea is getting worried: Gosh, if Gerald won’t have her, she’ll die a lonely old maid. What would she do to fill her time without him? If only she “could discover in herself an all-absorbing interest,” she thinks. “She could think of nothing that would fulfill her own urge toward worthwhile endeavor.” Nursing never enters her mind, the dumb twit. So when Gerald finally pops the question, she is so relieved! But not three minutes later, the old bossy Gerald resurfaces with a bound; he’d just been holding his breath under the surface all this time. He plans a cocktail party at which they will announce their engagement, where he preens and struts, staring at Andrea “in cold possession. In his regard she became a chattel.” Fortunately, though, if Andrea was a dolt to fall for Lee, she is a wiser widow now, and turns Gerald down flat in front of everyone: “She would not be robbed of her will and become a slave to his.” Gerald responds by knocking out Andrea’s hired man, fleeing the state, and eventually turning himself in to the authorities, where he is found to be psychotic and committed to the state asylum. Let that be a lesson to you, boys: Be nice to your girlfriends.
After this last setback, Andrea, instead of rejoicing over her narrow escape, instead lapses into a deep depression. And the only thing that pulls her out of it is when she discovers something that she can devote her life to with selflessness and joy—that’s right, another man. Once she has him in hand, then she can turn her attention to other things—like transforming the house, yet again, this time into a cottage hospital, and maybe working on its staff. It will cost about a million dollars to get the hospital built, but apparently she and Joan only spent $160,303.54 in all their sprees, so it’s all good! Especially with Uncle Jefferson smiling down from heaven on the newly wise heiress: “Knowing that the true worth of money lay in the wise use of it, he had balanced her strength of character against the pitfalls of misusing it; and she had almost failed his trust. If he could see and hear her now, he would know that she had finally won through to glorious rewards far more precious than money.” So if you should happen to inherit a million dollars, heed Andrea Corbury’s advice, and don’t go falling for controlling, money-hungry men; just give it all away—starving nurse novel bloggers would be particularly worthy charities—and you will be so much the happier for it.