Monday, October 17, 2016

Doctor By Day

By Thomas Stone (pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1944

Doctor Anthony Collier voluntarily renounced catering to a stylish clientele, and set himself up as a general neighborhood practitioner. His aim was service rather than success. He didn’t realize that certain of his patients would demand service of a kind he hadn’t anticipated, and that idle women and neurotic men didn’t frequent only specialists’ streamlined offices. A frivolous blonde office assistant with a “fixation” on the doctor; a boy afraid of the draft; and a jealous fiancée were a few of the cases Doctor Tony was called upon to treat. And in the course of his treatments, he sometimes found himself personally as well as professionally involved in his patients’ affairs.


“I suppose I can stand it just once—being admired for my sterling qualities of mind and character. Just so it doesn’t get to be a habit with men.”

“Men think up much snappier stories on a full stomach.”

“I suspect the psychiatrists are all wet when they say sex is at the bottom of the happy marriages, or the unhappy ones. Why does it never occur to them that coffee is at the root of the problem? Imagine a man ever leaving a woman who could make coffee like this.”

“When Betsy Jane dreamed of High Romance, she didn’t mess with it. She really went to town.”

“Now look—what were we talking about when my fiancée blew in like a wild tornado, and called you a slut, and the two of you mopped up the floor with each other?”

“Rita looked like a gal on sinful pursuits bent, and as if having made up her mind to it, she’d sin or know the reason why.”

“If he cut out dames, think of the time he’d have for so many of the things he had always wanted to do, but had never seemed to get around to. Reading up in the classics, for instance, in his spare time.”

I wish I could tell you that this is the best nurse novel I have read all year, or possibly ever. Doctor by Day is, without question, an utterly fantastic book—but unfortunately there is not a nurse or female doctor in sight; this book is about a male doctor and his various girlfriends, so it does not count as a nurse novel. But it’s just too good to let go without shouting from the rooftops that everyone reading this should instantly hop over to Abebooks and procure a copy. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, let me explain: Dr. Anthony Collier is engaged to sultry tease Rita Shreve, a wealthy and controlling woman who wants to transform Dr. Tony from a general practitioner into a highly paid, glamorous consultant. He loves Rita and yearns for her badly, but is increasingly displeased with the pressure she is putting on him. On one epically bad evening, Tony’s secretary puts the moves on him, and he brushes her off. He then takes a call from a piano playing milquetoast with an overbearing mother and a terrible fear of his upcoming draft into World War II. Tony, fed up with the weeping youth, suggests that he lose his virginity, which will make a man out of him. Rather than follow this interesting advice, the mopey lad takes himself home and attempts to commit suicide by shooting himself in the shoulder, bringing the wrath of the boy’s mother down upon Tony. In an attempt to do right, Tony goes to the boy’s house, where he finds his cast-aside secretary feeding false information to the distraught mother and the boy suffering from a minor flesh wound. He also finds neighborhood gal Kathie Downing, who owns a tea room and is on hand to lend support. She steers Tony away from the situation before it escalates further and brings her back to her house to help buck him up. Once there, though, he realizes that she is a beautiful, vibrant, kind, intelligent woman who understands him much more than Rita, and he convinces her to allow him to spend the night with her. Yes, like that—a unique plot twist pretty much none of our VNRN heroines would indulge in.

Back at the home of the suicidal boy, the secretary is finally setting off for home herself, thinking about what more she can do to destroy Tony. A clever lass, she decides to drop by Kathie’s home just to see what’s what, lingers before the kitchen window for a while, and then goes home with a satisfied grin on her face. Early the next morning, she drops a dime to the home of Rita Shreve, suggesting that her young man would be so glad to see her, if she could dash over to this little cottage right away. Well, needless to say, when Rita arrives, fireworks ensue. This does put a bit of a damper on the love blooming in Tony’s heart, and crushes Kathie, though she is a tough, realistic lass and wastes no self-pity and few tears on the situation after Tony bodily drags Rita from the house.

It’s just a matter of time before everything is sorted out between these three, but in fact it really doesn’t matter how all this is accomplished. Because in Doctor by Day, author Florence Stonebraker has absolutely outdone herself. She should have won a Pulitzer Prize, or some similar major literary award, for insanely brilliant writing in the genre of hard-boiled fiction. Every page has a beautiful turn of phrase or a fabulous description: “He thought of Rita’s apartment in that exclusive and frightfully expensive building on The Strip. It had been done by an interior decorator with a French name, mincing ways, and a national reputation for achieving strikingly unique effects. And it looked it. It was so unique, and so definitely Hollywoodish, and so expensive looking, that you felt like making a low bow when you went into it, and apologizing humbly for daring to sit on the delicate, salmon-colored upholstery.”

At the same time, the writing also very evocatively describes the growing love between Kathie and Tony without inspiring nausea and the dry heaves, itself an extremely remarkable feat (says the intrepid guide who has read more than 250 of these books): “She had a way of looking at you, and walking right into your life as she did it. There was a warmth about her, and a sweetness. You wanted to tell her things.” The writing evokes a slightly softer Dashiell Hammett: sharp, witty, and intelligent—and at the same time charming, beautiful, and sweet. This book is an undiscovered classic, and (alongside her other outstanding work, City Doctor) permanently solidifies Florence Stonebraker’s reputation with me as the pantheon of pulp romance novelists, nurse themed or not.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Two Loves Has Nurse Powell

By William Johnston, ©1963

Cover illustration by Robert Bonfils

You know Nurse Powell, or perhaps you’ve just seen her walking down a hospital corridor. For a nurse, she’s a bit too distracting in face and figure, but she’s tops in her profession, capable, calm, trained right down to her fingertips. You might suspect that there was a romance between her and that brilliant young doctor, and you’d be right. But did you know that simply because of one patient, her off-duty hours became a whirlpool of politics and pleasure, she forgot her professional coolness, and lost her heart completely to a completely different type of man?



“It’s a grand old name, Mary. You don’t hear it much anymore. What is it we get these days? Kims! And Tuesdays! Oh, I keep up with the fashions. A man in politics has to. He never knows when he’s goin’ to ask a wee little babe’s name of its mother and she’s goin’ to answer back, ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Kim’—and a man has to be on his toes in a situation like that. If he followed his natural inclination and asked leave to go off and throw up his supper like he felt, he’d be sure to lose the vote.”

“I always like to see young people fight. It shows they’re not each other’s rubber stamps. It shows individuality. A good fight is a good beginning. It’s a mistake to save the fighting for marriage.”

“I see you don’t have your needle with you. May I consider that a sign of peaceful intentions?”

“You don’t have to be smart. You’re  a redhead.”


When a books starts off with writing that crackles, I relax a bit and smile with anticipation for what delights the rest of the book will bring. So it was with this book: Nurse Ellen Powell wakes with a premonition that the day is going to go badly, and it puts her in a funk. She’s worried that the impending doom revolves around her fiance, Dr. Dan O’Meara, who—though he has told her that he loves her—has not actually proposed. Soon she’s weeping, convinced that their relationship is over. But when she ventures into the kitchen, she finds that the coffee maker is on the fritz. Now she’s convined that this is the Bad Thing, and the wrinkles staining her brow are instantly smoothed. On to work.
There she finds that Packey Mackey, a most colorful 86-year-old politician, has been admitted for heart problems. Word on the street is that he’s actually just trying to duck testifying before a grand jury on a corruption charge, for stealing from the Welfare Fund and lining his own pockets. In the hospital, Packey’s health and treatment is being very carefully managed by none other than Dr. O’Meara. Dan is convinced that Packey is actually sick, and is running him through a complete workup, despite pressure to discharge Packey so he can face the music before the election and presumably be brought down instead of habitually returned to office by his loyal constituents. Got all that?

When she’s not caring for Packey, Ellen just can’t seem to stop herself from quarreling with Dan, though she never comes out and tells him what is really upsetting her. He assures her that he loves her, but that’s not enough for her—but she refuses to discuss it. Instead they head off to meet Neal Conlon, who is running against Packey in the upcoming election and also happens to be an old boyhood acquaintance of Dan’s—you couldn’t really call them friends. After this meeting, in one of their fights, Ellen declares she is going to work on Neal’s campaign every night, and how does Dan like that? “You’re a big girl now—you can think for yourself,” he says, admirably, despite all evidence to the contrary. So off she goes to Neal’s office, where she is immersed in his idealism and excitement. There she watches him threaten people with what will happen if they vote for Packey. And submits when he pressures her for information about Packey’s medical condition. “When we do wrong we’re doing it so that weventually we can do right,” he explains, pulling her close and holding her hand. Oh, OK, Neal! So when he starts kissing her, she’s swept off her feet, suddenly believing that she’s in love with Neal as well as Dan. And when Neal presses her to pump Dan for information too, she wonders about his seeming so shallow and opportunistic, that “there was little Neal would no do to get what he wanted”—yet keeps on spending all her free time with Neal and fighting with Dan about what she sees as his favoritism for Packey at the expense of truth, justice, and fair elections.
If Dan won’t propose, Neal certainly will, and wants to do it on election night: “It’s got schmalz. The little old ladies will love that.” Ellen has shown little ability to see Neal’s cold-heartedness up to this point, and once he starts kissing her, she is unable to do so now. But later, when Neal snaps at Ellen because she refuses to try to convince the chief of surgery that Dan is drawing out Packey’s stay in order to protect him from the grand jury, she tries to break up with him. He talks her out of it, though: “Let me take care of you. If you have doubts about me, about us—just squash them,” he tells her. Though she waffles some more, she does end the interview by telling him she wants to take time away from him. He’s fine with that—“and if anything new happens at the hospital, call me,” he tells her. Still she’s working every night at Neal’s campaign headquarters. But after he tells her to keep her eye on one of the surgeons who will be assisting at Packey’s operation, she suddenly sees through him: “his drives—his hate for his enemies and his professed love for her—had stemmed from nothing more than his own frantic need for self-gratification.” It’s a curious conclusion to make, based on the conversation that preceded it, and ridiculously overdue, given all the other conversations that had preceded it.
Assisting at the surgery, it’s an open-and-close affair—which means only one thing, that Packey has inoperable cancer. And when it’s over, she doesn’t rush off to telephone Neal. In fact, home in her own apartment, she doesn’t even answer the phone when it rings all night. A few days later, though, when Neal calls her to come down to headquarters and celebrate, she pulls on an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress and heads downtown, long enough to break up with Neal for good. Then she just has to make up with Dan and we can close the book.
I loved the writing in this book, and the political machinations—even more complicated than I have given you here—are not easy wrong-or-right situations, but shades of gray that give you something to think about. I would have easily given this book an A grade—except I just can’t forgive how the author has treated Nurse Ellen, who is easily one of the most gullible, spineless, simple-minded heroines I have ever met. Her character was uncalled for, and it significantly depreciated this story for me. It’s still worth reading, but you’ll want to do it with a roll of Tums by your side, a remedy for the queasy feeling brought on by the fickle, pathetic Ellen Powell, RN, who doesn't deserve to have one man love her, let alone two.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Night Ward

By Noah Gordon, ©1959

 On call … for love. The nurse – beautiful, blonde, and recently jilted by her fiance – has sworn off love. The doctor – handsome and wealthy – is torn between his society background and his medical future. The policeman – ambitious and honest – is on the trail of a psychopathic killer loose on hospital grounds. Each man wants to marry her. But complications of the heart set in when she finds herself falling in love … with both of them.



“The Red Sox were at bat, and as Ted Williams stepped to the plate Mrs. Hanscom poured herself a large glass of lemonade and drained it thirstily. Then, as Williams flied out to center field, she got up, sighed, and switched channels until she found a soap opera that would make her cry, too.”

“Any nurse who expects a doctor to be able to keep an appointment is either a fool or an optimist.”

“Massachusetts men, it seemed, like to make their dates interesting.”

Ruth Mason, RN, is a doubly tragic figure: Orphaned at age 15, she lived with friends of her parents in Monterey, went to nursing school while her high school sweetheart attended Stanford, and waited some more while he did a tour in the Navy … and then a friend filled her in on the fact that he’d married a wealthy young woman from San Diego. So as the story opens, Ruth is doing what many stalwart VNRN heroines who have been jilted do: fleeing California for the small town of Dutton, Massachusetts, where her mother hailed from, but where she herself had never lived. She quickly lands a job on the night shift at Dutton Memorial Hospital, and soon after that hears the rumors about Dr. Alden MacKenzie, a gorgeous and talented doctor who never, ever dates nurses. Well, we’ll see about that!

Life in this small town are not as dull as one might expect; there’s a crazed lunatic running around knifing folks in the back, even killing some. Ruth, of course, is soon caring for one of the victims and fending off Detective Sergeant Ed Gillis, who hails from South Boston and is eager to question the latest victim.

You’ll be shocked to hear that soon Dr. MacKenzie has asked Ruth out, and during their date he tells her that his mother, with whom he still lives, is planning out his career as the town’s “society doctor”—meaning he will see rich, psychosomatic patients that require not much more than hand-holding. He’s not wild about the idea—he’d rather go into research—but is unable to stand up to his mother. Ruth is unimpressed.

She begins dating Sgt. Gillis as well, though the doctor puts on the full-court press—but when he brings her home to meet mommie dearest, the matriarch tells Ruth that her son needs a wife with social standing, and since she has none, she is not suitable wife material. Ruth, to her credit, tells Mrs. MacKenzie that her ideas are all wrong for her son and will ruin his life and career as an important cancer researcher. The doctor himself seems intent on marrying Ruth – but then at the hospital ball, he becomes very drunk and is the driver in a hit-and-run accident, and then is arrested on suspicion of being the knifer. Ruth has words with Ed Gillis about this, which seems to doom their relationship, much to Ruth’s chagrin.

They do make up, however, on the hospital roof, with kisses and promises, but after Ed has to leave, Ruth is attacked by the crazed killer! Usually at this point in a VNRN, the man would return to save her, but our sturdy heroine needs no assistance, thank you, and between her brains and her brawn, is able to dispose of the attacker with just a mere flesh wound to show for it. Now she just has to choose a man, which isn’t as easy as you’d think: Her gumption has rubbed off on Dr. MacKenzie (now cleared of murder charges and taking a taxi for a  while until his driver’s license is reinstated), who has decided to go into cancer research after all, in Nagasaki, where there should be plenty of patients to treat.

This book is decently written: not especially campy or amusing, however, and the characters are a smidge too flat to make this an A-level book. But I am always mightily impressed with a heroine who can land a punch or a one-liner with equal aplomb, and care for her patients with compassion and intelligence to boot. The cover art even makes it a book worth looking at, in addition to reading. So I can without reservation suggest you spend some time on Night Ward. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

No Escape from Love

By Bennie C. Hall, ©1968

Linda Harland, R.N., fled from Boston’s Riverview Hospital when an emotional holocaust threatened to engulf her. Dr. Greg Arnold, the man she secretly loved, had announced his engagement to another woman. For self-preservation, Linda had to give up nursing and the life she knew in the States, and accept an invitation to visit her father, a mining engineer, in Liberia, West Africa. With much to remember and much to forget, Linda threw herself into a new life on this strange continent and even let herself enjoy the attentions of wealthy playboy, Chris Osborne, and young medical researcher, Dr. Paul Arnold. With them, Linda suddenly became conscious of herself as a desired and desiring woman, only it was the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong man! Linda found there was no escape from her solemn pledge as a nurse and no escape from love, no matter how fast she ran, nor how far she went.


“Jet lag is one of the hazards of the space age we happen to be living in.”

“You’ll probably be changing your name any day. Pretty girls, I’ve noticed, are allergic to single harness.”

“Don’t tell me you’re a nurse? How dumb can I get? I should have recognized the symptoms: patience, fortitude, interest in medical shop talk.”

“I’m sure you have any number of good qualities. Of course, you do like to shock people, but that seems to be the thing nowadays. It’s a kind of emotional sickness, I suppose.”

“I never drink anything stronger than bourbon.”

“She managed to convey with her eyes a scathing indictment that no proper Bostonian would dream of putting into words.”

“Is it you—or am I on one of those LSD trips?”

“Nurses were strictly for healing, not feeling.”

“The medico who can fool a staff nurse is yet to be born.”

“How could any man in his right mind let a wonderful girl like you escape? If he’d had the sense of a half-wit, he’d have locked you up.”

“I have no notion of freaking out.”

“She resisted a housewifely impulse to straighten out the mess of papers and close the desk drawer, fearful of displacing something vital to Research.”

“Already we’ve shared just about everything from witchcraft to war, not to mention a tropical rainy season.”

Linda Harlan has been working with Dr. Greg Arnold for two years, and the pair were an unstoppable team—but entirely platonic, much to her chagrin. When he suddenly announces his engagement to a society woman, Linda feels there is no choice but for her to flee this “emotional holocaust” (a term that seems a bit hyperbolic, given that her relationship with Dr. Arnold would remain completely unchanged if he did marry this other woman). So she reaches out to her estranged father, now living in Liberia, and when he invites her to visit him and his second wife and stepdaughter, she quits her job and hops a plane. There, despite the ubiquitous shortage of nurses, she prefers to spend her days in a social whirl among the wealthy white set of West Africa, despite the urging of Dr. Paul Raymond, a young medico intent on saving the world from tropical diseases. So she flits from party to party and decorates the house for the Christmas holidays.

What takes me one paragraph to relay fills more than half the book, so if you choose to begin at Chapter Nine you won’t have missed much. At this point, Dr. Arnold writes to Linda to let her know that his wedding has been cancelled, and subsequent missives start building up to what Linda feels certain will be a marriage proposal. How she feels about this is unclear: She puts the letters in a box and thinks about all the promises she’s made to various people, chiefly to Paul Raymond to work for a few months in his very rural clinic.  

Maybe you should start at Chapter Ten, in which Linda heads off into the bush. Once at the clinic, she works hard caring for sick natives and in the research lab with Paul. Months pass. It rains a lot. OK, so let’s make it Chapter Eleven, where Paul tells Linda he’s in love with her. Then they bicker for the rest of the chapter. There’s an incident with a woman who is convinced that her baby is hexed, and Linda is excessively worried about this thorny problem, which smacks not lightly of racist overtones, eventually insulting the native aide with a patronizing tirade, but the baby is fine, and Linda is sorry afterward that she was cross and hateful. You might want to skip that part, too.

In Chapter Twelve we learn that “trouble hovered over the rainforests.” An unexplained civil war breaks out, seemingly triggered by nothing but the weather. And Paul is pissed! “Wouldn’t you just know they’d drum up a ruckus at a time like this, right when I’m on the verge of coming up with something important? I no more than start making plans of my own when bedlam breaks loose, and I’ve got to start grubbing all over again,” he grouses to Linda. Those Africans are just so darned inconsiderate!

In the last chapter, Linda freshens her makeup and goes to the lab to watch a midnight dance with Paul, but it’s so frightening that “the most dedicated Peeping Tom was reduced to goose pimples.” Linda, therefore, winds up with her face pressed to Paul’s shirt, and marriage is proposed. In the ensuing two pages, the fates of men and countries are summarily wrapped into neat bundles, perfect for the upcoming Christmas wedding! And that’s the end!

The other VNRN of Ms. Hall’s we’ve toured, Redheaded Nurse, was a simple yet sweet little book. This one, I am sorry to say, is more dumb and less enjoyable. It feels as if it were a chore to write, because it certainly is a bit of a grind to read. The characters are flat and have little importance to the story; in fact, major events such as war seem to have little importance either. The writing can be campy at times, but that alone is not reason enough to venture past the horrifying cover illustration. Add the tinge of racism (though not as egregious in this little book as it is in some VNRNs), and this book is best left on the shelf.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Ellen Matthews, Mission Nurse

By Ralph E. Hayes, ©1966

There were many reasons for Ellen’s decision to give up her position at Chicago’s City Hospital and join Father Clousseau at his African mission—not the least of which was a chance to forget her recently broken engagement to Dr. Richard Creighton. The unspoiled beauty of the Masai Plains and the simplicity of its people allowed the young, auburn-haired nurse to sort out her emotions. This was an opportunity to contribute something of value to mankind, as well as a chance to find herself. But that was before she met rugged, self-assured Craig Adams. Suddenly her emotions were once again in turmoil. Could she trust her strange new feelings? Could she be in love with a man she hardly knew?


“We brought the Africans into our dining quarters shortly after their independence. It made a good impression on them, and they have behaved very well here. They are learning.”

“The woman in Africa has not had equal status thrust upon her. She walks several discreet paces behind her man when they are in public together. She cooks his food, builds his fires, tends all his needs. She wants it that way.”

Ellen Matthews has given up her man, Dr. Ralph Creighton, who is a 33-year-old chief psychiatrist and out to make her both his long-term patient and his stay-at-home bride. Because a breakup is so much more effective when you’re a continent away, she has packed herself off to Kenya to join a mission hospital in the country. The mission is run by Father Clousseau, with occasional drop-ins by Dr. Peter Smith-Talbot for three days of marathon surgery. The good doctor is married, however, so it’s up to Craig Adams, local game hunter, to provide the love interest for our auburn-haired heroine. At first sight, Ellen is less than impressed with Craig, because he is somewhat scornful of her ignorance of how medicine is practiced in the bush, without all the modern conveniences. But “he was, she had to admit, very handsome and very masculine.” So we can see the writing on the wall, even if he admits to some crudeness: “I don’t get much practice in how to act around white women,” he explains.

Life at the mission hospital involves a lot of tropical diseases, and occasionally witch doctors invade the hospital, kidnap the patients and murder them. This makes attracting patients somewhat difficult, needless to say. To help fill the time, Ellen goes out on various expeditions into the bush with Craig, who captures animals to ship to zoos all over the world. This he considers “conservation” work, especially when he is lucky enough to nab an endangered species. Ellen isn’t entirely won over by this argument, but still comes along to admire Craig’s skill and perseverance while running down baby giraffe.

Most of the book revolves around Ellen’s conflicted feelings for Craig. She does treat a few patients now and then, but her work is mostly backdrop and few real patient stories are given to us. The big adventure at the end involves Ellen going with Craig and Father Clousseau to treat a village overcome with sleeping sickness and helping to move the population to a less-susceptible location. As Ellen is on the brink of admitting her love for Craig, she gets a letter from Dr. Richard, who urges her to come back to him, as he is a shell of his former self. Curiously, both she and Craig frame this as if she would be going back to marry Richard, “whether she really wanted to or not,” she thinks, because she felt obligated to help him. It’s a bit of a failure as a crisis of her relationship with Craig, because she’d have to be a complete moron to do something like that. Even if these idiotic impulses are routinely considered by VNRN heroines, it doesn’t make them any more compelling. Then Craig has a close encounter with a leopard in the jungle, and it turns out that Ellen, who despises hunting, has actually done a fair amount of it back home in the Midwest, and is a crack shot. Now that Craig needs her help too, her choice becomes a lot more clear, especially after he tells her that he’s taken a job as game warden and is hanging up his nets and dart gun for good.  

Of all the nurse novels set in Africa, this one is easily the best in terms of armchair travel: Its descriptions of the countryside are well-drawn and vivid, allowing you to really believe while you are immersed in its pages that you are not in any American landscape. Ellen demonstrates more independence in her actions than she does in her interior monologue, and unfortunately the author does not demonstrate the chops to make the dichotomy work, much less acknowledge its existence. But if the story is facile and the conflicts simplistic at best and baffling at worst, it’s still worth reading just for the scenery.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Nurse Barlow

By Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1954

Against a background of life and death in a hospital, with its intrigue, triumphs and heartaches, emerges the story of Natalie Barlow, a beautiful young nurse, bitterly disillusioned by the inconsistencies of life. Natalie’s struggle to overcome her personal problems and to take her place among the gallant women whose devotion to duty, loyalty and spirit of self-sacrifice are a source of inspiration to her, forms a vivid and compelling picture of the drama that is a nurse’s everyday life.


“Don’t sacrifice your own life for that of your offspring. It’s not only a waste but a detriment as well.”

“It’s one of my favorite pastimes—eating. It—well—it does something to me.”

“A dress could make all the difference.”

“Is it that you don’t care for cocktails? Neither do I, but one must keep abreast of the times.”

“It’s only in books men make those noble gestures.”

“He had it in him to be a great doctor. It was too bad he was so good-looking—so charming and that he was well-to-do. If he had been poor and ugly, he would have undoubtedly become famous. But perhaps he had no desire to be famous. Perhaps he was perfectly satisfied with himself as he was. She was inclined to believe that it was. What a waste!”

“Mine not to reason why—mine but to do and grouse.”

“Once upon a time I was a good, sweet girl—before I entered training to become a nurse. Would you ever have thought it?”

Talk about harsh openers: Right on page one, Natalie Barlow is being jilted by her fiance’s mother. Overseas for the war, Geoff Mercer has apparently found someone Sweder to love, and has delegated the task of relaying this information to Mrs. Mercer, who is overjoyed to do it. This turns our ridiculously sweet heroine into a bitter pill where men are concerned. She remains, however, a devoted and highly skilled nurse at the hospital, befriending old Judy Stark, who is the matriarch of a wealthy but cold-hearted family. There is a grandson, however, Eben Stark, who is Judy’s favorite and actually a standup guy. Natalie, however, resists him mightily because of her prejudice about the other family members.

When Natalie is not nursing patients and resisting Eben’s gentle advances, she’s hanging out with her witty best friend, Beatrice Horne, who calls ’em as she sees ’em in the finest VNRN bf tradition, and says things like, “So he actually had the intestinal fortitude to call all by himself. Brave lad! No wonder he got a medal in the late unpleasantness!” She has dates with some of the fellows now and then but falls for none of them—and then Geoff Mercer turns up again, partially crippled and blinded by war, and attempts to win Natalie back, largely by coming with his mother when she visits Natalie and remaining silent. It’s a brilliant strategy, but someone Natalie manages to resist. As the number of her dates thins, she becomes increasingly forlorn, but not to worry: Eventually the right man turns up and claims her as “Mine—mine—mine!” in what is unfortunately one of the lamer moments of the book. Skip the last page, however, and this is an entirely satisfying book in the soft and sweet vein of older VNRNs (see also Doctor’s Wife, Nurse Into Woman, Visiting Nurse, District Nurse, Surgical Call, “K”—how I could go on—), a pleasant walk along a shady country lane with a good friend.

Lucy Agnes Hancock has the capacity to be a brilliant writer (If you have not read Graduate Nurse, you should), and here we find a fine example of her work. Short on plot, when the book is this enjoyable, who really cares? The characters are the kind of people you are sorry to see leave the room, and the stories of patients interwoven are interesting slices of other lives that don’t always turn out as expected. Add a fantastic cover and Nurse Barlow is a complete package. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Student Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1959

“Being nice to you could easily become habit-forming,” he said quietly. Loyce Hamilton, pretty student nurse, felt a warm sweetness in her heart at handsome Reed Shelby’s words. For he was the head of the Shelby clan—and a bachelor to boot! But when Loyce realized the callous way the Shelbys dominated everyone in town, the warmth began to chill. And Reed’s jealousy of Dr. Gordon Grant didn’t help matters …


“People who are destitute or almost, and who have mental quirks, are called crazy! But if they have enough money to get themselves out of unpleasant jams, then people say they are merely eccentric.”

In Loyce Hamilton, we have a nurse named in one of the finer Peggy Gaddis traditions (see also her Leota, Luana, Leona, and Linette). Also like these lovely ladies, Loyce is a strong, capable, and compassionate nurse working in Georgia in a small community hospital of only 40 beds out in the sticks. There she meets another Gaddis staple, the stuck-up city doctor who hates the country but is forced to work there until his med school loan is paid off and he can go back to the city and become the highly paid specialist that only pompous, lazy, heartless snobs endeavor to be.

While she serves out her month-long rotation, Loyce rooms with the Shelby family, local landowners who own, well, everything in town. The family is headed by Ruth, the “very, very handsome” but “big—very big” spinster sister doomed never to marry, the numbers stacked against her: age (30), height (5'10"), and weight (200). Rounding out the family is Reed, the big brother, the obvious love interest, and Marcy the sister-in-law, widow of Hank, who died in the war. Marcy has a son, Paul, but she has been divested of any responsibility for the baby, who is cared for exclusively—and has even been renamed—by Ruth. Marcy is essentially a prisoner of the family, which they frankly admit: “Marcy wanted to stay in California and get a job after the baby was born. But of course we couldn’t permit that,” Reed tells Loyce. Marcy, though she has an inheritance that could support her, can only hand over the baby on command and cry. Loyce, hearing this story, is incredulous: “But for goodness sake, Marcy, he’s your baby!” she says. “I can’t see any reason you shouldn’t take the baby and go away.” There is no logical answer to this; all Marcy can do is fume that she’s a prisoner. She’s not exactly wrong; when she asks Reed if she can leave Georgia, he says she is free to go—but the baby stays. “This is his home; he’ll stay here and grow up here and take his rightful place.” Since she lacks the gumption to just take the boy and go, there she stays.

Loyce comes to fall for Reed, which we saw coming from page one. The two go on several dates, including to lunch at the Cloister, a historic hotel on Sea Island, which I know well; it’s like unexpectedly meeting an old friend when we drive up the causeway past the “century-old oaks, their massive limbs draped in swaying curtains of green-grey Spanish moss.” Despite these dates, when Marcy suggests that Reed is in love with Loyce, she all but falls off her chair: “I have never heard of anything so silly in my life,” she stammers. “Why, he’s never given me a second glance or a second thought!” This, after pages of him giving her tender looks and calling her “darling” and “wonderful,” and suggesting they honeymoon at the Cloister. If it were simple insecurity that makes Loyce respond so, I could forgive it, but it comes across as a false modesty that “nice” girls were forced to adopt in the day, pretending not to notice a man at all until the day he proposed, which I find irritating and stupid.

After the Shelbys grudgingly allow it, Marcy takes a volunteer job at the hospital, and while she’s there, she comes under the notice of Dr. Grant. So Loyce goes to bat for Marcy, telling Reed that she thinks the family is domineering and cruel to the spineless little lamb, pretty much pouring ice water on her blooming romance. Dr. Grant then shows up at the Shelby mansion for a meeting with the extended family, where he tells them he will stay in Shelbyville and marry Marcy—though he has never had any discussion with Marcy about his feelings for her—once again treating her like a voiceless pet. This time, however, she doesn’t seem to mind so much, and agrees to marry the doctor after he says that he will take her and the baby away from the Shelby house. 

Though the family is in uproar, Reed later thanks Loyce, surprisingly enough, for having pointed out some hard truths, and he tells her that they will make it up to Marcy, possibly by even “allowing” her to remarry. But there’s another marriage he wants to discuss, and he asks Loyce if she will mind becoming part of such a domineering family. Loyce, horrifically enough, after having fought for Marcy’s independence, is thrilled to have the chance to shed her own: “After being alone most of my life, having to make my own decisions, hoping they were right and sort of muddling through, I can’t think of anything more wonderful,” she coos. Even if she insists that she is going to work after they marry, it can’t quite resolve my nausea after she says, “No place in the world where you are could ever be dull to me! It would be exciting and beautiful—because I love you so much!” Ew.

On occasion Peggy Gaddis can turn out a great book, but this is not one of her best. The biggest problem is that it rehashes of all the usual Gaddis gimmicks and sexist attitudes, even if the latter are largely a product of the times and the region. For most of the book Loyce is an admirable, outspoken woman who fights for the underdog, and Gaddis’ writing is generally entertaining. Though she’s capable of better, this book is enjoyable enough for an afternoon on the veranda with a mint julep.