Sunday, August 29, 2010

Student Nurse

By Lucy Agnes Hancock, ©1944
Cover illustration by Roswell Keller

“You dear stubborn girl” That’s what Dr. Alec Macauley thought of his beautiful young nurse, Gail Weston. Pleading his case with her aunt, he said: “I love Gail. I want her to marry me, but—” “I’m sorry, Doctor,” the old lady murmured. “I have been wondering if there is someone else. If there is—well, I suppose I shall still hope.” There is someone else in Gail Weston’s heart: Peter Rand. Lighthearted, gay, apparently irresponsible, Peter seems almost callow alongside Dr. Macauley. But Gail is drawn to Peter in spite of herself. Though she feels she should respond more to Alec Macauley, she finds herself unstirred. Then crisis strikes. Both men are at hand. Gail learns their true worth and makes her choice in this fine, sensitive tale of the hardest decision a woman has to make.

GRADE: D+


BEST QUOTE:
“Mrs. Dawson beamed from her seat behind the percolator.”

REVIEW:
After forcing myself all the way through this relentlessly cheerful and nauseatingly patriotic book, I am about ready to give all World War II-era romance novels a quick flip into the fireplace. Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the cover illo of nurse Gail Weston adorned with a triangular halo and a beatific expression, her gaze lifted skyward (to our boys overseas? to Jesus?). Sactimony is never an attractive trait, even in a silly novel.

Gail is, we are told, a student nurse, though for all but about six pages she is on vacation, so right off I felt more than a little led astray—Nurse Hangs Around the House, it should have been called. She’s at home for a month with the elderly caretakers Adam and Ann Dawson, who keep up the family mansion, now decaying gracefully since the death of her parents. These are charming folk, we know, because Adam is always saying, “Dad bust it all!” When Gail’s mother died, Gail abruptly dumped her boyfriend Pete and went off to nursing school. Pete runs the Rand Tool and Implement Plant, but he doesn’t work very hard and is not attractive to Gail because, Adam tells him, “Why ain’t you acting your age, Peter Rand? Why are you behaving like some ten-year-old? Why do you suppose a girl like Gail Weston should bother playing around with a kid like you? … She’s a grown woman and she’s doing a woman’s work.”

Beyond these introductory facts, having just finished the book this morning, you’d think I could tell you want happens in it. Well, despite the fact that it drags on for 181 tedious pages, I am hard-pressed to tell you what the plot was, or if indeed there was one. The characters do a lot of eating, or picking and shelling peas, or rejoicing that chicken is not rationed yet. Pete consumes a lot of cookies, and there are a few sour cherry pies involved. Then there’s the Rockwellian tableau around the supper table, to which we are treated at least three times: “The food was delicious, the setting lovely, and the conversation scintillating … With head bowed while Mr. Dawson said grace, Gail’s heart was full of gratitude. … It was a simple grace … yet always her heart swelled and in her throat she felt the thickness of tears. Old, yet always fresh and somehow comforting—like getting close to the Source of Power, of Happiness and Peace. Her eyes were very bright as she raised her head and took the salad bowl Mrs. Dawson passed to her.”

We do get beaten over the head with patriotism, what with the war on and all. Sometimes it’s just foolish: “It’s against the law and unpatriotic to drive so fast,” Gail tells Pete. She wears an old dress to the country club: “Rather bouffant for wartime but Gail felt she was by no means unpatriotic inasmuch as the gown was all of three years old.” But most of the time it takes its ugliest form, xenophobia wrapped in the flag. Rhoda Emmich is a glamorous woman from Austria, so naturally she must be up to no good: She’s “the fuse set to go off at a given time … very sophisticated—old world—continental, you know. Sort of slinky—woman-of-the-word—adventurous type.” A hobo stops at the door, and Adam is convinced the man is “an alien spy”: “I got the idee [sic] he wasn’t quite so dilapidated as he wanted us to believe … wonder what his game was?” Pete and his competitor’s manufacturing plants experience explosions at the hands of saboteurs (you’d think one explosion would be sufficient, but once Mrs. Hancock gets this plot turn in her head, she beats it completely to death): “Who wouldn’t be angry to know that his beloved town had been harboring spies—saboteurs in the employ of Hitler and his cohorts?” Why this team has singled out a small town in Indiana for its evildoings is left unanswered.

In the end Pete finally enlists, and there’s the classic farewell speech: “I shall be waiting for you. Cripple, blind or a wreck you belong to me just as I belong to you—have always belonged to you,” Gail declares. She returns to nursing, and she’s giving Wonder Woman a run for her money: “The rest of the staff marveled at her endurance and amazing good humor at the end of a hard, twelve-hour trick.” Her secret is, we are told, “the alchemy of love,” and upon learning this startling revelation, Gail’s nursing chum then decides to “accept Tim’s one hundred fifth proposal … Just now I feel being Tim’s wife would be an answer to prayer.”

Speaking of prayer, let’s wrap up with one more: “Keep all our splendid young men—our defenders of the right—always within the shadow of Thy wings. Let it end soon, dear God—let it end soon!” And to be clear, we’re thinking of the war, not the book.

Nurse Kathy

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1956
Cover illustration by Clark Hulings

Kathy was young, beautiful and too busy to marry. The hospital was her whole life, until one night a near-dying man was brought into the emergency ward. Suddenly it mattered terribly to Kathy that the stranger live. A perplexing secret was locked in by the stranger’s amnesia. And the mystery deepened when a brutal attack on this patient almost cost Kathy her life, too. Someone now wanted them both to die … From the corridors of a busy hospital comes this dramatic story of a young nurse who learned to combine love with the excitement of a challenging career.

GRADE: C-

REVIEW:
I was mostly through Chapter 1 before I realized that I had read this book once before, last summer. I wish that were of some assistance to me in describing the plot, but alas, no. This is an entirely muddled story, and beyond its cover, there is little to recommend it.

Kathy Brian is an emergency room nurse, and one stormy evening she has a hit-and-run patient. Patient X has amnesia, and Kathy’s memory isn’t working too well, either: She thinks she’s seen him before, but where? She’s engaged to Frank Marshall, who runs the Marshall Manufacturing Company. Once this business was the Leslie Plow Works, founded by old Ian Leslie, who was a good friend of Kathy’s grandfather. Old Ian Leslie’s grandson, also named Ian (as is Old Ian’s son), made Frank’s father a partner in the firm, but then an unspecified Ian Leslie drove his car off an embankment, leaving “only debts and trouble,” and Frank’s father turned the firm around. Now all Frank cares about is the business; for dates he takes her to marketing functions.

Kathy is “specialing” Patient X—which means he’s her only patient—when someone shows up at the hospital saying he is Patient X’s brother. When the visitor and a new orderly try to murder the patient, Kathy, the only witness, foils the plot. Patient X, now called John, moves in with his surgeon, Dr. MacLellan, who lives next door to Kathy and her father. On several occasions Kathy sees John sneaking out at night and taking the doctor’s car. Where is he going? Dr. MacLellan knows about this, and goes with him sometimes, but won’t say why. Lots of other questions are asked: Why was John found without a topcoat? Why does the manufacturing company’s old watchman mysteriously vanish? Why does her dad like John so readily, when he doesn’t like Frank? “Uncle Ian’s family—what had happened to them? Somehow, through the years, they had lost touch.”

I had a few questions of my own: Why is he called “Uncle Ian”? Is there some relationship between the families, or is this just a term of endearment for close family friend? Why, if other hospital workers have seen one or the other of the two would-be assassins, do they target only Kathy? Kathy’s heart “lurched” when she hears the police are questioning Sammy Peterson—who the heck is he? “That would account for [John’s] talking to old Mr. Andrews”—when has he ever talked to Mr. Andrews? Kathy recalls “John tearing wild-eyed into Emergency expecting to find ‘Andy’ Andrews”— when did this happen? Is there some chapter that has been left out of my copy of this book?

There’s another attempt on John’s life, and a third on hers—can these bungling fools ever get the job done right?—and it turns out that Dr. MacLellan has set her up as a bait to catch the bad guys in the act. How unethical is that? Even in the final chapter when everything is “explained,” I’m still baffled. It’s possible that a third, closer reading might have uncovered a few answers, but I had already spent three hours on this book, and I was unwilling to waste any more of my life trying to unravel these issues. Especially since I suspect there really is just one answer: It’s a badly plotted book.

Written 14 years prior to the author’s Nurse in Yucatán, this book curiously has another character named Hank Forrest as well, though here he has only a minor role. While that book isn’t red-hot, either, it’s good to see that in the interim Ms. McElfresh either learned a few tricks about plotting, or else found a better editor.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Society Nurse

By Georgia Craig
(pseud. of Erolie Pearl Gaddis Dern), ©1962

Love betrayed Susan Merrill, socialite. Jilted by a fortune hunter, she turned to nursing in hope that hard work would fill the void in her heart and replace her broken dreams. But love was something she still had a lot to learn about. True love means dedication as well as romance. A new world, new experiences, and a new and deeper kind of love awaited Susan as she crossed the threshold from her luxurious but shallow life to one of noble purpose in serving others.

GRADE: C-

BEST QUOTE:
“She stood by, handing him the required instruments while he stitched up an ice-pick stabbing that had by some miracle barely missed a woman’s heart. She heard the woman’s thick voice as she went under the anesthetic: ‘My man didn’t really mean to hurt me, Doc. He was just mad account of I didn’t have him a meat supper when he got home from work.’ ”

REVIEW:
This is actually the first vintage nurse romance novel I ever got, a present from my brother when I was thinking about going to nursing school, about 15 years ago. (Hence the disfigured cover.) So I had previously met 17-year-old heiress Susan Merrill, who in the opening chapter is sneaking out of her dorm to elope with Paul Raymond. They’re driving to the next state to wake up a JP when Paul finds out that she doesn’t actually have any money yet: She inherits the estate gradually over a period of 15 years, beginning when she’s 21, more than three years from now.

You’ll be stunned to hear that Paul screeches to a halt. “You look like a homely, unattractive, gawky kid afraid of her own shadow; creeping around, shying away from people. And I don’t blame you, because looking at you is certainly a very unpleasant experience,” he tells her before hopping out at the nearest train station and slamming the car door behind him. Nice guy! She rushes home to her guardian (her parents were gratuitously killed in a plane crash when she was seven), Doc Freeman, where she gets a cup of coffee and a sleeping tablet (what is he thinking?) and is put to bed. The next day Doc drags her off to be a volunteer nurse’s aide at City Hospital. “ ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he soothed her. ‘They won’t expect you to do brain surgery, at least not before the end of your first week there.’ ”

She loves it, natch, and decides to be a nurse. The pages begin to fly like years: Turn three, and, “Capped, pinned, and with her diploma in her hand, Susan felt she could walk out and face the world and, if necessary, kick it in the teeth!” She sets up an apartment in the seedy side of town with her college roommate, Nancy, where they furnish their pad with second-hand castoffs and cheap dishes. Susan wants to make it on her own terms and paycheck, and hasn’t told anyone at nursing school, or at her new job at the hospital, that she’s that Susan Merrill; hence the down-scale digs.

A few pages after that, she’s lunching with handsome doctor Scott Westbrook, who she’s now known for a long time. He tells her he’s in love with her, but he wants to wait until he finishes his residency in surgery (two years) and then sets up his own practice (one more year) to be able to support a wife. You’d think they’d be happily married by chapter six, but then Susan’s ex-fiancé Paul shows up and attempts to blackmail her. She does what she has to do: She tells Scott who she really is. He takes the odd position that she’s in nursing as a “cockeyed masquerade” and tells her, “I will not be a bought husband,” and storms off in a huff. Nancy gets even madder—“Still slumming, Princess?” she snarls—and kicks Susan out of the apartment.

From here on out—and we’ve still got 56 pages to go—the book loses its spark. Susan goes off to a poor isolated town in the mountains and works with the only doctor there, and she decides to use her money to build a hospital. A lot of time is spent discussing who is going to pay for the new roads and there are meetings with architects and bankers, which doesn’t exactly make for exciting reading. At the end of the book, it’s more than two years later, and Scott turns up again—every 20-bed hospital needs a chief surgeon, and who are they going to hire?

After the first half of the book, there’s little fun to it. There’s not much to laugh at, and the writing doesn’t take you anywhere new. It’s not bad, but it’s not great, either. So it may not be surprising that I gave up the idea of nursing and became a physician assistant.

District Nurse

By Faith Baldwin, ©1932



Ellen Adams had good reason to distrust romantic love. Part of her job as a district nurse was to take care of girls who had been betrayed by men they had loved too deeply. She had seen things most girls never saw—marriages wrecked, love lost, and passion mocked by men. But Ellen was blond, blue-eyed and beautiful. Men fell in love with her easily. In spite of what she knew and what she saw, she dreamed of marriage. As a matter of fact she dreamed a good deal about Frank Bartlett, a young and very attractive lawyer. They were in love. Their future together was understood. Ellen’s love for Frank was a glorious dream until one day a girl named Gladys said two fatal words. Gladys, bewildered and tearful, had been betrayed by a man she loved. Ellen asked her to name the man. It was then that Gladys said the words that woke Ellen from a dangerous dream.

GRADE: A

The great thing about the nurse romance novels written in the ’30s and ’40s is that they don’t know they’re supposed to be formulaic, and they end up being, first and foremost, a good story. Such is the case with District Nurse, which is a fantastic, very well-written novel with a couple of small mysteries to solve and a social(ist) message—oh, yeah, and there’s a romance in there, too.

It’s the Depression, back in the day when last names conferred an actual nationality. Ellen Adams is 24, her sister Nancy is 20. (So they’re English, about the only ones in the book.) Ellen is a nurse for the Visiting Nurses Association. As such, she knows everyone in the neighborhood: immigrant Ike, who sells fruit from a pushcart; Italian Joe, who fixes her shoes; German Herman, “the small round son of the man known to the neighborhood as Accordion Al.” Mrs. Lenz speaks German (“Gott behüte! Ganz verrückt!”) and Mrs. Lippinsky is Jewish (“I’m telling you, I vonder. Meshugge, that one…”). They may be of foreign origin, but the book never looks down on them for it; Ellen is frustrated with Mrs. Lenz for giving her son a bellyache with hotdogs and ice cream, but she’s never disgusted.

Ellen meets her true love while chatting with the neighborhood truant, eight-year-old Bill, about his new-found puppy. The dog escapes into the street and is almost run over by Frank Bartlett. “ ‘Why, God damn youse,’ Bill was shrieking at the top of his small leather lungs, ‘you lousy bastard—’ ” When a third-grader is using language I have yet to see in any other vintage nurse romance novel—and this only on page 17—you know you are in for a treat.

Vying for Ellen’s affections is Jim O’Connor, who has grown up with Ellen. Jim is up to something shady, but we are only given tiny, offhand hints (“a sedate traffic officer … saluted him, grinning, but … afterward looked after the car, its newness, and its expensive lines with a frown of speculation on his Irish brow”). It’s a pleasure to find a book that doesn’t beat you over the head with its plotting.

We’re tipped off to the socialist bent of the novel with its dedication: “Dedicated, in admiration, to the VNA and welfare nurses everywhere.” Ellen’s patients by a rule always live in squalid tenements: “Dim gas jets flickered on the dirty landing casting eerie shadows. In each hallway, as she passed, was the disgrace of an open toilet. … It was not astonishing that so many women connected with work of this type turned almost fiercely radical, seeing what they must see, realizing how little they could do, important though their work was.” And so we are frequently treated to Ellen’s feelings about the poor, how horrific their lives are, and how a little assistance goes a long way—but not so much that it becomes annoying.

This book is far more frank about the baser aspects of human life than books 30 years its junior, in which the protagonist does not even kiss her beloved until they are engaged (e.g. Society Nurse, for starters). On page 2, as we are being given a tour of the neighborhood, we pass a doctor’s practice. “What kind of a doctor is he? He has an uptown practice. They come here to him. A clever hideaway. All women, who come.” One minor figure in the book is kidnapped and raped, then forced to marry her abductor. Unmarried women sometimes get pregnant, and their moral character is an ongoing concern. At one point Ellen argues with doctor and old friend Pete after he implies that he is not a virgin: “ ‘A man,’ said Ellen, ‘can regard his chastity as something to be disposed of as quickly and as lightly as possible. A man can, of course, do as he pleases—deny himself nothing. Not, I suppose, a woman. A woman can—you call it sin in a woman, don’t you?—sin once, because she is foolish, because she is in love, because promises are made her—and that’s her finish, I suppose. It’s a swell world.’ ”

The writing is incredibly snappy; by page 6 I had such a long list of great quotes that I quit taking notes. (Just one example: “ ‘It’s Ellen Adams,’ she called; and then, the sesame that had opened so many closed doors ‘…the visiting nurse.’ ”) We live Ellen’s family’s daily life: their dates, their budgetary concerns, their neighborhood and its inhabitants. We really care about these people. Ellen’s rapprochement with Frank in the final pages actually means something, and the only letdown is that her engagement is understood to mean she will have to give up nursing. “ ‘When she puts me before the work, then I know she really loves me. And you have,’ he triumphed.” Frank may find it a victory, but I thought it was a tragedy. Nonetheless, this was the only letdown in the entire book, which is an overwhelmingly great read.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Nurse Landon's Challenge

Adelaide Humphries, ©1952

“You’re spoiled, a snob—in short, the sort of girl who is not much use in the world.” That’s what Doctor Peter Hayes, the young surgeon at Lakefront Hospital, said to Kay Landon the first time they met. Nothing in Kay’s life as the pampered daughter of wealth had prepared her for this sternly dedicated man who was indifferent to her social background and didn’t seem to notice her vibrant attractiveness. She tried to forget his words in the whirl of pleasure provided by Nicky Fairchild. She even accepted a beautiful big solitaire from Nicky. It did no good. She had to show that arrogant young doctor that she was mor than just a lovely doll dressed by the world’s most expensive designers. So Kay Landon enrolled in one of the most difficult and demanding careers open to women. She started training to be a nurse—and a good one—at Lakefront Hospital.

GRADE: A

BEST QUOTE:
“The reason I hadn’t called you sooner,” Peter said, “was that this epidemic has kept me so busy.”

REVIEW:
Kay Landon is my kind of heroine. On the day that we meet her, Kay is “wearing a sheer sleeveless dress and a thoroughly bored expression on her lovely face.” Within three paragraphs she gets pulled over for speeding—and though she is contemplating harassing the cop and getting arrested, he just wants to commandeer her wheels to ferry people injured in a train crash to the hospital. So instead of to jail, she heads off to the accident scene, where an injured man and Dr. Peter Hayes are loaded into her car. He is curt and indifferent to her, so she skewers him with sarcasm, and he responds in the same tone: “You are spoiled, rather silly, something of a snob—in short, the sort of girl who is actually not much use in this present-day world.”

Immediately she decides to show him a thing or two. She’s going to become a nurse! “It would be a perfectly marvelous way to get even with him,” she thinks. She tells her boyfriend, the arrogant, “Apollo-like” clubber Nicky, about her decision, and he’s not wild about the idea. “Girls like you don’t go in for nursing,” he tells her. “You’re the sort of girl who has been waited on all her life. Not the sort to do menial tasks for other people. Rubbing old men’s backs with alcohol, emptying bedpans—Good lord, Kay, I won’t let you do it!”

But she goes anyway, though she’s not really wild about nursing. “Charity cases were apt to be unsavory; dirty old men, whiny old women, pitiful undernourished and unwanted children.” But she keeps hoping to run into a certain doctor—which she does, literally: She’s pushing a tray of sterile instruments to the OR when she turns a corner too fast, nearly running over the doctor and dumping the cart onto the floor. “Now look what you’ve made me do!” Kay snaps at him. But guess what—soon she begins to love nursing and how useful it makes her feel.

About halfway through the book she and Dr. Peter hook up, but since they’re not supposed to be dating—she’ll get kicked out of school if she’s caught with him—they don’t see much of each other, and when they do, they start squabbling. There’s another woman, of course. Peter is also pursuing Fern Wentworth, a former burlesque queen who married a wealthy man twice her age who then conveniently dropped dead. He’s hoping she’ll make a large donation for renovations to the hospital: “He wants the old wooden part torn down, thinks it’s a firetrap,” Fern tells Kay. (Does anyone besides me sense some foreshadowing here?)

This book is a fun read, and it really gives you a sense of the era it was written in. While Kay is avoiding Peter, she hangs out with the other nursing students, a great bunch of scrappy gals with colorful speech (“investigate the hock shops and get all the dope,” “She thought she looked like Mrs. Astorbilt, but she looked as though she belonged in a circus,” “You sound like a Communist!”). I appreciated the fact that this book actually takes characters (though not the leading ones) beyond the chaste kiss: “I saw you in that supply closet necking with that roughneck orderly, Birdie—the big one with the scarred face.” And Nicky’s reference to bedpans is the first time I’ve seen one of these books refer to the, shall we say, messier aspects of nursing. I appreciated the fact that Kay is a flawed individual, and even at the fiery conclusion when she is the hero, she does it reluctantly: “She had not especially wanted to do it. And at the end she had almost given up …. And she hadn’t felt brave at all.” The cover illustration may well be my favorite so far: her red convertible, the palm trees in the background, her arched eyebrow, her displeased expression. This book really has it all.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cruise Ship Nurse

By Michelle Josephs, ©1969


A too recent tragedy made it impossible for Ellen Hayden to continue her nursing career in a midwestern hospital. She sought escape in the adventurous life of a cruise ship nurse. But she had not counted on the volatile relationship of two men, a doctor and an officer, who had fallen in love with her. She never thought she would be led into a situation so ugly and destructive that her future was threatened.


GRADE: D+


REVIEW:
I have in the recent past doubted the prospects of a book because its cover illustration was not great. I was proved completely wrong, and so forced to acknowledge the truth of the old adage about judging a book. Cruise Ship Nurse, however, has made me re-think that position. The cover of Surf Safari Nurse, while not living up to its endless potential, is detailed, and suggests that someone gave it some thought. The cover of Cruise Ship Nurse, on the other hand, feels perfunctory and dashed off—and so does the text within.

Ellen Hayden leaves Lincoln, Nebraska, to take a job on a cruise ship based out of New York. At the job interview, she meets Michael Carter. “I’m the reservation manager here but my secret duty is to make sure old Harmon hires pretty young things,” he tells her. (That made my skin crawl, but she dated him a few times before setting sail anyway.) Once on board, when not working like a dog for stern, hard-driving Dr. Roberto Gazza, she starts dating Tonio Grimaldi, a molto suave steward on the ship. But when the good doctor, who has hitherto shown her no interest whatsoever, hears about this, he immediately puts the moves on her, and the two Italians begin competing for her affections. “Life was never so complicated in Nebraska,” she tells her friend and co-worker Betty. (Actually, Ellen says this on two separate occasions, which suggested to me that the author and editor were asleep at the wheel.) There’s a smuggling subplot with Ellen marked as the unsuspecting mule, several searches of her person and cabin, jail, and a trial. And, of course, a wedding at the end.

The story trots along at a decent pace, but it feels like the author is cruising on autopilot. While there is initially some question about whom the smuggler is, that lasts all of ten minutes before we are given his identity, so that small excitement is quickly snuffed out. Even when the plot theoretically heats up, I felt like a dispassionate observer. Ellen is frequently described as feeling numb; if the protagonist has no feeling about what is happening to her, how am I supposed to?

I actually had some hope that this book might at least slightly redeem itself by allowing its protagonist an international affair. No such luck: One man is the crook and the other already has a lover in New York. “You’re the best cure I know for Latin-love-itis,” she tells the white boy, her blandest and only remaining romantic option.

The book contains many typographical errors (note the missing comma (after here) in skeevy Mr. Carter’s above quote). This may not matter to the vast majority of Americans, but as a former copy editor and daughter of a linguist, I must confess that my dinner out has been significantly marred by restaurant “special’s.” So between the lame cover, uninspired writing, and lackadaisical proofreading, I got the impression that no one involved in the production of this book cared a whit about it. Guess what—you’re not going to, either.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nurse in Yucatan

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1970

It seemed an answer to a prayer when Katy Jameson was offered a job as a nurse to ailing young Connie Christopher. The Christophers were going to the Yucatan, where James Christopher hoped to undearth a precious lost Mayan scroll. Katy's father, before his strange, tragic death, had hunted the same treasure, and Katy longed to revisit the exciting, exotic land. Awaiting her, however, was a maze of mystery and danger. Who was the disturbingly handsome, oddly secretive Hank Forrest? Was it wise to be attracted to the brilliant, dedicated young Dr. Jose Santez? Local legends told of an ancient Mayan curse. Could the pretty young nurse escape it as she searched for her path to love and happiness?

GRADE: C+

REVIEW:
I hadn’t read but three pages of this novel before I had to turn back to the beginning to start over again. Was I reveling in the sophisticated literary style? Was I trying to unravel the deep hidden meaning in its passages? No, I was counting the number of times Katy Jameson, who is touring Chichén Itzá alone, breaks the patient confidentiality laws when she encounters Hank Forrest there, also travelling solo. (My count was seven, but maybe you can find a couple more.) To be fair, I should acknowledge that the laws didn’t exist in 1970, but it does seem to be a significant lapse of judgment to reveal that the Christophers, an archeologist couple, have hired you to care for six-year-old Connie, who has a heart condition, while they are working at a dig in Yucatán.

When she mentions Hank to the Christophers, however, Jim Christopher darkens, and he warns her to stay away from Hank: “Forrest is a cunning and a dangerous man.” Bewildered, Katy takes to roaming the streets, where she runs into Hank, who kisses her a couple of times, the cad, and warns her to be careful when she’s off in the jungle. There are jaguars out there!

Katy is the daughter of an archeologist, and her father had been working in Yucatán also, but died in a plane crash there when Katy was six. He was looking for the lost scrolls of the Temple of Itzamná, which contain the history of the Mayans. Here’s another coincidence—Mr. Christopher is also looking for the same scrolls! And he takes his family and newly hired nurse to live in the very same hacienda where Katy and her parents lived 18 years ago! In a few more pages, Katy figures out that the Christophers put that ad in the paper for a child’s nurse with an interest in Mayan civilizations expressly to lure her, Katy Jameson, to Yucatán in the hope that they can trick her into revealing where the scrolls are. Instead of immediately bolting the premises, she goes back to the house, plays with Connie for a while, and chats with the Christophers about the Mayans. Has this woman no sense at all?

That evening, off wandering again in the jungle, Katy runs into Hank, who tells her that her father had indeed found the scrolls, sent her and her mother back to the U.S., and died trying to smuggle the scrolls out of Mexico. Katy can’t believe it, and so begins to distrust Hank. Nonetheless, when she finds out that Hank has been shot by Jim, she treats his wound. But she’s not confident in her skills: “Everything she remembered from her Medical and Surgical Nursing textbook shouted danger!” She gets him to the village clinic, but the doctor is out. Hank’s rising temperature obliges her to attempt to remove the bullet from his shoulder: “I’m sorry, Hank,” she tells him, “but this is going to hurt like the dickens.” (She has penicillin and sulfadiazine on hand, but apparently they’ve run out of pain killers.)

After bringing Hank back from the edge of death, Katy goes home to the hacienda to find that Jim has gone off the deep end. He has an idea about what Katy’s father did with the scrolls, and when he finally gets rough and forces her at gunpoint to help him obtain them, it’s hard not to feel that Katy should have seen this coming. This climactic scene rolls by too quickly, and when she is saved and “Katy’s world was suddenly as bright as a Yucatán dawn,” I was hard pressed to care. After it’s over, we learn that Hank let something slip while he was delirious with fever, but since we were not allowed to witness his indiscretion, it felt like a cheap trick.

It’s not badly written, and the book has a good deal of respect for the local people and Mayan civilization. You do kind of wonder what’s up with these scrolls, and about all the J names: Jorge, José, Jim, Jonathan Jameson. But the best thing about this book may well be the title.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Jungle Nurse

By Sharon Heath, ©1965

Patsy Leeson knew that being a nurse meant more than just the hospital routine. And so with a sense of dedication still unfulfilled she volunteered to join the medical station in Africa that was doing so much good for many in real need. When she arrived, she was overwhelmed by the dangers of the jungle—rampant disease, wild animals, primitive peoples. But she found the greatest peril of all was her growing attachment to the young doctor in charge, and the battle she had to wage for his love.

GRADE: D

REVIEW:
If you are interested in foreign places, how people tick, medicine, or the evolution of relationships, there is not much point in reading this book. Jungle Nurse is at its best in the first two chapters, before Patsy leaves New York for Kalumonga, a fictional African country, to work at a tiny missionary clinic. In New York she haggles with her aunt and longtime family acquaintance Dana, who proposes marriage to her, about why she wants to go to Africa, and the characters actually have some shape to them. But once Patsy arrives in Africa, everyone is made of cardboard, and we are told more about them than we are shown. Even she herself loses her starch; the gumption she shows in leaving the U.S. melts away and she takes on the character of a shrinking violet who is mostly aghast at what she has gotten herself into: “She could not quite suppress a gasp of horror” at the prospect of crossing a river, and she stared in “horrified fascination” at the news that the hospital treats crocodile bites.

The love interest, Neil, is the clinic’s only doctor, and he is, of course, engaged. But apart from his good looks, there is not much to recommend him. He doesn’t spend much time with Patsy, and when he does, he is no-nonsense or even rude, reprimanding her for tending to his own dog, attacked and nearly blinded by a cobra, and leaving the patients with two native workers. He snaps at her, “a severity in his tone,” for asking about a coworker, giving her “an obvious rebuff” that “hurt unbearably.” He becomes angry when she suggests that several members of the hospital staff travel to a nearby village to offer medical help: “He flung his spade aside and came over to the fence, his gray eyes alight with anger. ‘You seem to be forgetting that, so far as the hospital staff is concerned, I’m in charge here! I’ve told you to put the idea out of your head, don’t you understand that?’”

Events occur for no apparent furthering of the plot. Patsy intercepts a knife meant for Neil, but this has no effect whatsoever on their relationship, and there is not even a conversation between them regarding the incident. Not two paragraphs after Patsy is settled into her room after the incident, she has recovered from the stabbing and is back at work.

Apart from the ubiquitous hot, dusty drives down endless bumpy tracks in a jeep, Africa is invisible, and Patsy might as well be working in Brooklyn for all the reader sees of it. Only encounters with the natives, who are incompetent in a way that is meant to be amusing, remind us where we are. The native cook makes pancakes with yellow cake batter, which one diner says tastes like sponge cake. Even so, the hostess summons the cook from the kitchen to tell him, “Oh Mwasa, you’re hopeless! Take the horrible stuff away …”

The treatment of the local residents is unenlightened even, I would think, for 1965. A few natives work in the hospital, but “it doesn’t do to give them responsibility. They’re easily excited or scared and tend to lose their heads in an emergency. Also, their ways of reasoning often leave much to be desired! My boy, Lusamba, for instance … he’ll make a mess of simple things which any normal English child could cope with.” She is amazed that another nurse knows every patient’s name; “to her, they all looked alike.”

In the book’s final pages, when Neil tells Patsy that his love for his fiancée “had been driven out of my thoughts and my heart by someone else, someone who’s come to mean so much more than she could ever have done,” Patsy’s response is, “I can’t believe it!” Frankly, neither could I, and the ending, or the eight paragraphs that follow this exchange, landed as flat as the rest of the book.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Emergency Room Nurse

By Claire Vincent (pseud. of Miriam Lynch), ©1963

Nurse Pat Estabrook’s destiny was changed the night two strange and mysterious men were brought into the Emergency Room of Hanson General Hospital. Handsome Detective Timothy Wall was called in to investigate the man who gave his name as “John Doe” in the hopes that he would be the important clue in solving a four-year-old robbery … Rod Wuerth, the disciplined chief resident of the Psychiatric Ward, became involved with the other man, a hit-and-run victim who seemed to be suffering from delusions … And, when the case was solved, Pat knew there was no mystery as to the man she really loved …

GRADE: B

REVIEW:
More of a mystery story than a romance, Emergency Room Nurse has a little more pull than most nurse romance novels. Pat Estabrook is—you guessed it—an emergency room nurse, with a huge crush on the “black Irish, hard-bitten” detective, whose name is, incongruously, Timmy. (She herself is called Claire a couple of times, apparently the character’s original name in the days before Find and Replace.) When Timmy gets a call from Pat that an Italian man who refuses to give his name has been stabbed in the gut, he is immediately convinced that the man is connected to the robbery of the Baylor Armored Car garage four years ago. “John Doe” is carrying no ID, an expensive linen hanky, and a huge wad of bank notes, and he talk-a like thees: “You let-a me out of here! Don’t want no cops. I’m gettin’ outa here now!” But with Pat on duty he has no chance of that, and after she gives him 100 mg of Demerol and some scopolamine, he is wheeled off to surgery.

With that crisis resolved, Pat turns her attention to another patient, who is the victim of a hit and run. This patient is slightly demented and also cagey about his identity, and “Mr. Thompson” keeps claiming that “my life is in danger, that’s how it is.” But he reminds Pat of her father, so she goes to visit him in the psych ward the next day and crosses paths with Dr. Rod Wuerth, the chief resident there. Pat doesn’t care for psychiatry, or for Dr. Wuerth. “He was never seen in Chung Lee’s or the Korner Koffee Shop … Pat dismissed him from her mind with the tag ‘odd ball.’ ” Nonetheless, begins to warm to him and accepts a date.

Meanwhile, Pat’s protégée, Bonnie, is a “fuzzy-brained, reckless” student nurse who hankers for pediatric intern Frank Cheney. Frank has a lot of money but is close-mouthed and secretive, and when Pat catches him slipping in to see the Italian patient, she wonders, “Why the furtiveness, his obvious disinclination to be seen?” Dr. Cheney and Mr. Doe both have a lot of money, Pat realizes, so she assumes that the good doctor is also involved in the holdup, but she keeps her silence out of her unswerving and unfathomable devotion to the slacker Bonnie.

As she leaves work, Pat is struck on the head and admitted to the hospital (remember, it’s 1963). Timmy grills her: “What is it that would make you dangerous to whoever gave you that bash on the head?” All she can think of is that she has seen Dr. Cheney visiting the Italian patient, but she still holds her tongue.

Then Bonnie, who has blown off her shift, borrows Pat’s coat. After she’s gone, Pat suddenly realizes that whoever attacked her might now attack Bonnie, thinking she is Pat. So she cabs it down to the seedy waterfront to look for Bonnie and arbitrarily wanders into the Rosetta Manuccini Settlement House, a new development built to help the poor slobs. Chatting up the woman at the front desk, Pat learns that Mr. Manuccini is a big gangster called Louie the Man, and he’s supposed to live a few blocks away, but no one has ever seen him, isn’t that strange? And Rosetta’s portrait seems somehow familiar to Pat … Manuccini? Cheney? Hmmm.

But this incredibly contrived revelation only wraps up half the mysteries. So on her way home, Pat is kidnapped by a “thick-necked” guy and his chum and forced to get them into the hospital to see Mr. Thompson, who actually is involved in the bank robbery. On the psych floor the trio runs into Rod, and Pat “stood there sick with terror because a gun had been pointed at him and she feared his life was in danger.” Not to worry, though, it all turns out well enough: They are rescued by the mental patients, Frank’s dad is proved innocent of all wrongdoing, Pat turns down a date with Timmy, and Frank and Bonnie tear off for a hasty wedding, which puts the kibosh on Bonnie’s career as an assassin cum nurse and thus saves many lives. Ron drives Pat home. Slow curtain, the end.

It’s a lively enough book, a decent read. The writing is good, even if a few of the plot devices are more than a little forced, and the final paragraphs are satisfying. When you put this book down, you feel you have not wasted your time, not an overly common feeling with this genre. If you have a couple of hours on a breezy porch this summer, this is a worthwhile companion.

Dr. Merry's Husband

By Peggy Gaddis
(pseud. of Erolie Pearl Gaddis Dern), ©1947

A man can combine marriage and career but when a woman tries to be wife, mother and career girl as well, she may lose everything she holds dear. And when strikingly beautiful Iris Collier pointed out maliciously that Merry’s beloved Hugh was known as “Doctor Merry’s husband” Merry knew she must change things at once. She must be known first as Hugh Prather’s wife and then as Doctor Merry. It was that or lose him ... But how was this to be done?

GRADE: D-

Dr. Merry’s Husband is actually about a woman doctor, not a nurse, but I allowed it into the category—which turned out to be a mistake. Dr. Meredith Prather lives in River Gap, a small mountain town in some unspecified southern state, where she has taken over her grandfather’s practice. She is married to “a wealthy man, a one-time famous athlete” Hugh Prather, who is the town mayor and a recent transplant to the town; he moved here years ago with a serious illness thinking he was going to die, and Merry cured him. They have two kids, toddler Butch and baby Emily Ann. All is domestic bliss and becoming housecoats—and then the Colliers come to town.

Herbert Collier is opening a shirt factory, and his wife, Iris, is “one of the most beautiful blondes Meredith had ever seen.” She’s also arrogant, and a snob, and taken with Hugh. She tells Merry early on that Merry is being unfair to keep a man as “fine” as Hugh in River Gap. “Inwardly he cringes a bit every time somebody says, ‘Oh, Hugh? He’s Dr. Merry’s husband.’ ” Merry feels the sting of this comment, and anxiously watches Hugh’s increasing interest in Iris. This, combined with the ubiquitous internal struggles about whether she should stay at home for her husband, causes her to ask Hugh if he is bored with living in River Gap, and with her. He replies, “I—don’t get much chance to be bored with you, do I, Merry?” This is apparently meant to be a bitter jab, as Merry bites her lip and cannot speak, and Hugh apologizes profusely. But when she asks Hugh if she should quit her job, he refuses to say: “It’s your life, and you’ve worked hard in your profession …. No man worth his salt could ever ask you to give that up.” She asks Hugh what he wants from her, and he says he wants to go to New York on vacation—but the day they are supposed to leave, she is called to the mountains to deliver quadruplets; the mother and one baby die, and Hugh goes off to New York without her.

What to do, what to do? Well, who really knows, because instead of working on Merry’s problems, we solve Iris’s. We learn that the reason she is such an incorrigible flirt is that she lost her baby to meningitis. Problem solved: Give her the surviving quadruplets!! Once Iris has them, she is a changed woman: “the once gleaming, red-lacquered nails had been filed short and round, and were guiltless of any save a colorless polish.”

Should we return to Merry now? Heck, no! Instead we switch focus to Thelma, a mysterious unmarried pregnant woman who is taken in by Granny Stillers. Thelma is revealed as Janet, the ex-wife of Dr. Andrews, a young intern at Dr. Merry’s hospital. We spend a couple of chapters with Thelma/Janet, then we take quick peeks into two more marriages: Merry’s sister’s husband is planning to transfer to a big city and a big job because he thinks it will make his wife happy. She tells him she is happiest in the mountains, poor as a church mouse, because “I want whatever you want,” and he takes her in his arms, and we cut to a commercial. Then there’s Matilda, the wife of Dr. Nichols, the old oncologist, who turns out to have a tumor that she conceals from everyone until Merry worms the secret out of her. She’s bundled off to surgery and is destined to recover completely, but Merry tells the doctor that his aging wife needs more than that: “You and Jennie watch over her so carefully, and if she so much as lifts a finger, you scold her … Now that she’s no longer as strong as she used to be or so capable of doing things for herself, and you and Jennie are so busy taking work off her hands, I think Mattie has grown a little—well, lonely in a way.” Dr. Nichols promises to be less smothering, and that’s another happy couple fading into the sunset. Back to Janet—her baby is born, and though she has vehemently sworn she will never love her son or ex-husband, the minute she holds the baby, Dr. Andrews is pushed into the room by a well-meaning nurse, and they rush into each others’ arms.
With all these happy endings, we only lack one for Dr. Merry, and we are duly given it: “As Hugh came around and opened the [car] door for her, and drew her into his arms for a moment before he kissed her lightly and set her feet on the steps, Meredith’s heart rang out with a soft paean of sheer joy. Everything was so gloriously right in this most perfect moment of all worlds, and she was surely the most fortunate woman that ever lived.”

What? Where did this come from? If the other three couples are meant to be examples, things do not bode well for Merry. She already has children, so babies will not heal her soul the way they do Iris and Janet’s. We never really find out what Hugh wants her to do about her job, so she can’t do whatever he wants (although she’s made it clear in her inner musings that her job is her calling and she can’t give it up)—but he eventually does get his week in New York, and maybe that’s all it takes.

In the final scene, it’s Christmas Eve, and everyone is gathered at Merry’s house. Merry, her sister, and the longtime hospital nurse are asked to be godmothers to Iris’s triplets, and Janet chimes in that she wants Merry to be godmother to Steve Junior as well. As the curtain draws slowly closed, the happy residents are gathered together, listening to the words of ‘God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.’ And if this doesn’t make you want to throw up, you are made of firmer stuff than me.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Congo Nurse

By Ruth Ives, ©1963


Although tempers flared in the heat of the small African village and the tension mounted between the villagers and the hospital staff, dedicated NURSE ANDREA BARTLETT knew she had no other choice—nursing was her career and these people needed her help. She had other ties:
DEXTER STEWART—the handsome young doctor whom she had known for years but didn’t quite understand...

PIERRE DESSEAU—the wealthy and debonair Frenchman, owner of a large coffee plantation, who wanted Andrea to share his life...

But Andrea also knew that in the case of these two men, only her heart could make the choice...



GRADE: B


REVIEW:
Nurse Andrea Bartlett and Dr. Dexter “Rusty” Stewart grew up together in small-town Piedmont, NH. (In point of fact, there is no Piedmont, NH, though there is a Piermont, just west of the White Mountain National Forest.) Now they are in Bakavu province in the Congo, working at the Lusamba mission hospital, because their mutual mentor from Piedmont, who runs the mission, has asked them to come. (There is no Bakavu province, either, but a city called Bukavu, and a province called Lusambo.)

Rusty is ambivalent about his work in Africa, and agrees to a one-year contract only because he feels it will further his career once he gets back to the U.S. Andrea is naturally disappointed in Rusty’s lack of dedication. She also disapproves of his engagement to wealthy New Yorker Lisa Caldwell, who she fears is trying to set him up in “a soft practice in a swank Park Avenue apartment.” When Lisa arrives at the clinic with the iron lung she has purchased at Rusty’s requst, Andrea accuses her, “You just want him as another trophy in your scalp collection. … He deserves more … than living as a social ornament among your friends.”

For her part, Andrea is pressed to marry local landowner Pierre Desseau, who lives in a luxurious plantation house with Louis XVI gilt chairs, a French provincial tester bed with silken hangings, and a Venetian mirror. She is charmed by him, and enjoys kissing him, but she is turned off by “his brutal attitude toward the natives.” On his plantation “even the gentle moonlight could not soften the squalor and pitiful poverty evident among the natives there.” She points out the contrast between his house and theirs, and he answers her, “There is much you do not understand about these people. Do not try to do everything at once for them, cherie. They have lived as they are for hundreds of generations, and they are happy with their own ways. Changes do not come overnight. … Here on my plantation I try to give them a better life in accordance with their own ways.” He explains that he gives each man land, and supports them if their own crops fail. (While he is clearly taking the role of the great white master, it’s nonetheless an interesting debate, particularly in light of how things are shaping up in Iraq and Afghanistan these days.)

The natives are restless, and a guerrilla troop kidnaps Andrea and Rusty. The pair eventually escapes and returns to the hospital just in time to warn that it is about to be attacked by the guerrilla army. Lisa naturally goes to pieces, and Pierre’s plantation is burned to the ground by the insurgents before the U.N. trucks roll in to save the day. Pierre and Lisa exit stage left, in a helicopter, back to France and the U.S. respectively, leaving Andrea to assist Rusty in surgery and then receive his obligatory proposal of marriage.

It’s not badly written, and it was not a chore to get through this book. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters, which seem flat and perfunctory. There is little medicine in the book, apart from the requisite clamps and severed arteries and deft, gloved fingers. Africa plays a bigger part, though the book is ambivalent about race. Natives are trusted and competent workers in the hospital, but in times of trouble “the whites of their eyes in their dark faces still rolled with fear.” The opening scene in the native village, to which Rusty and Andrea have traveled to care for the chief’s daughter, who is sick with polio, is not overtly patronizing but does make it plain that “they were a backward people,” “poor and ignorant” “savages.” When the chief’s wives wail over the child, Rusty shouts, “This girl is sick, but it’s not with a Wog curse!” (The girl is eventually saved by Lisa’s iron lung.) Andrea’s response is more charitable: “She could understand the feelings of the native women toward things that were strange and incomprehensible to them. Africa, and the Congo, was that way to her.”

The cover is a near miss: not bad, but it would have been better if the male figure looked less like a hobo. Which is appropriate for what lies inside: While not a complete waste of time, this book should not be the first one you reach for.

Surgical Call

By Margaret E. Sangster, ©1937
Cover illustration by Gilbert Darling

Charity Standish was a doctor—but she was also a woman, and a very attractive one. She could perform a difficult operation with skill and battle death with the finesse that she displayed at the bridge table, but she sometimes found it difficult to dissect human emotions, and soul surgery wasn’t always easy! On the same evening Charity met Gregory Wheelock, stock broker, and Dr. Hugh Evans, who was her Chief-of-Staff at the Cathcart Memorial Hospital. Both men fell in love with Charity, and she, oddly enough, cared for both of them. Gregory was a good pal, a playmate for her leisure hours. Hugh was a man whose work she could admire; and his strange silences and awkward attempts at love-making stirred her deeply. Moreover, he understood her ambitious and was proud of her skill, whereas Gregory believed that doctoring was a man’s profession and that a woman’s place was in the home. The balance was swinging in favor of Hugh when unexpected and dramatic things began to happen. Surgical Call? To doctors on a hospital staff that term applied to emergency duties. To Charity, Surgical Call meant much more. It meant the pull between a profession and love.

GRADE: A

Covers just do not get any better than this: A great image and a tagline to make you shriek with delight: “Should a girl prefer to be admired as a surgeon or desired as a woman?” (This question sparked a good deal of debate at my office, a general surgery practice; the nurses surprised me by voting unanimously for ‘desired as a woman,’ while I was the lone holdout for ‘admired as a surgeon.’)

And the story more than lives up to the promise of the cover. Charity Standish is a single surgeon in want of a husband. She has a couple of options: gadabout Gregory Wheelock and the silent, dour, Chief of Staff Hugh Evans. As the story opens, Charity, who has been set up on a blind date with Gregory, is winning at bridge when the phone rings. She is on call—hence the title of the book—and has to rush off for an emergency surgery: “A woman was brought in with her foot crushed to a jelly,” the nurse tells her. “I’m afraid it’s to be an amputation.”

Dr. Evans has called her in because “there isn’t a man available.” Nonetheless, he comes to see her usefulness in the OR: “Dr. Evans stepped aside and said, ‘You carry on—your fingers are smaller.’ Charity, realizing the implied compliment rather than the need, did a neat job of tying.” After the job is done, he asks her out on a date, and so the competition begins.

Through the course of the remaining 200 pages, each man is revealed as having serious flaws as potential spouses. One of Hugh’s flaws is that he is serious and intense, and Charity’s relationship with him puts her at the center of gossip at the hospital. Gregory’s is that he not in favor of women working. “I can’t understand you—or any other woman—being a doctor. Why should a girl choose such disagreeable work?” he says. “Women oughtn’t to be doctors, it’s wrong.”

Hugh, on the other hand, understands her work: “You’re not the kind of person who would go into doctoring as a whim or because there was nothing else to do or because you’d read a heap of romantic bosh about hospitals. You’re the sort of person who would have … what I suppose a minister would term a call.” (Which makes the title something of a double entendre—is Charity’s obligation to her career imposed on her from the outside, or is she driven to do it out of personal necessity?—and literary device is not something I expect to find in a romance novel.)

The bulk of the book is a character study of the three central figures: their motivations, their desires, and their choices. Charity spends a good deal of time debating with herself, not only about which man to marry, but about whether or not she should give up medicine. As I followed her through the sexism of her conundrum, I worried about how it would end, but needlessly, as the story turns out surprisingly, and surprisingly well. One has to wonder, though, why Charity feels she has to choose one or the other, rather than hold out for someone better than either of them.

Medicine is a large character in the book, as Charity is constantly about her duties as a doctor. As befits the times, it’s never taken totally seriously: “You ought to have seen her the day she did away with Milly’s tonsils,” says the bridge party’s host. “She might have been on her way to a costume party. She wore the cutest little cap.” It’s naturally archaic; in surgery, she wears a linen gown and rubber gloves, and the patient’s head is bound in a white towel. It’s also a little curious: Charity doesn’t seem to limit herself to one field, as she is performing appendectomies (general surgery), tonsillectomies (otolaryngology), and amputations (vascular surgery), sets broken legs (orthopedics), and runs a women’s clinic (OB/GYN). And it’s not terribly realistic: The amputation she assists Dr. Evans is described as “beautiful,” and the nurse tells them, “I’ve never seen a nicer amputation.” But, in the event that you have never seen an amputation, they are in actuality grisly, messy, and horribly depressing—no one could ever call them beautiful or nice.

The writing is lively and entertaining: When the phone rings at the bridge party, the married hostess says, “Don’t be so edgy, Char. It may be the butcher or the baker or the candlestick maker. It may even be one of my beaux.” The period is easily pictured by the vocabulary, the clothes Charity wears, and the values of the characters. We may not agree with the attitudes they profess, but we never forget that these opinions are almost seventy (!!!) years old. The whole story is a marvelous period piece, satisfying on both an emotional and literary level. And then there is the cover, which I am seriously contemplating having framed for my office. This book really is the complete package, everything I look for in the genre.

Surf Safari Nurse

By Jane Converse (pseud. Adele Kay Maritano), ©1966

Hawaii had lured them all: Ron Tercotte, who ran from love and a brilliant medical career to a surfboard in Waikiki. Craig Barclay, aging rou, who was delighted to pick up the tab for an international surfing expedition if it would buy his son, and himself, self-respect. Laurie Davis, a beautiful, principled, and dedicated nurse ... As the aimless days passed, Laurie asked herself why she had ever joined the ranks of beach players. Was the fleeting hope of Ron’s love enough to compensate for the hospital, the patients, the nursing career that had given her life meaning?

GRADE: A

BEST QUOTE:
“You know, Diane, I have a confession to make. I was finding it uncomfortable, sharing a room with someone who was either too rude, too snobbish, or too vapid to have anything to say to me. After hearing you tonight, I'll admit something else. I didn’t know when I was well off.”

REVIEW:
I have to say that I was not optimistic about this book, despite its magnificent title, because the cover art does not even come close to maximizing its potential. And so I am reminded, yet again, never to judge a book by its cover.

Laurie is a nurse working as a scrub, passing instruments in the OR. She is dating Ron, a medical student who in the opening scene is revealed as a surfer of widespread fame, the subject of magazine articles and movies. Ron is ambivalent about medicine, which he finds less thrilling than catching a wave. “Just don’t try to compare excising some character’s gall bladder with a perfect day at Malibu,” he tells her.

Linc, who is a producer of surfing movies, is leading the eponymous surf safari to Hawaii and Australia for three months to make another film, and is recruiting top-notch surfers for the trip. Ron, of course, is invited, and he drops out of med school to go, to Laurie’s dismay; she and Ron break up over it. She and Linc become friends, however, and he invites her to go on the safari as their nurse. She accepts, and off they go. The entourage includes the surfers; Eddy Barclay, Linc’s sycophant go-fer who is the subject of continuous degradation by everyone else except Laurie; and Eddy’s parents, an ex-showgirl and an alcoholic would-be playboy, who are financing the expedition. The plot follows the onshore antics of this group, focusing particularly on the surfers’ mistreatment of Eddy. Near the end, in a hilariously stereotypical crisis, Laurie and Ron’s medical skills are put to use, bringing Ron back to medicine (as you knew something would). It is punctuated by a paragraph in which someone is unexpectedly punched out, which made me sit up in my chair.

The book offers a great depiction of the lifestyle of the California surfer circa 1966, from the “woodie” (an old wood-paneled relic of a station wagon that had been preserved in pristine condition) that Ron drives, the descriptions of surfing (“plunging downward and to his left, Ron raced with the curling wave, his bronzed body outlined sharply against a wall of green water and feathery white spray”), the surfing vocabulary “when you’ve gone over the falls backward on a twenty-foot giant at Sunset, or it closes out suddenly and you’re caught in that wild soup, or you get wiped out”), and the general slang (“a ho-dad rockout,” “you look groovy,” “the bit’s worn out, you cats. Cool it,” “I’m stoked out of my mind!”, “looks boss”).

Great descriptions really let you feel the scene: “The voice was followed into the room by its owner, a still-handsome, fortyish woman whose gleaming black hair had been tortured into an intricate, high-standing coiffure and lacquered into place. She had the svelte figure of a magazine model, and it was enhanced by a Spanish-styled lounging costume that would have done credit to the flashiest of matadors; the slim black trousers were tighter than any Laurie had seen on the younger set downstairs, and the red velvet jacket looked as though the woman hadn’t put it on but had been dipped into it.”

Architecture is as vividly described: “Eddy Barclay’s home was as lavish as he was simple. A two-storied, mammoth structure of glass and what appeared to be volcanic rock, it was cantilevered on heavy steel beams from the ledge of a steep hillside, facing west. By daylight, the transparent walls probably afforded a breathtaking view of the Pacific. The ultra-modern structure barely touched the ground, except where the curving driveway swept up to its several entrances.”

The book’s spot-on humor also helps turn the pages: “… she would address Diane first only under emergency situations. If she noticed that Diane’s hair was on fire, or if Maana Loa blew itself to bits and hot lava threatened the room, she might casually mention the fact to Diane…”

There is even some actual medicine in the book, including an emergency splenectomy in which Laurie, distressed by Ron’s dropping out of medical school, is not at her best: “I said I wanted a long right angle clamp. Stat!” the surgeon shouts at her.

This book is worth reading even if you are not an aficionado of the genre. It is lively, humorous, and clearly shows the reader another time and place. The love story is a little incidental to the main plot, but if the story is interesting and well-written, who cares? This is a great read, and after this, I will be on the lookout for other Jane Converse titles.