Sunday, September 29, 2013

Medical Center

By Faith Baldwin, ©1940

Hospitals, white, hygienic, and routined, hid behind their impersonal walls the perpetual struggle for life against death. They have an atmosphere of hushed mystery for most of us. But to those who live in them, doctors, patients, nurses, interns, and a host of others, life behind those walls is urgent and intimate, romance is sudden and strained, human emotions are tuned to the rhythm of birth and death and the intense dramas that lie between. In this many-charactered novel, Faith Baldwin takes you behind the scenes in one of New York’s oldest institutions. Here, among others, are Dr. Bullard, who considered money a sin; Jimmy Davenport, who fell in love with his nurse; Eunice Watson, who was too beautiful and too kind; the mysterious Mrs. Smith whose doctor had told her a big hospital was the best place to hide. Deftly the author brings alive a fascinating new world.
 
GRADE: B+
 
BEST QUOTES:
“Patricia to you. You don’t know me well enough to be formal.”
 
“As she dialed her number she read the penciled scrawlings on the walls and wondered that more people weren’t in the psychopathic wards.”
 
“Married men are either dull, misunderstood, or understood too well.”
 
“You have to have some worries, just to know that you were alive.”
 
“You look half dead, and dead doctors are bad diagnosticians.”
 
REVIEW:
This book is not a true VNRN; it’s a collection of six 60-page novelettes, each starring a different character from the Lister Memorial General Hospital on the West Side of Manhattan. As a fervent fan of the thoughtful, elegant prose in which author Faith Baldwin delivered District Nurse, He Married a Doctor, and Private Duty, I’d been hoarding this book as a pleasure postponed, and if this is not the finest of the quartet, it is easily worth reading, a soothing balm for an afternoon or two.
 
Dr. Peter McDonald is a renowned diagnostician, almost 40, a devout monk of a physician without time or inclination for a personal life. He’s haunted by his past: He’d fallen in love with a young nurse when he was an intern, but she had died after being misdiagnosed. His faithful office nurse, Lydia Owens, at 26 has worked for him for three years, but he sees her only as the quiet, reliable proficient that she is. Then one day he meets her sister, a 19-year-old train wreck of a nursing student who flirts with all the boys, seldom studies, stays out after curfew—and looks just exactly like Peter’s dead fiancée. You know exactly how this is going to play out, but part of Faith Baldwin’s genius is that you’re still caught up in it, still a bit worried until the final page.
 
The second story is the best of the lot, which is a bit too bad, since peaking so early in the book makes the other stories seem a bit faded. Pat Weston is an 18-year-old debutante who volunteers at the hospital’s free clinic because she wants to be a nurse, if only she can convince her horrified parents that a career is an acceptable alternative to being a society wife. Clinic doctor Steve Bullard condemns her for her wealth, of course, but she is too snappy to be put down by him. “The sight of a pretty girl—a girl with more than she needs to eat—sitting there at a little desk in the midst of all that misery made my blood boil,” he says by way of a backhanded apology. “She said calmly, ‘It’s nice of you to think I’m pretty.’ ” This subtle, wry wit permeates almost everything Pat says, and this story, too, ends as it should, but with a twist worthy of Pat’s character.
 
And there are four more. The dietician, Eva Reynolds, is pursued doggedly by the trifling society playboy patient and the solid intern but is interested in neither of them until the intern’s ex-fiancée shows up and tries to reel in them both. Charge nurse Ada Nelson is beaten down by the early loss of her husband and baby, but in caring for the women and babies on the maternity ward comes to realize “that in giving herself once more to an intensely personal life she would find her salvation.” Intern Dick Henderson becomes interested in his patient, Elsie Gordon—and then realizes that her aunt, Linde von Hartwig, was the governess to the family next door to him, more than a decade his senior, whom he had fallen desperately in love with as a 15-year-old boy. Nurse Eunice Watson is sent to special a young boy at home and finds that the wife is a closet alcoholic, desperately unhappy and probably bipolar (though of course they don’t call it that in these novels), and that she is in love with the father and the boy.
 
Only one of these stories does not have the traditional VNRN ending, and I did wonder that Ms. Baldwin didn’t shake things up a bit more, since the number of stories she included in this volume gave her room to exercise some unconventional options. But all save the narrative of Dr. Dick Henderson is satisfying in itself, traditional conclusions or not, and I wouldn’t have them any other way. One of the book’s nicer small touches is that the characters from one story appear in the others, even if it’s just a quick hello across a crowded cafeteria, creating a feeling of intertwined lives and professional roles as they are in the community of a hospital. I’ve already loudly praised Faith Baldwin’s writing in the reviews of her other three nurse novels, so I won’t go on too much now, but here she gives us the same sweet, steady hand we’ve known elsewhere, though she doesn’t seem to have worked as hard as she has on previous books, the sole exception being the story of Pat Weston. Medical Center appears to be the last of her nurse novels, I am heartbroken to say, but if you know of another, contact me immediately, and I will dry my tears until the sad day I have closed the cover of that one, too.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Luxury Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1956

“You’re sound, Sally, very sound,” Dr. Garry Linton told her. Nurse Sinclair laughed. “Are you talking about a nice big russet apple, or me?” she asked. But she was troubled. He said he loved her, but did he? And now she would be away nursing Lisa Cannon for three long months, Lisa, whose high-strung disposition and self-pity made her as unpleasant to be with as she was lovely to behold. But Sea Island was a magical isle and Sally Sinclair was determined to explore all of the magic of it. It began when she discovered the exquisite miniature village—a Lilliput town—which Allen Blaisdell had built. After that, everything seemed to change, as if Sally had found the key to the secret garden, to Lisa’s recovery, and to her own heart.

 
GRADE: C-
 
BEST QUOTES:
“ ‘I have never,’ stated Garry grimly, ‘seen anybody I would so thoroughly enjoy turning over my knee for a session with a slipper in my good right hand. How do you stand her, Sally?’ ”
 
“Women are the simplest creatures on earth; all they ask is to be loved and considered vastly mysterious, which they aren’t in the smallest degree.”
 
“If you dare offer me a sedative or a supposedly soothing word, I’ll throw something at you.”
 
REVIEW:
Sally Sinclair is dating Dr. Garry Linton, but is quite clear about the fact that she is the only nurse at the hospital who isn’t in love with him. He’s told her that he wants to marry her—as usual, in a few years when he has established his practice and can support her—but she gives him a cold shower, right there in the second chapter: “I’m not a bit sure that I’m in love with you,” she says. “I like you enormously; I admire you tremendously; but I’m not sure that’s love.” Well, we’ll just see about that, missy.
 
She’s caring for 18-year-old Lisa Cannon, “the season’s most successful and most popular debutante,” who is in the hospital for the foreseeable future because, according to Nurse Sinclair’s expert diagnosis, “your nerves cracked up from sheer exhaustion.” Lisa’s ready to leave the hospital, but needs nursing for the three months it will take for her to recover from her crackup. So Sally is nominated to go with her, because she’s so good at dispensing helpful advice such as, “You’ll have to pull yourself together and stop that crying, or I’ll have to get Dr. Linton to give you a sedative.” If disdain doesn’t work, a good nurse can always resort to violence; when Lisa insults her father, “Sally barely managed to restrain an impulse to slap the girl hard.” Needless to say, I’m not impressed with Sally’s haughtiness, disrespect, and rudeness to her patient, but in a Peggy Gaddis novel, these qualities add up to a great nurse, since Sally is slightly better behaved than her extremely spoiled patient.
 
So off Sally and Lisa go to the Cannon cottage on Sea Island, Georgia—a beautiful, upscale beach resort that I happen to know fairly well and that figures very prominently in the book. If you’re familiar with it also, it’s especially fun to go for dinner and dancing at The Cloister, the historic hotel there, even if that worthless cad Thorne Cooper does show up and make eyes at Lisa across the ballroom. He’d accepted $50,000 from Mr. Cannon to stay away from Lisa, but now he strides up to the party and drops a check on the dinner table, the principle from the “loan,” plus $10,000 interest. “I made you no loan,” Mr. Cannon explodes in response. “I bribed you to stay away from my daughter.” But that’s admirable too, in Peggy Gaddis’ eyes, just a good father protecting his child from social parasites.
 
Now Thorne is dropping by the house, making no bones about the fact that he’s only interested in Lisa’s money. Garry also stops by now and then, but Sally continues to remind him that she doesn’t love him. Then one day while wandering the beach in the morning—Lisa sleeps until noon, of course—Sally comes across a tiny town of miniature houses and buildings and even twee rosebushes that have to be watered with an eyedropper. It’s a business created by local resident and old crush of Lisa’s, Allen Blaisdell (though it’s not clear how they knew each other; he’s ten years older than she is), who has hired veterans disfigured by the war to build these creations. Sally is utterly captivated and speaks so warmly of Allen to Garry that her beau asks her if she’s in love with Allen (she demurs). But when Allen drops by the Cannon cottage, Lisa gloms onto the man to such an extent that Sally is shoved to the sidelines, and even Thorne loses his appeal; she laughs to Sally that she sees Thorne only “because it annoys Dad, of course. Why else?” But the rub here is that Lisa is horrified by the sight of physically handicapped people. “That awful-looking creature!” she shrieks upon seeing one of Allen’s friends and employees, a man in a wheelchair. “I’d die if a thing like that so much as brushed against me.”
 
Not to worry, though, the power of love will set Lisa on her feet in the end. One day while walking among Allen’s tiny houses, she encounters a rattlesnake, and only the quick intervention of a nearby wheelchair-bound man inexplicably carrying a gun saves her life. She screams and screams and screams! and flings herself into the lap of her rescuer, who pats her hair with his artificial hands and smiles over her with his scarred face, and Lisa refuses to let go. (You might ask yourself, how does a man with no hands fire a gun? Let’s ask wise Nurse Sally: “The marvels of artificial limbs, Lisa, can never be overestimated,” she explains somberly to her equally incredulous patient.) In any event, Lisa is now a convert: When Sally asks Lisa skeptically if she thinks she can accept the deformed man’s invitation to dine with him and his wife, Lisa answers, “I’d almost kneel at his feet. Oh, Sally, what do you think I am?” I, for one, thought she was a nasty brat who didn’t care if she trampled dollhouse rosebushes and who sneered, “I don’t see how Allen can even tolerate those hideous creatures,” but perhaps it was all meant kindly.
 
Now we only need to cast about for someone for Sally to marry at the last minute—hey, that Dr. Garry might do! When, three pages from the end, Garry asks her if she loves him, suddenly it’s all tears and hot cheeks: “She went into his arms as naturally, as beautifully as a homecoming bird comes into its nest at sunset,” and I flung the book across the room as naturally as an outraged reader slapped with the final straw.
 
Peggy Gaddis seems to have tossed several of her other books—Nurse in the Shadows, Nurse in the Tropics, Big City Nurse—into a blender and poured out Luxury Nurse. Unfortunately, the result is not a tasty chocolate malt. Sally is a patronizing, righteous tyrant, somehow meant to be admirable; Lisa is cruel, small-minded and selfish, and her complete about-face in the end is entirely unbelievable. It’s hard to believe that we could find a man dumb enough to take one of them, let alone two. My favorite things about this book were its setting on Sea Island and the cover. But I readily acknowledge that unless you have actually been to the Cloister, the first pleasure will most likely be lost on you, so you can save yourself several hours by just enjoying the cover illustration and then setting this annoying amalgamation aside.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Wings for Nurse Bennett

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1960
 
“Office-dressing” … That, Sarah thought wryly, was exactly what she had been as nurse to the handsome and successful Dr. Ralph Caldwell Porter. Looking wand-slim and elegant in her white nylon uniform, her heaviest duty had been to stand by serenely while Ralph administered to the imaginary needs of some fawning, simpering female. And now she was suddenly in the wilds of Alaska, newly appointed stewardess of the Alaska Passenger and Freight Airlines, about to board the frighteningly small and flimsy-looking plane for her first trip. But at least, she assured herself, here she could be useful. And perhaps, in this new land, she would get a new perspective on her life. Because she had to make up her mind about Ralph. She had to decide whether she could marry a man she loved—but didn’t respect.

GRADE: C-

BEST QUOTES:
“ ‘Can you imagine a man ever wanting to go to bed with Miss Davenport, darling?’ Ralph had asked her once when, miraculously, the waiting room was empty. ‘She’s a good nurse—the best in Dayton, barring not even you, but ugh.’ He had kissed her. ‘Don’t ever let yourself get fat and frumpy, sweetheart.’ ”

REVIEW:
Sarah Bennett is working as a flight attendant on a small Alaskan airline (apparently in the old days flight attendants were nurses as well; in any case, she is one). She’s taking time away from her job working for Dr. Ralph Caldwell Porter, who is just as he sounds: A pompous, society doctor who panders to neurotic wealthy women, and who plans to marry Sarah and turn her into one.  She’s desperately in love with Ralph and can’t wait to marry him, she says, but is constantly thinking things like how great it was to be a flight attendant, “a member of the team, just as she had been at the hospital, as she had not been, not really, in Ralph’s office.” But she’s managed to tear herself from his well-groomed side for a few months to step into this role, formerly held by her old friend and wife of the pilot Paul Fergis; Jenny Fergis is pregnant, and so grounded. It’s her third day on the job when this particular flight takes off from Killmoose to Tanacross, and not half an hour into the flight, one of the passengers steps into the cockpit with a revolver and knocks out Al Malcolm, the co-pilot.

Back at air control, the radio is blasting reports of three men who crashed a stolen Cessna near Killmoose and haven’t been seen since. The men are wanted for questioning in the attempted sabotage of one of the United States’ Distant Early Warning bases in far northern Alaska—these would be the bases where, during the Cold War, people sat around and watched the skies for incoming Soviet nuclear missiles, so they could call home and say goodbye before the missiles arrived on American soil. The air traffic folks instantly recognize from the descriptions that these guys are on Sarah’s flight!! Now everyone is combing the Alaskan wilds, but it’s a lot of ground to cover, so things are looking grim…

Meanwhile, the gun-toting head basher puts the plane down in a clearing hundreds of miles off course and hustles everyone except his two co-conspirators off the plane, then takes off again. So now the story’s narrative jumps from the worried air controllers listening to the news, to the passengers trying to survive in dilapidated miners’ cabins in the woods, to Paul Fergis and a passenger who have set off through the Alaskan winter to try to find help. As the passengers trap rabbits and build bedding out of spruce boughs, Al Malcolm is increasingly warming the cockles of Sarah’s heart, though she tries again and again to remind herself that “she was in love with Ralph, she was going to marry him—to her Al Malcolm could be no more than Paul Fergis’s co-pilot.” But there’s just the small problem that Ralph is a philandering ass, and is never set up to be anything but, even to Sarah: “Sarah wished she could think of Ralph Porter without something unpleasant nudging into her mind,” she thinks before we’re a quarter of the way through the book—“Why did she keep thinking of Ralph? Remembering things that made her slightly sick at her stomach.” I wonder how everything is going to turn out.

Of course, the passengers that the bad guys have been kind enough to abandon rather than simply murder outright are prone to all sorts of health issues.  Needless to say, everything turns out swimmingly for the stranded passengers, who have the capable Sarah to steer them through their medical crises, though she is inclined to a hysterical interior monologue: “Oh, God, Sarah thought. Suppose something is going wrong?” she wonders when she’s delivering a baby, which despite her fears—“Oh, God! Was the baby stillborn? After all this—” is perfectly healthy, only now she’s got to concoct something else to worry about, like the baby catching “pneumonia, here—” But it doesn’t, so on to the next emergency: one man, unfortunately named George Jefferson, develops right lower quadrant pain and “Sarah’s breath caught in her throat. Not appendicitis! Please, God, don’t let it be appendicitis.” But it is, and now we have pages of watching George’s temperature rise: “Four-tenths in an hour? Oh, God!” But she convinces Al Malcolm to assist her with the surgery, which she pulls off effortlessly in 43 minutes. Now she’s worried that she’ll go to jail: “What would they call it, practicing surgery without a license? Or—or criminal negligence?” For crying out loud, someone get this woman a Xanax!

Eventually the two men wandering the wilderness are spotted by a rescue plane, the party in the woods is whisked back to civilization, George Jefferson recovers easily and reveals that he is actually an FBI agent assigned to nab the bad guys who hijacked the plane—not a very good one, at that—and the bad guys, not being very good pilots, are discovered to have crashed the second plane as well and killed themselves in the process. Sarah finds she’s not going to jail or lose her job, and that she does not love Ralph after all. Not to worry, though, someone else is waiting to offer her marriage on the last page, and then—oh, God!—we can finally close the book.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Nurse in Acapulco

By Jane Converse
(pseud. Adele Kay Maritano), ©1964
 
Mrs. Breckenridge’s maniacal possessiveness had turned her handsome son into a peevish playboy, her daughter into a shrill, contemptuous and cheating wife, her son-in0law into a drunken failure. When it seemed as though one of her captives might break away, Mrs. Breckenridge had another heart attack and threatened to change her will. In accepting the wealthy hypochondriac as a patient, special nurse Donna Walton had no way of knowing that she was to be used as bait in the old woman’s devious scheme to keep her son by her side … forever.
 
GRADE: C-
 
BEST QUOTES:
“They close the bullring and jai-alai court for the summer. The really chic parties don’t get off the ground before December. Prepare to perish, Miss Waldron.”
 
REVIEW:
We’ve been to Acapulco before, in Beauty Contest Nurse and the other Nurse in Acapulco. This trip is about as successful—which is to say, not very—as our last two expeditions, I’m sorry to say. Here, it’s Donna Walton who is stalking the moonlight beaches and feeling “deeply touched by the warm, trusting simplicity of these people, by their unsophisticated love.” Donna’s come to Mexico to care for an aging (but not old, she’s in her 50s) hypochondriac Grace Breckenridge, who keeps her children, Enid and the unfortunately named Buzzy, on a short leash that they dare not slip, lest she cut off the funding for their louche lives of luxury. Donna has only agreed to take this job because she’s come off a particularly demanding case, caring for a terminally ill cancer patient for the past seven months. For once, this dying patient is actually broke, and Donna received no pay for her final nine weeks of work when he ran out of money. So she needs a vacation, and she needs to replete her bank account; this job, which pays twice her normal salary, seems to fit both bills.
 
But at what cost? There’s the small matter of her conscience, soon smote when she’s called to help an actual injured patient, the grandchild of the hacienda’s gardener. When she delivers the boy to the local medico, Dr. Emilio Camargo, who has a garden full of impoverished patients waiting hours to be seen, he asks her, “You will come again, no? When you have nothing of greater importance to do than that which you are doing from day to day?” Her agenda thus far has been no more taxing than learning to surf, attending parties, and playing bridge, and she thinks, “I wish he’d had reason to respect me as a nurse, instead of looking at me as though I was a conscious parasite.”
 
Then a houseguest arrives, an old friend of Enid’s husband, Kenny. Dr. Stanley Sherwood, a psychiatrist practicing in New York, went to medical school with Kenny before Kenny married Enid and decided to switch careers and become a kept boy and gin aficionado, though I’m sorry to report that he appears to prefer his cocktails served in a coconut shell rather than in a coupe, so low has his self-worth fallen. For Dr. Sherwood, Donna decides after one day with him, “she herself had waited all her life.” But how does he feel? Ah, if only these women of the 1960s actually had the gumption to just initiate an honest conversation. One night, when a drunken Enid accuses Donna of running after Buzzy, Kenny, Dr. Camargo, and now Dr. Sherwood, the latter overhears, but she takes no action at all. “If he had heard Enid’s vicious accusations, there was no way of knowing what conclusions he had reached. To throw a robe over her nightgown now, to deliberately run out into the corridor and deny the accusations Enid had made, might only give them credence.” Really?
 
So while he goes off to a conference for five days—and will he ever return for her?—she works in the evenings at Dr. Camargo’s clinic to buff up her conscience and reputation. The days pass, and pass, and no call from Stan, though when she learns that Stan is staying at a nearby hotel, she actually manages to pick up the phone. He’s not in, though, and she’s just hung up when an earthquake strikes! Because there’s nothing as redemptive as a major natural disaster to improve everyone’s character! The hacienda’s idle rich leap into action: Enid opens the house to wounded victims and cares for them to her best ability, Kenny forcibly drags his brother-in-law from under a chandelier that collapses moments later and then labors with Enid to tend the wounded, Buzzy taps his ham-radio hobby to contact San Diego for a pint of “rare” blood, AB positive (though in fact they can receive blood from about 92 percent of the population; it’s AB negative that’s the rarest blood type, carried by only 1 percent of the population). Stan and Donna, of course, work with Dr. Camargo at the clinic, and sad, hysterical, screaming Mrs. Breckenridge is left untended—indeed, she’s told to “mix yourself a drink and relax” while everyone else works tirelessly. When the crisis has passed, Enid and Kenny are plotting to buy a house near the University of California in Berkeley, apparently unaware that the otherwise stellar educational powerhouse has no medical school, and Stan is suggesting that instead of returning to her job in Oregon, Donna might instead consider New York. But that’s it for redemption; Buzzy’s emancipation is anticipated but not witnessed, and we never learn whether the histrionic Mrs. Breckenridge rebounds from her abandonment.
 
Jane Converse can be a very fine writer (see Surf Safari Nurse, Nurse in Crisis), but most of the time she settles for mediocrity, as she does here, perhaps opting for quantity over quality (indeed, she was a very prolific writer). Now and again we get the slight sparkle of her sharp wit, but Mrs. Breckenridge, the screaming matriarch character—one I usually enjoy and one of Jane’s usual stock in trade—is no Angela Di Marco, the gin-soaked faded movie star with running mascara and bedraggled marabou from Nurse on Trial; rather, here our grande dame just lamely clutches her heart and sways with eyes closed when her brief screaming harangues are not meeting with success. Donna’s concern that Stan isn’t going to come back to Acapulco after hearing Enid’s slander seems completely silly; after becoming acquainted with both women during his stay, if Stan doesn’t realize the relative substance of each, he’s not worth Donna’s heartache. But I am never impressed when the heroine worries excessively about a ridiculous “crisis” yet fails to take any action whatsoever to set the situation to rights. Nor do I enjoy a ham-handed resolution to everyone’s problems, where personal growth seems more contrived than earned. So while I will always regard Jane Converse as a talent, little is in evidence in Acapulco.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Nurse Abroad

By Marion Marsh Brown, ©1963
 
Originally Kathy Cramer thought of her visit to her Army-based family in Germany as a brief vacation. But it soon became something more important in the life of the lovely, auburn-haired young nurse. First, a handsome, charming, yet strangely elusive young man named Mike Davidson made her pulse beat far faster than normal. Then came a wonderful chance to join the staff of a local army clinic. And finally there was that growing sense of mystery and peril as Kathy stumbled onto a dark conspiracy within the hospital walls. Suddenly the gallant young nurse had to play a new and dangerous role to foil the schemes of the enemies of her country, while pursuing her own campaign to win the man of her heart.
 
GRADE: C-
 
BEST QUOTES:
“She jerked open the car door and saw the blood gushing from his chest. Instantly she stepped out of her half-slip and started tearing it in strips. I’m glad I wore a cotton one, she thought.”
 
“I was never eager to go out with him—but, perhaps, for the good of our country, I should!”
 
REVIEW:
The Candlelight Romance imprint continues its reliable record of producing mediocre tripe with A Nurse Abroad, in which recently graduated nurse Kathy Cramer flies to Frankfurt to spend six weeks with her family before starting a new job back in the States on August 1. We know this book is half a century old by the fact that on the flight over, Kathy is able to step over her sleeping seatmate without waking her and repairs to the lounge with the hunky man across the aisle, Mike Davidson, where she “slid onto a comfortably cushioned, plastic-covered daveno” (a ’50s term for couch) and whiled away five and a half hours eating eggs out of an eggcup and falling in love.
 
Arriving in Germany, she gives Mike her address, he says, “I’ll write to you,” and then he’s gone, leaving her crushed on the curb outside customs. But Mom and Dad and sister Sue are there to pick up her luggage while she manages the shards of her heart, and soon they’re touring German tourist attractions before arriving at the Cramers’ home, Ramstein Air Base, where Mr. Cramer is a dentist. He soon sets up Kathy with a job at the local clinic, working alongside Dr. Gruenig, whom she doesn’t care for—“he’s just not human,” she tells her shocked family, no matter how dreamy he is. He treats all his patients without any compassion, even poor little Johnny Turner, “the spastic.” In contrast, Kathy, when she meets little Johnny, immediately starts asking him how much he’d like a dog, and when “his head jerked pitifully,” Kathy decides that he must have one, though his mother is quite adamant, over several clinic visits, that she sees no pets in Johnny’s future. In her further attempts to convince Dr. Gruenig that kindness is good for his patients, she chats up the 19-year-old pregnant girl from Virginia so that the patient will relax and the doctor can “properly complete his examination.” You know it won’t be long before Dr. Gruenig sees the error of his cold, cold ways.
 
In the meantime, Kathy’s worrying about clinic pharmacist Herman Heinrich. He’s supposed to be from East Germany, though she notices “something different about his accent” that no one else seems to have observed, and decides “she didn’t trust him. She supposed it was his eyes.” There are other incidents, too, that trouble her—she keeps seeing him leaving different American housing complexes on the base, and spots him on a tourist boat with a group of men she’d noticed in a restaurant just the night before discussing an emerald they were planning to use as a bribe: “By now there was little doubt in Kathy’s mind that Herr Heinrich was working for the Communists.” Dad, as conspiracy-minded as his daughter, promptly goes to the CIA with all this. But who needs the CIA when you have Kathy Cramer, RN, on the job? or plotters dumb enough to discuss their plans in a restaurant loudly enough for other tables to overhear?
 
And just what is Herman up to? As it happens, Kathy’s dad is in charge of the survival kits that have been placed in the basement of each of the Army housing units to aid residents in the event of a nuclear attack, “if there should be any survivors.” It’s Mr. Cramer’s job to instruct all the families in their unit how to use it, if blankets and can openers have been heretofore unknown to them. After Herman comes to Kathy’s house to ask her on a date, which she reluctantly accepts so as to better keep tabs on him, she’s getting ready for bed—“oh, dear! She was getting very sleepy! And she hadn’t creamed her face”—when she sees Herman leaving her building, an hour after she’d thrown him out of her apartment. She immediately rouses Dad, and the two of them investigate the survival kit in the basement—the seal has been broken! It seems the medicine in the kit has been partly replaced—only the bottles on the left side, and Herman is left-handed! and a pharmacist! with untrustworthy eyes!
 
The CIA is moving too slowly for Kathy’s liking, so she decides to keep watch from her apartment windows to catch Herman when he returns to finish the job. Fortunately it’s only her second night on guard duty when Herman obligingly pops up. Kathy follows him to the basement, and when he pulls a gun, she reprimands him indignantly: “You wouldn’t dare! I’m a U.S. citizen.” Even Communist saboteurs recognize the power of her nationality, so instead of gunning her down, he just bashes her on the head. But her scream brings three sleeping couples awake, out of bed and their apartments, and into the basement before the slow-witted and slower-moving villain can escape up a single flight of stairs. No wonder Communism is such a failure.
 
Kathy has clearly missed her calling in not going in for intelligence work—the captured Herman turns out to be a Russian spy—though it turns out that Mike Davidson has, which we discover when he shows up at her bedside, explaining that he couldn’t see her until he’d cleared up this troublesome ring of saboteurs, or at least until she cleared it up for him. Next we know, it’s the following weekend and Kathy and Mike are planning where to get married before returning to the States and Kathy’s new job next week: “The train pulled into another tunnel and there were no more words for quite a while.” Which is about as graphic as VNRNs get.
 
Even with the overblown mystery of Herman Heinrich and the survival kits—and all the manufactured patriotic hysteria that ensues!!—this book is ho-hum. And devoid of logic: Why bother tampering with a survival kit that wouldn’t be used unless a nuclear bomb had been dropped? The tens or hundreds of people thusly harmed is ridiculously small potatoes in the wake of a bomb that would have killed hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention long on effort for such a small and unlikely return. (In another demonstration of lack of sense, the author dedicated the book to a doctor “who has been helpful in many ways,” and then christened her villain with the same given name as the doctor she wished to honor. It could have been an inside joke, I suppose, but with all the other lapses, I’m not sure.) The writing is not bad enough to make you cringe, but the characters are as perfunctory as Kathy and Mike’s engagement. Even when poor spastic Johnny gets his dog in the end and is promising to gain weight, this feels as hollow and exploitative as the book’s other plot devices. If it’s armchair travel you seek, don’t bother heading abroad with this nurse.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Five O'Clock Surgeon

By Dorothy Pierce Walker, ©1948
Cover illustration by George Porter
 
Dr. Stephen Lovett glanced up from the patient on the operating table. “Take a message,” he said, turning to the medical student at his side. Presently the boy reappeared, grinning. “Miss Townsend wants to remind you that the cocktail party starts at five-thirty.” Young Doctor Stephen Lovett’s doctoring hours were from 9 to 5 … no more! His fiancée, Leslie Townsend, saw to that. But then Steve met the lovely nurse, Julie Greenwood. “A doctor’s first duty is to his patients,” she said. Steve had to make a choice. Was he going to be a doctor or a playboy?
 
GRADE: B
 
BEST QUOTES:
“Surgery fascinates me. I like to feel that I’m in on the miracles you men perform.”
 
“ ‘People don’t grow up until they’ve had some banging around,’ he observed.
‘Well, bang me around then,’ she replied. ‘I might like it.’ ”
 
“You could have benefited by a few more spankings in your extreme youth.”
 
“He didn’t envy the nurses on night duty. There was always that feeling that even the patients in good condition might pass out in their sleep or suddenly go berserk and jump out of windows.”
 
“I want you to meet Dr. Zeller, Owen. But don’t offer to shake hands with him. Both of his were broken by the Nazis.”
 
REVIEW:
Dr. Steve Lovett is a surgeon, natch, and engaged to the beautiful and wealthy Leslie Townsend. Her uncle owns an upscale medical clinic that Steve is angling to get into, though his family and friends try to talk him out of it, as apparently it’s more upstanding to be a solo practitioner. I guess the idea is that he’d always have to be sucking up to the older doctors and would never get to do any but the uninteresting cases they’ve tossed him. But this is what he wants—for the moment, anyway—just as for the moment he wants Leslie, who insists he be on time for the parties she throws for her rich friends. What’s a burst appendix when there are canapés and cold martinis to be had?
 
Curiously, Leslie, though at present a demanding, petulant shrew, has an interesting past: She used to drive ambulances in Burma during the war, which is where she met Steve. The scenes he gives us of her in wartime show a strong and brave woman, one who shoots a ten-foot-long snake when Steve and another soldier are too frozen with fear to draw their guns, who single-handedly rescues wounded paratroopers from the jungle and delivers them to Steve’s hospital, where she offers him quizzical looks when he assures her she won’t have to look at their mangled, bleeding bodies again. “She could take anything, she said, and subsequently he had found that to be true.” The old Leslie revives somewhat when she drives Steve and his scrub nurse, Julie Greenwood, to their Waterboro, Maine, hometown, which has been ravaged by a forest fire, getting them through the police blockade with aplomb—and then drops back to party-girl mode when Steve’s mother and Julie’s brother have been rescued, much to my chagrin. I’m not alone in that sentiment: “She did no real work of any kind, and it often seemed a pity to Steve, for Leslie had brains and talent.”
 
Julie Greenwood, on the other hand, is the apple-cheeked and dedicated scrub nurse. “She was the sort of scrub nurse a surgeon dreams about, he thought, but seldom is fortunate enough to work with. Her manner was quiet and unobtrusive; she didn’t chatter like some of the nurses; she was so absorbed in the operation that you had a feeling she could step in, if necessary, and help the surgeon do the job.” She has gumption, too; she fights with the mean new OR supervisor and breaks rules to help the surgeons do their work better.
 
Frontis
The book’s plot drifts amongst several characters in the hospital: Steve’s slimy roommate, who seeks out girls and financial opportunities with as much gusto as he attempts to shirk his duty; the lovelorn lab technician, who is jilted by Steve’s roommate; an orphan with a small bowel obstruction that Steve takes under his wing. These various stories don’t always come to any satisfying—or sometimes any actual—end; the roommate departs for Florida with a rich patient, having suffered exactly no repercussions for his rakish and irresponsible behavior; and even Leslie perfunctorily breaks up with Steve when he leaves her uncle’s dinner party to operate on the aforementioned orphan, never to be heard from again.
 
This is another one of those not-a-nurse-novel stories that has slipped into the pile, but the cover was so promising I could not resist. Truth be told, the cover seems to have been designed for a book other than the one that lies within it, possibly a more entertaining, campy, and amusing book. As it is, the book we have takes itself a bit too seriously. It’s not a bad story, and not badly written, and indeed approaches the charm of some of Faith Baldwin or Lucy Agnes Hancock’s books. It entertains in an easy fashion, with occasional wit, such as in, “She got her hand back from Owen and moved off down the corridor.” This book is easily worth reading, but it never really does anything with the characters or the story that sets it above the herd. If only it had lived up to the promise of its cover.