Shy, sensitive Kelly found herself fighting for everything she had ever believed in…
Our annual round-up of Whitman Girls Series chugs right along this week with a favorite author… IN DISGUISE!
Background: I’ve noted before the reasons for the enduring popularity of Nursing as profession for YA heroines, so it’s no surprise that in the mid-1960s Whitman would take a pass at the genre. To their credit, they came up with a rather ingenious marketing concept: three young-adult daughters of a world-famous widower-surgeon, who each answer the calling. The Scott sisters- Coleen (called Kelly), Penny, and Tracy, each star in their own adventures, which Whitman has conveniently color-coded for us in (respectively) turquoise, yellow, and pink covers.
And does that snappy prose and swingin’ single gal plot seem familiar? Good eye, “Jean Kirby” is a Whitman pseudonym, in this volume standing in for Virginia Bleecher McDonnell, AKA Jinny McDonnell, the author of the dearly-missed Kim Aldrich series.
The Plot: And Kirby/McDonnell has a few surprising twists for us right away, as we pick up a few months into youngest sister Kelly’s training as a student nurse “probie” at Midwest General Hospital in suburban Chicago.
As the youngest Scott sister, and last to enter the field, she comes with something of an inferiority complex in the shadows of her glamorous and accomplished older sisters. Deliberately choosing to study far away from her family and their luxurious life in a Manhattan penthouse, Kelly is bound by the promise she made to her famous father, Dr. Timberlake Scott:
No matter how discouraged, how low she got, how abused she felt, she would keep it to herself.
The book opens at the end of the winter semester at Midwest General, and although Kelly has found the training challenging and is still intimidated by the senior students and faculty, she has a true-blue ally in her roommate, Mimi Pelham. So, settle in for a mildly wacky nursing school adventures with the two BFFs…
Not so fast! McDonnell put one over on us right away, when after spending Christmas in New York with her family, making the acquaintance of a hunky law student named Woody Sanders, 6 foot five with a bright red crew cut (Editors Note: in your imagination, the role of Woody Sanders will be played tonight by Martin Milner), and enjoy some well-earned R&R, she returns to Chicago to find that… MIMI HAS MYSTERIOUSLY VANISHED!
After some briefly swirling rumors, word arrives from Mimi via airmail, that she had been keeping her plan to elope with her boyfriend over Christmas vacation a secret for some weeks. Now he has accepted a job in South America, and Mimi can only wistfully think about returning to nursing someday…
If that’s not bad enough, Kelly finds she’s been assigned a new roomie, the glamorous, blonde-haired, violet-eyed, popular and academically gifted Rhoda Faulkner. Unfortunately, Rhoda is also a HEINOUS BEE-OTCH.
From disrupting Kelly’s studies, to gossiping about the other probies, to shirking off her duties onto Kelly, to finally managing to steal Woody right out from under her nose when he arrives in town hoping for a date with Kelly, Rhoda delights in making trouble for her roommate, telling her that she just has a face that’s asking to be taken advantage of.
It’s trying to best Rhoda in the popularity department that gets her into trouble: after receiving a huge box of gourmet food from the family housekeeper, she impulsively invites the other probies to a “midnight spread”, forgetting that it is the middle of Perpetual Silence, the week leading up to the term exams, during which the faculty doubles down on enforcing the rules, including complete silence. When Rhoda noisily attracts the attention of the dorm mother, they are discovered, mid-feast.
Kelly has nobly taken double the punishment of her fellow probies for being the brains behind the food and is still confined to quarters when Woody calls for a date. Rhoda likes the sound of him and wrangling the phone away from Kelly gets herself invited in her place for a night on the town. And although Kelly risks further punishment in sneaking Rhoda back in when she returns long past curfew, she gets no thanks:
“You might thank me for risking my neck.”
“Thank you for nothing,” Rhoda said, removing the pillow and sitting up. “You’re one of the unlucky ones with a conscience. I know the type. He’s a divine dancer, that Woody Sanders. After dinner we went to some place he had a card to get into. Private club, I guess. The music was super, and not too many people there. I think he tipped the orchestra to keep playing. Said I danced like a true professional. We were the last couple there. It was heaven!”
Private club in 1963 Chicago? Oh damn, Rhoda was out partying with Hugh Hefner!
But he next day when Woody calls to ask Kelly if she like the earrings, and she’s all “What earrings?” she learns exactly how far Rhoda’s willing to go:
“I didn’t know they were for you, Kelly. Never occurred to me he wasn’t giving them to me. I think you ought to let me have them, anyway. Didn’t I keep your date for you? Didn’t I give him a wonderful night on the town? You’re going to let me have them, aren’t you?”
“Y-o-u a-r-e i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e,” Kelly said with slow emphasis.
“Ok, go on, take the darn things! But don’t think you’ve heard the last of this, Miss Kelly Scott! I’ll get even you one of these days. Just give that some thought!”
But Kelly pretty much has hunky dudes falling out of her ears. After helping a rich widow after she faints in the hallway, Kelly meets her extremely handsome and wealthy son, Don Ranger:
Twenty-five or six, medium height, rough blond hair, searching gray eyes and a wide, kind mouth. His squarish face was cleanly chiseled in purposeful lines. His nose added the necessary ambition. Unconsciously, Kelly smiled shyly.
Don’s a goner when Kelly uses reverse psychology to convince his mother that she needs to stay in the hospital while her house is redecorated. The rich: they are not like us.
But nursing school isn’t all dreamy guys who want to take you on glamorous dates. In between we meet some of Kelly and the other probies’ patients- fat, grumpy, poor, malnourished, indecipherable southern accents.
Kelly seems to have a special touch with many of them, especially when she gets out her guitar and plays folk songs of her own creation, which she is called upon to do for a couple of terminal old ladies, nicknamed Talker and Sleeper by their assigned nurse (McDonnell’s nurses freely share their opinions on their more difficult cases).
Which begins Kelly’s NEXT misadventure, when out of gratitude for the performance, Talker gives Kelly a diamond-and-ruby ring, which Kelly assumes must be a costume piece. After some hesitation, she accepts the gift, carefully packing it away in an unused suitcase.
When she hears that ANOTHER patient has reported that a valuable diamond-and-ruby ring has been stolen, Kelly rushes to return it to the authorities and explain what happened, only to find it missing. Rhoda smugly announces that she turned it in herself, fingering Kelly as the thief.
After explaining the situation to the hospital’s house detective, they return to Talker and Sleeper’s room to corroborate the story, only to find that Sleeper has been discharged and Talker has dropped dead!
The House detective (who is also not immune to Kelly’s charms) (GIRL!), says that he believes her, and they locate Sleeper at her niece’s home in the Chicago suburbs. But when they arrive, Sleeper has no recollection of her roomie giving Kelly the ring. Kelly’s still on the hook for the theft and ordered to appear at the next faculty meeting to defend herself.
Although Rhoda is still viciously spreading rumors about Kelly, she finds a few allies among the other students, including Native American student Jane Tarlock (Indian name: FIGHTING TIGRESS) and the mysterious Linda Koenig, who urge her to not let Rhoda get her down.
Eventually, Kelly solves the mystery herself, when she takes on the care of a difficult patient, and a diamond encrusted watch turns up on her breakfast tray. Quickly, it is traced back to an unnamed nurse’s aide suffering from kleptomania, who confesses all and is quietly discharged after agreeing to seek psychiatric help. Whew.
Just in time! Kelly had impressed the head nurse with her musical abilities and has been talked into performing some of her folk songs at a hospital benefit (which also for some reason includes Jane and Linda putting on a fashion show where they wear bed pans on their heads….)
When Don Ranger sends Kelly orchids to wear on her dress, Rhoda is apoplectic with rage and announces she’s putting a hex on Kelly.
So she’s not just a bitch, she’s also a WITCH!!!!
Rhoda’s hex seems to work, because Kelly forgets the second verse of her own song, but she quickly recovers, and is a big hit, later joining Don for a night on he town at an upscale nightclub with an oriental theme:
Kelly took a deep breath and thought of a visit to Chinatown in San Francisco years ago; the colors, the smells; the adorable slant-eyed children…
Oh, Kelly. Frowns.
By the end of the night, Don is madly in love with her, but Kelly is devoted to nursing, and can make no promises about a future together.
Back at the nurses dormitory, Rhoda is all up in her business the second she gets back:
“He made love to you. I can tell by your eyes. The green’s all swamped out. They’re blazing black.”
The evening ends with Rhoda putting another hex on her.
But Rhoda has to get her comeuppance, right? It happens when Kelly catches her cheating on an anatomy exam, and Kelly threatens to turn her in if she won’t herself.
But of course, Rhoda has a whole hard-luck backstory about being abandoned by her oft-married mother in various boarding schools, and how one of the school’s laundresses served as her mentor and encouraged her to train as a nurse. Chastened, Rhoda confesses all and learns that the school had been keeping an extensive record of her misdeeds, and if she hadn’t confessed she would be kicked out. Kelly returns at the end of her shift she finds Rhoda a new girl:
The other girl dropped to the floor and put her head in Kelly’s uniformed lap, “You’ll never know what I’ve been through,” she whispered. “I’ve been torn apart and put back together again in what seemed to be no more than a breath of time. I’ll have scars for the rest of my life.”
So Rhoda is saved and has apparently learned many valuable lessons about putting hexes on people and stealing their boyfriends.
But (FORESHADOWING!) isn’t something a little off about that Linda Koenig?
Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Title! Department:
“You musn’t worry about having more to do in the hospital and greater contact with the patients. That will come. I’m very proud of my nurses three.”