Sunday, July 31, 2011

Henry Street nurses

Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse, Helen Dore Boylston

I've posted before about my attachment to the Sue Barton books.  As an adult, I was able to find my own copies of the books through the internet, except for one.  There were very few copies of Visiting Nurse listed and they were far out of my price range.  Last month I discovered that a company called Image Cascade is publishing new paperback editions, with vintage covers, and I ordered Visiting Nurse.  I've found the other books to be a bit dated but still enjoyable reading, reminding me of why I loved them so much as a kid, and I was curious to see if this one held up as well.

Visiting Nurse is a fictional account of six months spent working with the Henry Street Nursing Service, part of the Henry Street Settlement work in New York City.  I don't remember ever thinking that much about the setting, but now that I've read about Jacob Riis and visited Hull House in Chicago, I realized that nurses in this book were either a real group or based on one.  With a quick google search, I learned the reality behind the book, which even includes a cameo by the founder, Lillian Wald.  I don't think Boylston ever worked with the program, from what I can find, but she clearly admired their work, which she showcased.

In the book, Sue's work takes her through the crowded slums, in and out of tenements, meeting the diversity of peoples that make up the neighborhoods.  Many are recent immigrants or migrants, and Boylston skirts the edges of caricature with her Irish and Italian patients.  Sue is later transferred to a district in Harlem, where many of the African American characters sound like Prissy in Gone With the Wind, yet Boylston clearly wants to portray them in positive ways and condemn racist attitudes.

A major plot element revolves around women's careers and marriage.  Connie, a close friend from training, is engaged and will marry soon, abandoning her career, which Sue privately considers a waste.  Another friend from training, Kit, who joins Sue at Henry Street, seems to be focused on a career, with no thought of marriage (like Boylston herself, perhaps).  Sue is engaged to Bill, a young doctor she met during her training, and she wants to be married but isn't yet ready to give up her own work.  Henry Street nurses can be married, though in 1939, when the book was published, nurses and teachers often had to give up their work at marriage.  By the end of the book, Sue seems poised to have both marriage and a career, working with Bill in his country practice as a rural district nurse.  Since my mother worked as a nurse for most of my childhood, I took it for granted that women could do both (though without realizing how difficult and draining it could be).  I apparently also took for granted that all the doctors are men and the nurses women; I don't think there is a single female doctor in the entire series.

Now, though, I want to read more about Lillian Wald and the real world of the Henry Street Settlement.


  1. I stumbled on your post in a search for more information about the Henry Street Nurses. My mother in law told me once that her mother was a Henry Street nurse and so I am curious. I have never read the Sue Barton books, I do remember them but was all caught up in Nancy Drew mysteries at the time. Now I want to go back and read the Sue Bartons. Enjoyed your post!

  2. Nancy, thanks for stopping by - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I was also a big Nancy Drew fan, but those books haven't stuck with me like Sue Barton - maybe because there were so many of them!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!