Saturday, November 28, 2015

My Sue Barton collection is finally complete

 

The other day, after I finished Dorothy Canfield's Her Son's Wife, I was trying to make a list of other books set in Vermont, the home of so many of her characters. Of course I thought of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, and the American adventures of the Von Trapp family. I was also thinking of the later books in this series. But when I sat down with Sue Barton, Rural Nurse and Sue Barton, Staff Nurse, I was reminded that they take place in rural New Hampshire instead. In Staff Nurse, Sue goes back to work while her husband Bill is in a sanitarium for TB treatment. There was a little summary in the first chapter, Sue "transporting herself back a year in order to enjoy the feeling of having second sight..." That made me realize that I was missing the book where what she remembers take place.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of the book, Sue Barton, Neighborhood Nurse, on-line. When I first started looking for these books, some of the titles were very hard to find. I remember when the only copies of Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse were going for hundreds of dollars. There certainly seem to be more copies available now, at much more reasonable prices. There have also been some modern reprints, from Image Cascade Publishing, with nicely retro covers.

I have written before about how important these books were to me, growing up. My mother was a nurse, as were two of my aunts and several glamorous older cousins. I wanted to go to nursing school, to earn my cap and wear my crisp white uniform (with the white nylons). I devoured books about nursing schools the way others did boarding school stories. (I wish now I could remember the title or author of the book where a young African American woman desegregates a nursing school.) I didn't question why there were no women doctors in these books, nor did I ask myself if my extreme reaction to blood might perhaps disqualify me from nursing. Eventually, I fell in love with studying French and decided to become a translator at the United Nations instead - but I never lost my love for nursing school stories. I checked the Sue Barton books out of libraries well into adulthood, until they disappeared from the shelves. I was so happy when I was able to find copies on-line.

They do of course read a little differently to me now, at my advanced age. I still enjoy the two books about Sue's training, Student Nurse (1936) and Senior Nurse (1937), though the second book is as much about her romance with Bill as it is with nursing (the course of true love can't run too smoothly). It's interesting that Sue asks Bill to delay their marriage, because she wants to work as a visiting nurse in the Henry Street Settlement program (Visiting Nurse, 1938). In the next book, Rural Nurse (1939), Bill has to postpone their marriage after his father dies, but Sue joins him as a community nurse in New Hampshire. After their marriage, they work together at a new local hospital, donated by a rich neighbor (Superintendent of Nurses, 1940). Sue is the director of the tiny nursing school that they open, but with this book, the stories become as much about their marriage and (later) family.

I hadn't re-read Neighborhood Nurse (1947) in years, but from the title I was expecting something about community nursing. Instead, though Sue spends one day filling in for the district visiting nurse, this story is about marriage, family, and motherhood. Sue does wonder at the beginning if she is wasting her nursing education and experience, but in the end she has come to realize that her children are her most important work. This might fit in with the times in which Helen Dore Boylston was writing it, when women had been encouraged to return to the home after the war-work of the Second World War (which plays no part whatsoever in these books). Boylston herself never married, however, nor did she have children. (She lived for several years with Rose Wilder Lane, in Albania and at the home of Lane's parents, Almanzo and Laura [Ingalls] Wilder, but everything I've read dodges the question of their relationship, whether partners or friends.) In the last of the series, Staff Nurse (1952), Sue escapes back to the hospital work she loves, partly to cope with her anxiety, though she doesn't neglect her motherly duties.  It's interesting that Boylston wrote another series of books about a career woman, the actress Carol Page. I wonder if they end with Carol retiring from the stage for the domestic life.

These are by no means great books, but they're part of my literary DNA, and still comfort reads for me. I'm probably likely to re-read Neighborhood Nurse least often, because I don't find Sue's kids that interesting, and it has almost no nursing in it, but I'm still glad to have a copy. And maybe I will re-read Visiting Nurse for next year's 1938 Club!

25 comments:

  1. I don't remember Sue Barton but I do remember Cherry Ames! I often wish I had kept more of my childhood books (I have a few).

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    1. Oh yes, Cherry Ames! My library only had the first three, though, and I had no idea how many there actually are in the series! I think Cherry tries every single kind of nursing duty there is - I wonder if Rex was always waiting patiently in the background.

      I re-read those three some years ago, and they didn't wear quite as well. A lot of adventure, though - particularly the Army Nurse book!

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    2. P.S. Sue's training hospital is in Boston :)

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  2. I used to love Sue Barton, but I read library copies and they never seem to turn up in bookshops here. I'm so tempted to look to see if there are reissues available here.

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    1. Oh, if you give in to temptation, I hope they are :)

      We lived in England for a semester, when I was in high school. My year was doing volunteer work, so I signed up as a hospital aide. It was much more like Sue Barton's hospitals, with open wards, then with the kind I was used to in the US, and I loved it.

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    2. That's interesting, because I didn't realise that the setting was in the USA. I don't see any reissues but I do see some very affordable used copies, and I suspect it won't be long until I give into temptation and order the first book.

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    3. I was re-reading a bit of the first book last night, and other than Sue coming by train from New Hampshire (and Connie driving from Chicago), there isn't much to set this in the US - or in 1936 for that matter.

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  3. I loved Sue Barton, even though I had no desire to be a nurse. I don't remember the later novels you mention so I probably only read the first few that were available in my school library.

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    1. I can't remember now if our library had all of them. It feels like I've always known & loved these books - I also can't remember reading them for the first time.

      It's lovely to think of how books span the globe :)

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  4. Oh my goodness! I literally was just thinking about these books yesterday. I loved them when I was young. I have been giving my daughter some of the series I enjoyed as a child and I was wishing I had these. I never owned them though, I just got them at the library. I also liked the Vicki Barr flight stewardess series. It sounded like such a glamorous life. I wish I had known to buy some of these books. They were so common when I was young and are so hard to find now.

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    1. These I got from the library, I never had copies of my own as a young reader. The same with the Betsy-Tacy books. I'd have stolen those from the library, if I'd thought I could get away with it :) Instead I just checked them out week after week. I was so happy to find they had been re-printed, and I could finally have my own copies. If I'd had children, I'd have read both those series to them - maybe not to sons, I guess.

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  5. Your African-American books -- there are at least two that I read back in the day -- are A CAP FOR MARY ELLIS, and MARY ELLIS, STUDENT NURSE, both by Hope Newell.

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    1. Ann, thank you - this has nagged me for years. I did not know there was a second book - my library only had the first. I will be very curious to read these again.

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    2. Oddly enough, they had come to mind at Thanksgiving dinner, when we were discussing fashion! One of Mary Ellis' friends, Julia (?), had the knack of creating a high-fashion look from odds, ends, and -- I recalled specifically -- a fancy dresser scarf as a sash.

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    3. It's bookish synchronicity :) I don't remember Julia at all - I can't wait for my copies to arrive.

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  6. I seem to remember (mists of time) that Sue Barton was more serious than Cherry Ames in tone - less adventure story and more social realism (albeit for young people). It's lovely going back to rediscover old favourites (particularly if they manage to live up to expectations) but isn't it also so interesting how one perceives their society from an adult perspective?

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    1. Oh yes - as I remember, as a student Cherry foiled a plot by Enemy Agents to steal a Miracle Drug (penicillin?) - and then in the 3rd book (Army Nurse), she & her twin brother Charlie foiled an Axis plot all by themselves - no need to alert authorities!

      I'm not the most critical reader of some old favorites, but they do still read differently now.

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  7. I love the idea of "literary DNA."

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    1. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott run the deepest, I think :)

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  8. I remember reading Sue Barton books! And I remember Cherry Ames, too. I need to find these for my library.

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    1. I often see copies of Cherry Ames in used-book stores, Lori - though only the first two or three. I've never even seen copies of the later books. Did you read all of the series?

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  9. Fun! I have books that resonate with me solely because I read and loved them as a child. (Like the Betsy books by Maud Hart Lovelace.) Glad you were able to complete your Sue Barton series. :)

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    1. I came a little later to the Betsy books, and then I became obsessed with them. Emily of Deep Valley is actually my favorite, though Betsy only makes a cameo :)

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  10. These are massive comfort reads to me too. I got the full set of them for my mum one year for Christmas -- not in very good condition, unfortunately, but all library bindings, which makes them (I hope) relatively durable. Visiting Nurse was always my favorite; I love all of Sue's adventures. And it has comparatively less of rotten Bill, who I've never liked.

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    1. I'd love to have library bindings - my very used copy of Student Nurse is falling to bits.

      I was reading my favorite parts of Senior Nurse last night, and Bill was getting a bit stalk-ish. I like Staff Nurse, when he's off in the TB sanitarium, and Sue gets enjoy just being a nurse again.

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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!