When I first floated the idea of taking a stroll through my collection of career novels, one of my friends put in a request for Sue Barton to be included. I’m very happy to do that. The Sue Barton books are amongst the first career novels I read, although I didn’t see them that way at the time. They were simply another set of books I was reading. I had them in this edition, published by Knight Books and reissued in the 1970s. Over the years I collected Bodley Head hardback copies and this is the only paperback I have, kept as it was a prize.
For those who don’t know the books at all, there are seven in the series, of which Staff Nurse is the final one. The books are American and Sue Barton Student Nurse first appeared in 1936. The publication date is, of course, important. I was reading them forty years after they were written but that was never something I thought about. As a child, I knew nothing about medicine (in fact, I know very little more now!) and so I missed all the out-dated descriptions of procedures. And Sue and her friends seemed fairly normal to me.
I had at that time never seen the editions above with the original dustwrappers painted by Major Felton. They might have caused me to consider the time setting of the books. Or I might just have thought they were strange because they were American! For whatever reason, though, I just read and enjoyed them.
We first meet Sue as she is leaving her New Hampshire home to travel to Boston where she will train to become a nurse. We don’t know lots about her: she’s eighteen and has a younger brother, Ted. Her father is a doctor and she’s inspired by this to take up nursing. There’s never any suggestion that she might become a doctor herself and I can’t remember there being any female doctors mentioned throughout the series. I could be wrong about that and I’d be happy to be corrected.
Sue meets Katherine Van Dyke and Constance Halliday early in the first book and they become close friends. Sue, Connie and Kit are a recognised unit throughout the first two books although Connie gets married in the third book and is scarcely mentioned after that. Canadian Kit, though, goes marching on through the series. Even before she meets the girls, however, Sue stumbles across one Dr Bill Barry. The astute reader will realise immediately that he’s the love interest and, indeed, Sue marries him later on in the series.
And there’s a thing. At the outset of the series Sue is an adult; by the end of it she’s married and has three children as well as her career. And yet I read all of these books before I went to secondary school. How is it possible? Fair enough, in the first two books Sue isn’t really living in the adult world in spite of having a responsible job. She’s still subject to rules that affect her personal life as well as her professional one. But from then on she’s a grown-up.
Clearly the books are written with young people in mind and the content isn’t adult but even now, as an adult, I can quite happily believe in Sue’s world. I don’t understand how an author does that. How do you write about a world beyond the experience of your readers without alienating them. Answers from authors and editors would be most welcome!
I never had any interest in nursing. At no point in my life was it a career I would have considered but I enjoyed this series very much. However, I enjoyed it for the characters. These books are very different from the others that Bodley Head published in their careers collection in that you are not bombarded with information about the job, the qualifications you need, the training you’ll receive and the opportunities at the end of that training. Instead you follow Sue’s life and career which happen to have nursing at the centre.