The Sue Barton Series by Helen Dore Boylston

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.

In which Sue ends her fictional career

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.

Early American editions of the first two books

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.

Beginning and ending with The Bodley Head

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.

My Lockdown Books: Twenty Seven

Helen Dore Boylston is best known for her Sue Barton series which I read as a child and very much enjoyed.  It was only years later, though, that I acquired her lesser known Carol series.  I don’t think that they were ever republished as paperbacks in the UK (which is how I read Sue’s adventures).  There are only four titles in the sequence and I always wished there were more.

Carol Page is an aspiring actress who by Carol on Tour, the final book, has begun to make a name for herself.  I like Carol I think is more rounded and realistic than Sue Barton.  She has more faults and doubts than Sue displays and is still showing a lack of judgement in this book even as she matures.

There are some great supporting characters in the series and the dialogue is witty and engaging.  I really enjoy the way that Carol, a well-educated daughter of the middle classes, struggles to understand Mike Horodinsky who seems in every way to be her opposite.  He is also shown failing to understand Carol and her background which gives rise to some genuinely tense encounters.

Just a footnote for you.  On the inside flap of this book is a quote from the South Wales Evening Post, saying: ‘Teen-agers and grown-ups alike will enjoy this instalment of Carol’s adventures.’  I’d agree with that analysis.  As an adult I find this series perfectly rewarding.


Back Beside the Sea

As I write, it is a beautiful autumn day: the sun is shining, the sky is blue and there is scarcely a breeze.  The view from my windows is glorious: the trees still have their autumn colours, there are swans swimming in the pond and I can just catch a glimpse of the cathedral.  Where am I?  In my new office in Elgin.

I’ve just recently been fortunate enough to be given the post of Senior Librarian in Moray.  I have a varied remit including, I’m pleased to say, services to young people.  It’s a great job and I’m working with friendly and helpful people.  But, best of all, I’ve moved back to Lossiemouth after an absence of over twenty years.  From my house I can see the sea and the view is wonderful!

As yet, I don’t have all my books with me which is clearly not a good thing.  Deciding which titles to bring was tough and, in the end, I went for a random selection.  I do work in a library after all!  It’s been fun, though, reading my way through the books I brought.  I’d forgotten all about some of them and they’d got hidden away in my collection.  Maybe less really is more.

What did I bring?  Well, some are books I can’t be without.  Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery, Sisterland by Linda Newbery and Nancy Calls the Tune by Dorita Fairlie Bruce for example.  I also brought some short series: the Carol books by Helen Dore Boylston and the Merry titles by Clare Mallory.  And then there are some that I’ve acquired since moving.  I love Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell and Big Bear, Little Brother by Carl Norac and beautifully illustrated by Kristin Oftedal.

I have others, too, some of them even for grown-ups, but to feel completely at home I’ll need all my books with me.  The day can’t come fast enough!

Helen Dore Boylston

A couple of weeks ago I was reading an article in a professional journal written by someone I know in the world of publishing.  It was generally very interesting but one thing jumped out at me: the name of Helen Dore Boylston.  I already knew that the writer of the article and I have similar tastes in children’s books (We once sat together at a conference dinner bemusing our fellow diners with our in-depth discussion of the Chalet School, Anne of Green Gables and Cherry Ames.) but I didn’t know that we were both collectors of the Sue Barton series.

Spookily, I had just finished re-reading Sue Barton and was about to move on to Helen Dore Boylston’s other series about Carol Page, an aspiring actress.  The article hadn’t mentioned those books so I emailed my friend to ask if she knew them.  On finding that she didn’t, I decided to take the first one, published in the UK as Carol Goes on the Stage, to the award ceremony of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals where I knew we’d meet.  I did and Alyx is now off on a quest to find copies of the books for herself.  I might even be inspired to find better copies for myself.  I’d really like to get hold of the original American editions.

Talking about the books has caused me to think about them again.  They were originally published in the US between 1936 and 1952.  I had read all of the Sue Barton titles by the time I was twelve in 1980.  At that time they had been re-issued in paperback by Knight (I think!) and they were easily available to borrow from the library in Lossiemouth or to buy.  It never occurred to me that the books were 40 years old at that point.  And that must be one of the reasons they remained in print and popular for so long: they don’t date.  There are some references that give their age away (an old man who had seen Florence Nightingale, Sue meeting Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement) but a child would have to be paying a lot of attention to pick these up.  The only one of the Carol series I read as a child was Carol Comes to Broadway, the third title.  I found it confusing because I’d missed so much of the history but I loved it.  I was always aware, however, that the setting wasn’t modern as there are fleeting references to the Second World War.  Like Sue Barton, though, Carol Page appeared to me a fairly modern heroine.

Even re-reading the books as an adult, I still don’t find them very dated.  I know a little bit more about medicine now so I realise that things have moved on; and the manners and etiquette in the books are more formal than they are in my experience (unfortunately) but, that apart, they could certainly have been written in my lifetime.  Except, maybe, for one thing: the romance.

Reading the books as a child, Sue’s relationship with Bill seemed quite believable (although I wonder what I really made of the life of a group of adults as a ten-year-old…) and, as a teenager, I was prepared to accept Carol and Mike’s.  Of course, reading either series as an adult, these relationships clearly date the books.  As far as I can remember, Carol and Mike don’t so much as kiss even though they’re engaged by the end of the series!  I think Sue and Bill might have been slightly more daring.

However, I think that in spite of this, Helen Dore Boylston does something that few other authors of the period managed: she creates believable male characters.  Compare Bill Barry with the male doctors Elinor Brent-Dyer introduces for her heroines to marry.  If you have ever read the Chalet School books as an adult you’ll know that Jem Russell, Jack Maynard, Gottfried Mensch and even the non-doctor Dick Bettany are simply stereotypical collections of fine upstanding characteristics.  Bill is, of course, a brilliant surgeon, handsome, funny and trustworthy.  But he’s also short-tempered, a bit chauvinistic and can be hurt, vulnerable and depressed.  In terms of publishing, Jo Bettany and Jack Maynard get married in the same year (1940) as Sue and Bill finally do the same.

I was going to say: and I know which hero I’d choose.  But, actually, I’d go for Mike.  Michael Horodinsky is tall, dark but certainly not handsome; he’s rude, insecure and a bit of a genius in the theatre; he has an inferiority complex the size of New England and a bagful of prejudices mixed with total honesty and trustworthiness.  And it’s not only Carol who is surprised that he wants to marry her.  Helen Dore Boylston creates a genuinely scratchy relationship between the two of them and it’s really only in the course of the third book that they become at all close and, even then, there’s no hint of romance.  But there’s mutual respect and understanding of each other’s character and background.  Mike matures and develops as a person as well as a producer throughout the series and I’m with Carol’s mother who tells her that she is a very lucky girl to have Mike fall in love with her!

I wish that Helen Dore Boylston had written more books and I especially wish that she’d taken Carol’s life further.  And it seems that I’m not their only fan.  Trawling the Internet recently, I discovered that a small American publisher (Image Cascade Publishing) has put out new editions of the Sue Barton series.  Maybe Carol and Mike will be introduced to new readers sometime soon.