Nurses in popular culture have gotten a bad rap in the last 40 years or so. When a nurse on a soap opera (Bobbie on General Hospital) is a shining example of professionalism and skill, you know you’re in trouble.
I only discovered Cherry Ames a few years ago, after being a nurse for a while, and I was instantly smitten. In the first four books of the series, Cherry goes from being a new nursing student to running an army hospital in the Pacific theater. Her career trajectory is more believable when you learn that the U.S. government spent millions of dollars during the Second World War in training and mobilizing nurses, and that a bill to draft nurses into military service failed by only one vote in Congress.
Cherry seems much more real than her contemporaries like Nancy Drew. Yes, she’s solving mysteries and doing heroic things, but she also gets scared. She screws up and gets punished. She’s always late, there are people she doesn’t like and who don’t like her back, and at one point, she almost misses moving off of probation due to a clerical error at her school. (That last point made me laugh out loud in recognition: It seems nursing school hasn’t changed much since the 1940s.)
The most interesting thing for me, the WWII history buff, was Cherry’s experience in the service. The Pacific side of the war stretched Allied forces thin, partly because the Japanese were such determined fighters, but also because conditions were so bad. Malaria, skin infections and parasites were huge problems for soldiers and nurses alike. Keeping food edible and finding potable water were also constant struggles. Helen Wells, the author of the first books, sanitized things a bit for her younger readers, but it’s interesting to compare the experiences of the fictional nurses’ corps with the real experiences detailed in books like We Band of Angels.
Best of all is Cherry’s training to be a flight nurse in the fifth book in the series. Imagine what it must have been like to take care of critically injured men in a C-47, with minimal to no pressurization in the cabin, with no red cross painted on the plane and with enemy planes seeing a sitting duck. C-47s had to fly low and slow, as going too high would’ve caused irreversible damage to brain-injured patients or those with chest wounds. They weren’t allowed red crosses because they hauled equipment and supplies as well as patients. Even though it was a young adult novel written years before I was born, that book had me gritting my teeth in suspense.
I’m a Cherry Ames nerd and proud of it. The series slumps a bit in the middle, when Cherry goes off to do things like work at a ski resort, but the first books are treasures. Modern medicine’s come a long way, as have the privileges and practice standards of nursing. Reading the Ames books makes you appreciate that, as well as love the simplicity of the way things used to be.
Plus, she had that cool cape. I’m still looking for a cape.