REVIEW: The Nurse’s Secret by Amanda Skenandore
Based on Florence Nightingale’s nursing principles, Bellevue is the first school of its kind in the country. Where once nurses were assumed to be ignorant and unskilled, Bellevue prizes discipline, intellect, and moral character, and only young women of good breeding need apply. At first, Una balks at her prim classmates and the doctors’ endless commands. Yet life on the streets has prepared her for the horrors of injury and disease found on the wards, and she slowly gains friendship and self-respect.
Just as she finds her footing, Una’s suspicions about a patient’s death put her at risk of exposure, and will force her to choose between her instinct for self-preservation, and exposing her identity in order to save others.
Amanda Skenandore brings her medical expertise to a page-turning story that explores the evolution of modern nursing—including the grisly realities of nineteenth-century medicine—as seen through the eyes of an intriguing and dynamic heroine.
Dear Ms. Skenandore,
Several of my friends are or have been nurses so I was very interested in reading about one of the first modern schools for nurses in the US. I did not expect that Una Kelly’s history would be quite so horrific but as the blurb states, she was more than ready for the less appealing aspects of taking care of sick or injured patients. She was also streetwise, cunning, and not afraid to stand up for herself.
“The Nurse’s Secret” is a dark one that, if known, would never have allowed Una to get her foot past the door for a strict interview at the Bellevue school. But Una is desperate and determined. With more than a decade of surviving on the streets of late Victorian NYC behind her, Una can read people and judge how to get her way. What she needs is a place to hide after being arrested and then framed by a friend for a murder. Well, Una was about to turn the tables and frame Diedre but was beaten to the punch. No, Una is not a sweet and misunderstood waif but a hardened twenty five year old who knows all the tricks and isn’t going to hesitate to do whatever she must to survive.
An article in the newspaper gives Una the information about the nursing program and though she has no interest in actually doing this job, it will get her off the street for long enough that she hopes the coppers will have moved on. Plus she sees a whole new scamming life unfolding before her as a private duty nurse who will be welcomed into the homes of the rich. Who would suspect the saintly and hard working nurse to be the one who lifted the pearls or filched the pocket watch?
But as Una works her tail off and is befriended by her roommate and courted (in secret) by one of the doctors who has issues in his own past, she discovers that despite the blood and gore and grunt work, she is beginning to take pride in helping patients feel better. If only Una wasn’t starting to suspect that the killer who has murdered people in the slums is still at work close by.
There is a romance thread in the story but the bulk of it is historical fiction about Una and how she negotiates living her life. The sections that detail the horrific poverty in which the poorest of NYC’s citizens lived doesn’t skip how things were. It was dog-eat-dog, claw your way through each day, give no quarter. Una has a list of rules by which she lives (which sort of reminded me of Zombieland but without the zombies) and among the top ones is look out for yourself first. This is what has kept her alive and which guides her actions and thoughts about the people around her. Una finds it hard to believe that anyone would do a kindness for her and not expect something in return. It’s only gradually that she discovers herself making a friend and not always keeping her eye out for a chance to take advantage of Drusilla. I thought this aspect of the plot was well handled.
Another hurrah from me is because of the medical stuff. This was just at the stage when the pioneering practices of Joseph Lister were being introduced in hospitals. Some doctors believed in them while others felt them to be poppycock. There also isn’t the type of medical character that I sometimes see in historical stories who “somehow” has stumbled upon advanced things that miraculously save a patient. The classism and bigotry against anyone not educated, well off and Protestant isn’t brushed under the rug either.
While I felt this part of the novel was well done in characterization, motivation and description, I felt the murder mystery aspect wasn’t as good. It’s sort of there are the start of the book and serves as the main driver for Una needing to get off the streets to avoid being arrested for a murder she didn’t commit. But then it fades to the background for a while and is only revived a good bit later. When it is, it quickly became clear to me who I thought the murderer was. Maybe I’ve just watched enough true crime documentaries and series but yeah, it’s fairly obvious. Would it have been to the people of this time? In all fairness probably not.
Una doesn’t go down without swinging and trying to get her licks in so I wasn’t surprised at her actions at the end of the story. With her back to the wall, she again draws on her skills and knowledge to try and work things her way. The resolution of the two issues facing her are … maybe a little gift wrapped with a stretched bow of believability but then again not everything was neatly tucked up like hospital bed corners. I’m satisfied with the HFN and working towards a future ending that we get. B