Call Nurse Millie by Jean Fullerton
In my experiences of talking with people about the Second World War, with those who had heard battle and personal stories first hand or garnered them only from television and books, I find it interesting that young and old alike tend to refer to it as “the war,” as opposed to its full official moniker. Oddly this makes sense, for while no wars before or since are any less important or devastating to those affected, World War II has, for better or worse, created a new world in which battle experiences and their aftermath continue to be relayed even now, with personal fronts as far-reaching as those that existed during this deadliest of all wars.
These fronts continued to exist even after VE Day, while Britain carried on food and clothes rationing and people existed in many ways the same as they had during the war: as part of a society in which the distinction between military and civilian life was blurred. A weary population, however, threw their energies into celebrating the end of five grueling years of deprivation and horror. As East Londoners with glee and relief bid farewell to the Blitz, Millie Sullivan holds a newborn baby in her arms, opening Call Nurse Millie with an apt eye on the future. Millie, as a midwife, guides birth in the wake of death, also signaling the strength of character we are yet to see in this hard working district nurse.
Not long thereafter Millie’s strength is tested when her father lay dying just as Winston Churchill announces Germany’s surrender and the midnight cease-fire. Her mother, Doris, observes wryly, “Only you could have a stroke on the day it’s all over.” Doris falls into a deep depression, however, and later takes ill as Millie simultaneously attempts to keep up with her demanding vocation and fallout of nasty workplace politics. In our age of easy transportation, it is heartbreaking to envision, as Fullerton draws out her characters in action, Millie biking to all her patients’ homes and later persuading her mother onto a bus, which hurtles her not only towards a devastating misdiagnosis but also the terrible consequences of medical neglect, arrogance and unsuitable treatment.
The pace of the book often mirrors the events within; while the opening pages are somewhat slow, this gives pause to reflect on Millie’s required on-call hours in between her regular long days. Obliged by rules to live at Munroe House, Millie conducts her affairs in a necessarily mapped-out fashion—when to go to a phone box, her mother’s house, patient visits, errands and appointments and more, all while navigating runs between the barbs and blows of a micro-managing superintendent and an ally harboring petty grievances—reminiscent of Baranskaia’s Olya, whose life of sheer exhaustion includes repeatedly forgetting to perform the simple task of sewing on a belt loop. Nurse Sullivan is often bone weary or stifling yawns, and at one point forgets to dole out pain medication.
The longer we are permitted to have this glimpse into Millie’s post-war life, the more we learn about social, economic and material conditions of the time. The day of the doodlebug has passed, but predatory welfare policies (or informal, unofficial practice) force people into cold and starvation for fear of losing their children; others are lost following long years of literal darkness meant to shield and protect, accidents being only one category of casualty. Racism and elitism seem to become more vicious, perhaps partly a birthing pain as some recognize the passing of an older world to make way for a new. Those welcoming this new world tend to be people like Millie’s patients, who often have to choose between dinner and medical treatment, the latter of which plays a large role in the activism of some in Millie’s social circle.
Interestingly enough, experiencing Call Nurse Millie is akin to a history lesson, sans the tedium. Though not brutal in the same way as novels depicting the heat of actual warfare, it explores the theatres people had to experience via daily emotional combat in a city under siege and whose citizens at times target each other, and is therefore no less devastating. Those over sensitive to racism in historical context would do well to don their battle armour, for it is here in a big way, but its elimination from the pages of Call Nurse Millie would be failure to acknowledge the trials, and more importantly, triumphs against Hitler’s bombs, that these ordinary people lived and died by.
Fullerton writes a fair amount of medical information into the novel; being familiar with most of it left me unsure whether or not this is problematic for those who are not. She also leaves it to well into the book to clarify that “Sister” references someone who is a nurse, and that its use pays homage to the profession’s heritage. However writer friendly this may be, it can easily be forgiven by her fluid narrative style, which performs duties oftentimes without us ever realizing it does. “Reginald Hayhurst was probably in his early forties” introduces both reader and Millie to a medical provider she pays a professional visit to, placing both squarely in the same boat. There is no omnipotent narrator; we are experiencing this moment on the same level as Sister Sullivan. This and other techniques, such as visual cues that indicate or reflect on the passage of time while presenting as Millie’s ruminations—“The pale blue hospital counterpane draped over the bed was similar to the one that had covered her father almost a year before”—bring us closer to Millie’s own experience. We are there and invested with her and other characters, even when some of them are not so sympathetic.
Call Nurse Millie, as historical fiction, has the advantage that many people today relate quite closely to the era, because relatives they’d lived and interacted with experienced many of the same moments Millie did. Indeed, some readers themselves likely have. We as humans tend to yearn for links to our past and this era, albeit 70 years ago, is still so close it is tantalizing, much like Millie’s own story.
Call Nurse Millie by Jean Fullerton
A copy of Call Nurse Millie was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.
Image courtesy Jean Fullerton.