The Cherry Ames and Sue Barton Books

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The Cherry Ames and Sue Barton Books

Fictional nursing role models deserve a modern chapter

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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If you want to bring a smile to the face of an older nurse, one easy way  is to mention “Cherry Ames” or “Sue Barton.” These long-running literary heroines are among the most famous nurses of all time, rivaling even actual historical luminaries like Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton.

Younger readers may not be familiar with these characters, but between 1936 and 1968, Sue Barton and Cherry Ames appeared in a total of 35 juvenile mystery-adventure novels — eight for Sue, 27 for Cherry — that captured the imaginations of generations of young girls in the U.S. and the U.K.

Did these two characters and others like them actually motivate any of their young readers to become nurses? There don’t seem to be any formal research studies on the career-shaping influence of fictional nurses, but several researchers allude to the popularity of the series and there are plenty of anecdotal examples of the books’ impact.

Many prominent nurses like Linda Aiken, RN, Ph.D., FAAN, FRCN, director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research, have referenced to the influence of Cherry Ames in interviews, and mentioning the books in an op-ed or a blog post is sure to garner similar nostalgic comments.

A SENSE OF ADVENTURE

Both the Sue Barton and Cherry Ames series feature many contemporary real-world references. The early Cherry books by original series author Helen Wells involve New York’s Henry Street Settlement and the Army Nurse Corps; Sue Barton’s creator, Helen Dore Boylston, drew some of the characters and events of Sue’s early stories from Boylston’s own experiences in nursing school. However, many of Sue and Cherry’s exploits are the sort only fictional characters can enjoy.

In the Cherry Ames books, for example, Cherry’s post-graduation career is a whirlwind of wonderful adventures in different exciting locales, from a cruise ship and Army posts to a dude ranch — a peripatetic existence even today’s most seasoned traveling nurses might find unsettling. Each story features a tantalizing mystery, a romantic suitor (at least on the fringes of the action) and a plucky heroine who triumphs over every difficulty. Sue Barton’s troubles are not “mysteries” in the same sense as Cherry’s, but Sue’s books follow a similar formula.

WE’VE COME A LONG WAY

Both series depict an era of nursing that is long past. The early books, written in the ‘30s and ‘40s, center on Sue and Cherry’s training, which appears long, arduous and always filled with the threat of ignominy and failure. Instructors serve as demanding taskmasters, unapproachable and remote, and even small infractions might result in expulsion.

Completing such a program is a serious accomplishment and one that these fictional nurses (and no doubt many real ones) regard with joy and pride. That confidence is fortunate because in these books, young nurses have full responsibility on a ward after what today we would regard as orientation. (In fairness, the author has worked with diploma graduates and been startled by the aura of competence they often exhibit from day one.)

These books are set during a time when nursing’s toehold as a real profession was tenuous. The nurses in these stories aren’t allowed to marry without permission (and even then only in the final months of training), nor are they permitted to date house staff (though many do). Head nurses are only occasionally sympathetic and the nurses are expected to perform tasks we would find hard to imagine today, such as memorizing the contents and arrangements of multiple supply closets or having to rise whenever a doctor or senior nurse approaches.

The world of these stories is not like today, when nursing repeatedly ranks as the most trusted profession, bar none. Although Cherry Ames eventually becomes a confident, skillful nurse and an expert sleuth whose resourcefulness often saves the day, she is always presented as a sort of handmaiden to the doctor. Much the same is true of Sue Barton.

Although these series were written for preteen girls and have female heroines, the books present a very limited view of female power and autonomy. In actual practice, head nurses often had considerable authority and young interns were frequently guided by more experienced nurses, but both series downplay those possibilities. In the books, even heroic nurses like Cherry and Sue are subordinate to masterful male doctors.

WHERE IS THE DIVERSITY?
In some ways, it is those attitudes, more than the old-fashioned nursing procedures (some of which now make for interesting reading — hot water bottles; reusable syringes; recovering patients acting as orderlies; and, in one Sue Barton book, a slush bath), that date these books. It’s hard to say if the young girls who read the books decades ago grasped the subtleties of an environment that offered great responsibility with virtually no formal power, but one has to wonder if even back then, some readers were frustrated by the characters’ lack of real autonomy.

Other aspects of the books are similarly dated. Many characters smoke, which was very common among adults until quite recently. All the nurses in both series are women and almost everyone is white and middle-class — quite a contrast with today’s nursing workforce. Nonwhite characters are sometimes described in offensive and racist ways. For example, black men are addressed as “boy.”

Nonetheless, some readers and some publishers feel the Cherry and Sue books still have much to offer today’s young readers, and not just as historical curios or collectibles. (Both series boast many avid collectors.) Although there were fewer Sue Barton books and the last of them was originally published in 1952, her series has never gone out of print. The Cherry Ames books, meanwhile, were recently reissued in new editions from Springer Publishing.

MODERN LESSONS

The editor of the Springer editions, Harriet Forman, is herself a nurse. As a young girl in postwar Brooklyn, she devoured the Cherry Ames books and very early on decided on nursing for a career path. Like her literary heroine, Forman’s journey through nursing has been one of great variety and increasing responsibility, progressing from floor nurse to director, administrator and, more recently, publisher. “Cherry could do anything,” Forman says. “Therefore, I could do anything.”

About a decade ago, Forman contacted the brother of Cherry’s creator Helen Wells (who died in 1986) and negotiated the rights to republish the Cherry Ames books. Forman has made some editorial changes — the racist language is gone, as is the smoking — but the plots, topical references and even the outdated procedures remain, as does the sense of adventure. Forman says her goal was to give young girls of today a taste of what drew her nursing in the first place: idealism and opportunity.

Those virtues remain important to modern nursing, particularly as nursing roles expand and technology becomes more a part of every aspect of healthcare. While the nursing environment in which Cherry and Sue existed has changed almost beyond recognition, the profession still needs people like them, who see the well-being of others as paramount and who are willing to set aside personal concerns in order to pitch in and serve those in their care.  

Books like these give young readers a glimpse both of the stresses and the rewards of a demanding, highly skilled profession. Sue and Cherry are often sick with fright at the beginning of each new endeavor, but they each call upon their inner resources to overcome every obstacle. The characters’ defeats are sometimes crushing, but always temporary.

Cherry and Sue also embody some important lessons for today’s nursing graduates. One is that knowledge alone is not enough; nurses also must be able to apply what they have learned, even if that means bending the rules or challenging established procedures. Another lesson is the importance of patient advocacy, an area in which both characters excel.

Both characters are great examples of lifelong learning. Neither Sue nor Cherry ever pursues an advanced degree, but they both view each new assignment as an opportunity to learn new skills and practice old ones. Even in the later Sue Barton books, where the main character is married to a doctor and is the mother of five children, Sue continues to grow in her profession.

TIME FOR A REBOOT?

The original Cherry Ames and Sue Barton stories are still entertaining today, but the time may be right to continue the series and update them for the modern world, just as other franchise characters like Nancy Drew and James Bond have been updated.

Modern nursing offers more opportunities than ever for varied adventures — imagine Sue Barton, Telehealth Nurse or Cherry Ames, Nurse Epidemiologist. Today, Cherry or Sue might work on the forefront of genetic medicine or even practice independently as an advanced practice registered nurse. There are no limits to the possibilities.

Despite the many changes to the nursing profession, much of what made Cherry and Sue appealing to girls in previous generations remains appealing today. The characters themselves are likable young women who triumph over adversity. Cherry and Sue’s interest in fashion would still appeal to many young girls today, as would the characters’ many handsome love interests (who are always ready to help, but never overshadow the heroines).

Stories about adventuresome young career girls probably wouldn’t do much to attract more men to nursing, but series like these could also become a great tool for interesting young women of color in a nursing career. Of course, one or two book series needn’t to bear the burden of transforming an entire profession, but for many people, the ideals and ambitions presented  during childhood have a powerful influence on adult choices.

A modern continuation or equivalent to the Sue Barton and Cherry Ames books would be very timely. In a recent article on the official FCC website, international communications policy consultant Vicki MacLeod proposed using Cherry Ames as a model for encouraging girls to pursue education and careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. MacLeod, too, remembers the “lure of women using their brains and personal skills to lead exciting lives while making a real difference in the world.”

If nothing else, many of us would love to see better role models for the potential nurses of tomorrow than the fictional nurses of more recent popularity. Consider Nurse Ratched or TV’s drug-addled Nurse Jackie or the example set by shows like House, Grey’s Anatomy or ER, where nurses are absent or inconsequential. Cherry Ames and Sue Barton always showed up and always made a difference.   

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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