Posts Tagged ‘Russell, Sheila MacKay’

a lamp is heavy sheila mackay russell 001A Lamp is Heavy by Sheila MacKay Russell ~ 1950. This edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1950. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 5/10.

This one just sneaks (on quiet rubber soles, perhaps?) into the “keeper” pile. It did have its moments, though it was mostly just a milder North American version of the stellar Monica Dickens life-as-a-British-nursing-student classic, One Pair of Feet.

Here’s a bit of trivia I discovered while trolling about for a bit of background info on author Sheila MacKay Russell. According to writer Julia Hallam in Nursing the Image: Media, Culture and Professional Identity, a critical examination of nursing as portrayed in popular culture, A Lamp is Heavy was adapted into a movie titled The Feminine Touch in 1956, with the setting changed to England from North America – I originally had said “The United States” here, but it turns out that the author is from Alberta and likely based it on her experiences nursing in Edmonton – and – much to my surprise! – with Monica Dickens herself contributing as a screenwriter.

I can see how A Lamp is Heavy would transfer well to film; it is equally as concerned with a romance between the main character, nursing student Sue Bates, and a handsome young intern, Doctor Alcott, as it is with the events of hospital life.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. I’ll let the author speak for herself. Though the main character in the novel is named pseudonymously “Sue Bates”, she is based strongly on the author’s own experiences; the book is strongly autobiographical, though details have been changed to obscure the people and places it is based upon.

It was my long-standing and persistent longing to be a nurse … [and this] impelled me to take the most portentous step in my life, in spite of the discouragement heaped upon me by all and sundry of my friends, including my mother. Mother, in her own way, was a realist. Nurses in her mind were synonymous with fallen arches, varicose veins, questionable language and backaches, and only the fact that she discovered, quite by accident, that Florence Nightingale was a lady of cultured family tended to reconcile her to what seemed to her to be my unnecessarily earthy inclinations.. She wasn’t really reconciled until the day came when she could comfort herself with the possibility of my salvaging a doctor husband out of the fiasco. She even kept all of my relatives in a similar state of doubt. This included my father. Where I was concerned, he reflected Mother’s attitudes as faithfully as a full-length mirror, and as I was an only child, he insisted on having a serious talk with the Mayor of the town before I was allowed to set foot on hospital soil. What he expected to get, or what he did get, from the Mayor, I don’t know, but he seemed happier. He came home and said that the board members of the city hospital were all Chamber of Commerce men, and perhaps I would be safe enough if I trained there.

Sue enters the hospital with her class of eleven other eager probationers; the twelve manage to stay the course and finish out their three years of training to graduate together; tales of their goings-on, trials and tribulations make up the majority of this memoir, with time out here and there for more serious discussions of some of the tragedies – and, to be fair, some of the more than occasional joys – of dealing with patients and their woes, as well as sidelights on the plight of the poverty-stricken members of the population who could not afford to avail themselves of proper medical care despite the efforts of a developing medical outreach service led by several of the hospital’s doctors.

Handsome, charismatic and manipulative Doctor Alcott provides romantic interest; he and Sue have an on-again, off-again love affair throughout Sue’s hospital years, which seems to end quite satisfactorily for all concerned. (Including, incidentally, Sue’s mother!)

A decently readable word portrait of a North American hospital in the just-prior-to World War II years, with likeable characters and enough drama to keep one interested start to finish.

I don’t recommend that you rush out and search this one down, though. Instead, invest your hard-earned dollars in Miss Dickens’  grand tale, unless A Lamp is Heavy absolutely leaps off a used bookstore shelf at you – in that case, it would repay a small investment, returning a few hours of interesting reading.


After I published this review, I received a comment from Susan (see comments, below) to the effect that she thought the author was Canadian. I searched around a bit more and came across this mention on pages 9-10 of Volume 2 of Literary History of Alberta: From the End of the War to the End of the Century, by George Melnyk, 1999, University of Alberta Press.

Sheila Mackay Russell (1920-?) published two novels, A Lamp is Heavy (1950) and The Living Earth (1954). Russell was born in Airdrie, Alberta, went to school in Calgary, and attended university in Edmonton, where she took a degree in public health nursing. After her marriage to a doctor in 1947, she continued to live in Edmonton. A Lamp is Heavy is a first-person account of a nurse during the Second World War. [L&P note: A sharp-eyed reader has mentioned that this is slightly inaccurate, as the novel takes place prior to the start of the war.] This popular novel sold 75,000 copies over five years, including a Dutch translation, and was made into a film called The Feminine Touch with wartime Britain as the setting.

Russell’s character captured an exposed feminine sensibility:

“Witnessing childbirth had a strange effect on me. I can’t explain the close, proud kinship with other women which it seemed to bring me. I only knew, as I watched them, that they were performing a tremendous and elemental act of living.”

Russell’s second novel, The Living Earth,also had a nurse for a protagonist. Set in an isolated settlement in the north of the province (Alberta), the novel tells the story of two women who come from the south to  seek new lives. “It was spring in Mud Creek. Sun and earth, uniting, had thrown off the shackles of winter; the earth steamed from its effort and the sun lingered triumphantly a few minutes longer each day …”

The Living Earth won the Toronto Womens’ Canadian Club prize. The commercial success of Russell’s first novel reflected a need among women readers for literary work that captured their experiences and sensibilities during World War Two. Her second novel dealt with a more specialized topic and a return to an agrarian setting, which did not have the wider appeal of the first book.

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