Going back to school

Cherry Ames, Boarding School Nurse by Helen Wells

published 1955

It took Cherry the rest of the afternoon to get settled. She hung away her dresses and her crisp white uniforms, and laid out her own thermometers, bandage scissors, glass syringe, and patients’ record book on the infirmary table.

Right after Labor Day, girls began to arrive in a rush at the Jamestown School. They poured in in ones and twos and threes, travelling together if they were old pupils, but the majority of them were brought by their parents. Laughter and chatter filled the house, and girls overflowed into the dormitory buildings and on the sunny grounds. Their noisy reunions reminded Cherry of her own festive times with her Spencer Club crowd…

Mrs Harrison declared everyone would actually settle down, once classes began. In the meantime, she beamed like a girl herself, introducing all the new people around, including Cherry. The first day or two of the new term resembled a house party, what with comparing snapshots of summer vacations trying on another’s new clothes and nobly ‘getting along’ with one’s assigned roommates.

…’That’s a cute nurse’s cap,’ Betty said. ‘Is it your school cap, Miss Cherry?’

‘No, this is the conventional cap.’

commentary: There have been a few schoolgirls on the blog in recent times, and there are more to come. When I featured schoolgirl detectives recently, commentator Jessica came to say ‘I recommend "Cherry Ames, Boarding School Nurse" by Helen Wells, another interesting schoolgirl mystery.’ So of course I ordered it, and here it is – the 17th in a long series of books. I cannot explain better than Wikipedia:
Cherry Ames is the central character in a series of 27 mystery novels with hospital settings published between 1943 and 1968. The series stars a job-hopping, mystery-solving nurse in the Nancy Drew mold, named Cherry Ames. Cherry (short for Charity) hails from Hilton, Illinois (based on Wells' hometown of Danville, Illinois), and was steered into nursing by Dr. Joseph Fortune, an old family friend. Cherry's training at the Spencer Hospital School of Nursing is chronicled in the first two books. There, she meets the classmates who become lifelong friends.
And in this book, obviously, she comes to work in an upmarket girls’ boarding school. There is a complex mystery involving a slightly difficult girl, Lisette, who is looking for something in the old house which forms the school buildings. Cherry and nice young Dr Alan help out, and also look after the routine medical problems in the school, and the odd emergency. Cherry teaches the girls how to make flower petal sachets to add fragrance to their clothes, and the instructions are included.

And sometimes doctor and nurse go out on dates – I was so entranced by this romance that I had to cheat (look up later books) to find out if this relationship was going somewhere, but sadly not. (I need a regular reader to tell me whether each adventure had its own young Dr Alan/Todd/Greg/John.)

The mystery was fine, and the details of perfume-making unexpected and quite interesting. But the real fascination for me was the picture of Jamestown school, and the lives of the pupils. I was particularly intrigued by the differences between this picture of American life, and the idea of a similar school in the UK at the time. Of course, I can only really say how literary depictions would vary – real life may have been quite different for all. Blog friend Lucy Fisher is by no means from the era of the girls in the book, but may well have relevant experience of a posh girls’ school a bit later.

So – the differences. The older girls at this school are much more interested in boys than their UK (I stress – in books) counterparts would be. Dating, sneaking out, connections with a boys’ school all feature. At ALL such British schools (unless they were very modern or experimental, as in this blogpost) there would be no connections with boys.  And – equally important - the pupils would wear uniform most of the time. End of. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, and they get chances to dress up, wear their casual clothes, and accessorize with nice jewellery. Unthinkable at the Sixth Form of St Swots.

By happy chance I recently read a family YA novel from 1946 by Gwendoline Courtney, and there was a reference to the rector being ‘dreamy’: I at first misunderstood this to mean that he was attractive, romantic, but that was by no means the case, he was just vague. In the Cherry Ames book, it is very clear that ‘dreamy’ means ‘super-fanciable’. 

UK school stories are often big on riding, but I could never imagine this rather splendid sentence: 
Virtually the entire school had gone off on their horses for an overnight trip to River’s End and the lodge.
- life at the Cherry Ames school is much more rugged.

My copy of the book is a re-issue from 2007, and has a fascinating introduction from Harriet Schulman Forman, who says she was inspired to become a nurse by the books:
Thousands of other young readers were motivated by Cherry Ames to become R[egistered] N[urses] as well. Through her thought-provoking stories, Cherry Ames led a steady stream of students into schools of nursing across the country [the USA] well into the 1960s and 1970s when the series ended. 
And that inspired Forman to get the books re-published, very charmingly.

I found the splendid nurse pictures at the National Library of Medicine – they are from a series showing different nurse uniforms from around the world.

There are many many posts about schools, girls schools, boarding schools and uniforms, vocational training (yes, of course I mean stage school) all over the blog. Many. Click on the labels below.


  1. I think there were dances /with boys/ after I left - circa 1970. Otherwise, yes, we brought no "home clothes" with us. Or did we? I remember turning up for one term in a brown silk mini-dress with large black polka dots, handed down by my (tiny) step-grandmother and shortened by my mother. With it I wore apple-green nylons. What happened to the clothes? Did they hang in a cupboard or (more likely) were they put away in one's trunk which was stored in the attic.

    1. I knew you would have the goods for us! Love the sound of that outfit...

  2. Oh, I used to read the Cherry Ames books when I was a girl! I'd forgotten about this one, though, Moira, and I'm glad you brought it back to mind. I loved the way she worked in different places, so you could get a sense of what those places were like. I remember enjoying these books quite a lot. And, if I recall, there were romances in several of them.

    1. I don't think I read them at all - I guess because they were American. I think there might have been a similar series here. But a 'career' novel combined with a good story makes for a successful book for Young Adults, always: and a new setting for each book makes it even better.

  3. No-one wore home clothes at Kingscote until at least the mid seventies and then it caused no end of trouble!

    1. Oh I think I am going to have to visit Kingscote again soon - I have an idea for a post...

  4. I have heard of the Cherry Ames books, but only vaguely. I will have to look into them. This one seems right up your alley.

  5. I can remember the school nurse from boys boarding school in Saskatchewan at the end of the 1960's. She was an outgoing frank women who was also friendly. As a shy teenager I appreciated she was not formidable.

  6. She doesn't have a new man in every book, but there are a good number of them. They often follow her a long for a few books, especially during the WWII books.

  7. Oh, I remember this series! Cherry was very much a slice-of-life kind of character for each book. They were light and fun, and quite enjoyable. My favorite nurse series was the Sue Barton series by Helen Dore Boylston. Sue went from student nurse to working at the Henry Street Settlement in NYC to rural Vermont, and she had real struggles and issues along the way, which is why I liked her more than Cherry. Sue got married and had had kids, and went back to work after marriage, which was unusual for the 50s.

  8. I had a few of my mom's old Cherry Ames books when I was growing up and I loved them! I didn't realize they'd been reissued. I'll have to look for them and read the ones I've missed.

  9. There are a handful of the Cherry Ames books online at Open Library.


  10. Well at least you've put Danny King's School for Scumbags back on my radar.


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