Spit & Polish explores life as a nursing student in Kingston after WWII

Photo by Jessica Foley/Kingstonist.

Editorial note: Next in our continuing local author series, Jessica reads ‘Spit & Polish.’ Thank you to Somewhat Grumpy Press and author DA Brown for providing this book free of charge to facilitate this article.

Spit & Polish follows Ruth, a young nursing student in 1946, as she tries valiantly to study and survive amid the chaos of wartime hospitals.

Though committed to learning her craft, Ruth struggles. Maybe nursing isn’t for her. She’s clumsy and slow, and sometimes she even talks back — a product of her home life in Cloyne, where she was constantly under the thumb of her minister father who is ready to marry her off to create a family of her own.

Glad to be studying in Kingston, Ruth befriends some fellow students (and makes one significant enemy), then is heartbroken when her superiors decide she’s not quite ready to continue in the nursing program.

Spit & Polish follows Ruth’s journey, first at Kingston General Hospital (KGH) and then in the local tuberculosis sanatorium, where she’s sent to improve her skills. There, she helps look after wounded and infected soldiers, women, and children. At the sanatorium she’s simply an aide, but her limited nursing experience, and her excellent bedside nature, work to her credit, and soon she is assisting doctors with procedures while continuing to care for the people in the wards.

Author Dorothyanne Brown, herself a retired nurse, learned her craft here in Kingston, as well. To facilitate this story, she interviewed several KGH nursing grads and researched at the Museum of Health Care to gather details.

“I’m so thankful to them for their assistance and excellent information,” she shared with Kingstonist in an interview.

“Some of the stories are borrowed from them. Some of the experiences are based on my own rampant feelings of incompetence as a nursing student.”

Though currently living in Kingston, Brown has travelled far and wide, first as a nurse, then as an author.

“I married a military fellow (RMC grad) and got to practice nursing all over the place, from the US to the UK to Germany to Manitoba to Nova Scotia,” she detailed.

“I worked here as a public health nurse for several years, moved into health care management with public health in Belleville, then as clinic coordinator in KCHC and Country Roads CHC. I had to retire due to my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago, but try to keep my nursing self active through volunteer work, like facilitating the chronic disease management courses and various support groups. Currently I also volunteer with the FLA Ontario Health Team.”

This book was published through a small press in Halifax, NS, Somewhat Grumpy Press, and launched on February 29, 2024. Brown noted that she was away for the launch, so she had a small gathering in the lovely Upstart & Crow bookstore in Vancouver to celebrate its release.

Dorothyanne Brown at Upstart and Crow, Granville Island, Vancouver, on March 10, 2024, during Somewhat Grumpy Press’s first author gathering/conference. Supplied photo.

This is Brown’s second novel, though she told Kingstonist she has been writing since her “disastrous first poetry book (self-written, grade 4, filled with angst and fortunately lost to posterity.)”

She began writing in earnest some years ago, and has been published in a variety of journals.

“I won the ‘Bloody Pete’ for a mystery story in 2010, got an honourable mention for another mystery at the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival, and was shortlisted for another story in both the 3daynovel and the Ken Klonsky novella contest through Quattro. I went on to publish that story as ‘Recycled Virgin’ in 2020 (also available through Somewhat Grumpy Press).”

When asked what inspired her to write about Ruth and the TB sanatorium, Brown stated there were three reasons:

“First, I find that a lot of historical fiction is based on the war years. Like fairy stories that end with the ‘they lived happily ever after,’ there seem to be few details about the years that followed WWII. I wanted to look into that.

“Second, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several KGH School of Nursing grads over my working life and they impressed me with their closeness, even years after graduation. I wondered if there was something in their training that kept them so tight, years later.

“And third, I did part of my education through a placement in the old Ongwanada H huts, the former TB sanatorium. In addition, my father, who contracted TB in the war, was a patient there. I wanted to see what had happened to that building, what went on there, and how they treated TB before they had antibiotics. Fascinating and horrifying.”

Upper Princess Street facing northwest circa 1950, including the old water tower and the former Ongwanada Sanatorium. Photo by George Lilley via Vintage Kingston.

Fascinating and horrifying indeed. Spit & Polish is not for those squeamish about hospital procedures. From lung resections and rib removals, to sputum cups, wasting illness, and death, Ruth deals with it all. And she still finds time to go out on the town with her nursing friends.

Despite the sometimes gruesome content, Brown shared that sales of her book have been good.

“My publisher tells me the actual numbers won’t be available for a little while longer, but I was in the top 100 in several categories on Amazon briefly, which was encouraging!” she expressed.

“I attended an excellent event by the Napanee Writers Forum on April 6th and sold out. Feedback has been positive and I am thrilled!”

Spit & Polish is available at Novel Idea, Bookland, and on e-book platforms. Brown said she’s in the process of taking copies to Books on Main in Bath to see if they will carry it, as well. The paperback can also be ordered directly from the Somewhat Grumpy Press website.

While I don’t want to give away the ending, I will say Ruth’s journey is far from over. Brown said a sequel is in the works and will include some time at Rockwood — then the Ontario Hospital.

“Again, a fascinating look at the past of medical treatment, this time in mental health,” Brown teased. “She’s older now, so maybe there will be a bit of romance? We’ll have to see how the characters behave. She’s still very determined to have a career.”

Jessica Foley is the Assistant Editor and Lead Content Writer at Kingstonist, and is a passionate reader. When time allows, Jessica reads books written by local authors and offers Kingstonist readers her own take on a book review, with an overview of the storyline, some insights from the local authors, and her thoughts on what she’s just read. To submit ideas on local books/authors for Jessica to consider, email her at [email protected].

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