I spent two excellent days Christmas shopping at the Used Book Superstore, where the large and ecelctic collection more than compensates for the prosaic name. Finds include “Mercy Watson,” “Jumanji,” and the controversial “Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger.”
By far the greatest gem I uncovered was “Cherry Ames, Cruise Nurse” by Helen Wells*. In my many years studying literature, I heard nary a word about Cherry, though she seems a fetching and plucky heroine.
Let's meet Cherry mid-book, on pages 91-92, in the chapter “Timmy's Mysterious Visitor.”
When her alarm clock jangled an hour later she sat up dazedly. At first she didn't know where she was, had forgotten she was aboard an ocean liner. The tiny cabin, which she had hardly glimpsed since coming aboard, was coldly impersonal. The throbbing of the engines blended with the dull ache in her head.
Then it all came flooding back - Timmy's wild tale that she had deliberately interrupted. How much of it was fact; how much fantasy? His description of the girl with the long blond braids fitted Jan Pauling exactly. Had she been watching from her stateroom door, waiting for a moment when Timmy would be alone in his suite?
And who was the man - the nice man?
Someone tapped on her door. It was Brownie, the plump young stewardess. "Lunch in ten minutes," she said. Taking in Cherry’s disheveled appearance, she added, “Oh, ‘scuse it, please. I didn’t know you were sleeping.”
Melodrama. Mystery. Wild tales, blond braids, a nice man, and a stewardess who sounds like a treat I’d order at Starbucks. I mock at 42, but round about 9 I would have sucked Cherry down like a Slurpee and asked for more. For me, 9 was the age of chaste and spunky heroines: Trixie Belden, Anne Shirley, Caddie Woodlawn.
Cherry would have had a white-stockinged leg up on most of them, as Cherry is a proper adult with a proper adult job. In this book, she works on a cruise ship, and on the side helps an excitable simpleton thwart a pirate in search of precious ambergris.
I assumed ambergris was a rare and precious metal or gem. It’s whale shit. Rather, a waxy substance produced somewhere in the whale’s vast belly and released along with whale shit. Sometimes, in whale vomit.
Why would a pirate want whale shit? And were a demented, dung-crazed pirate to seek out whale shit, why would a Cruise Nurse ignore her medical duties to stop him?
Because ambergris is valuable. Really valuable. Last January, it was worth $20 a gram. Gold was selling for $30.
Ambergris smells like whale poop when fresh from a whale’s arse, but after years in the briny ocean, the grey matter develops near-magical, possibly aphrodisiacal olfactory properties. Rich and deep and near-musty, ambergris complements more dominant substances in perfumes, such as a scent worn by Marie Antoinette, recreated in 2005 and sold for $11,000 a bottle.
Now I got you, pirate.
After I finish Still Life with Woodpecker and my backlog of Captain Marvels, I will dive headfirst into the warm waters of the Caribbean and swim alongside Cherry’s ship to find out how the mystery plays out.
Should I fall in love with the spunky nurse, I’ll have a lifetime’s worth of adventures to share. “Cherry Ames, Dude Ranch Nurse” will git me yippee-ki-yaying on a draggy day. I can read “Cherry Ames, Army Nurse” to the kiddos on Veterans’ Day and “Cherry Ames, Ski Nurse Mystery” to celebrate the winter solstice.
When I reach the end of my road she’ll be there, holding my hand. They’ll find me dead in my rocker, clutching “Cherry Ames, Rest Home Nurse.”