The Nurse’s Secret: A Thrilling Historical Novel of the Dark Side of Gilded Age New York City

Written by Amanda Skenandore
Review by Trish MacEnulty

Today, we expect and rely on nurses to be competent, trained professionals. And yet, it wasn’t always so. Prior to the late 19th century, nurses had little to no training and were basically lackeys to doctors who also had scant knowledge of modern medical principles, including hygiene. But in the 1880s with the example of Florence Nightingale, American reformers instituted a training program that would forever change medicine.

Skenandore, a nurse herself, explores this history through the adventures of con artist and pickpocket Una Kelly, who seems destined for the prison on Blackwell’s Island. She trusts no one and, in a moment of greed, betrays the one person who has always looked out for her. When she’s framed for a murder she didn’t commit, she decides her only recourse is to hide “in plain sight.” She concocts a false history, signs up for nursing instruction at Bellevue Hospital, and embarks on a journey that will upend her life.

Following Una’s evolution from a conniving thief, who looks out only for herself, into someone capable of caring for others, including a handsome doctor, makes for an enjoyable read. Skenandore not only explores the workings of early modern medicine, she also renders a believable depiction of the people who live in the shadows during the so-called Gilded Age with realistic and horrifying descriptions of the places they inhabit, even when they’re dead. A murder mystery serves as the engine for the plot, elevating the suspense, but frankly Una’s transformation as well as the birth of this important profession are the more interesting aspects of the story.