Thursday, October 14, 2010
My Name is Mary Sutter
New York, Viking, 2010
Week 42 Fiction
Robin Oliveira embarked on an adventure with a steep learning curve when she envisioned the young woman named Mary Sutter who she created for her first novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. Not only did she not know much about the Civil War, the setting for the book, but she knew very little about nursing, surgery, pharmacology, obstetrics, or all the other details that are key to this novel’s setting and plot.
Oliveira says, “through it all, there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war.” I think it took a courageous woman to take on the huge task of writing such a book, even as she created the courageous woman who is Mary Sutter.
Mary Sutter is a midwife, the latest in a long line of midwives, living in a time when all babies were delivered by midwives. (Trivia alert: the first President to be born in a hospital was Jimmy Carter.) However, being a midwife is not enough for Mary. She wants to be a surgeon, either by going to medical school or by apprenticing herself to a surgeon. This is not to be, however; in the mid-1800s until the Civil War begins, women have no place in the surgery. When the first troops are called up, Mary sees her chance and goes off to Washington, where the wounded are to be taken, to do whatever she needs to do to learn surgery and to be of service. Dorothea Dix is calling for women to come and learn nursing as it had been taught by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.
What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that the surgery she will learn is the amputation of limbs. She also learns about the prevention of serious disease and death. When she finds a surgeon who will help her achieve her goal, she implores him: “Teach me everything you know. I want to understand what makes the body work. I want to see what you do, how you do it. I want to hear what you think. I want to know which medicine to give for what condition. I want to change dressings, see the wounds, understand why the boys are dying, how to make them well. Not just after a battle, but all the time. Every day. At your side.”
As the war progresses and men by the thousand are dying, Mary remains in the thick of it, meeting among others Clara Barton, President Lincoln, and his assistant John Hay. She helps a doctor research the causes of dysentery and other wartime diseases and applies her midwife’s standards for cleanliness and orderliness to the battlefield hospital. In one horrendous scene she has to make the decisions as to which wounded soldiers will live by getting on the train to Washington to be treated, and which soldiers will be left behind to die.
Although all doesn’t end well (her family suffers some excruciating losses), Mary survives the war, returns home to Albany and finds love and purpose for her post-war life.
The reader is amazed by how the book is so comprehensively researched down to the smallest detail. It is not for the faint of heart, however, and I think that I learned more about the casualties and deaths of the Civil War than I cared to know. This is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and this book is sure to find a place among the other books about this time. That it is about a woman makes it all the more valuable.
During my grandson’s 10-year-old adventure, we visited Frederick MD and toured the battlefields at Fredrick and Antietam, both scenes in the book, My Name is Mary Sutter. Maxwell bought a Union cap at the National Park bookstore and ran through the fields, shooting a tiny GI Joe size gun at imaginary enemies. When we left, he was ecstatic about the adventure of it all. My Name is Mary Sutter certainly removes the romance of war from the reader’s memory and allows you only to feel the pain. Frankly, there were moments when I only wanted the book and the war to be over.
Some interesting reviews from the Good Reads blog: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7352053-my-name-is-mary-sutter
An interview with Robin Oliveira: http://southernlitreview.com/authors/meet-robin-oliveira-author-of-my-name-is-mary-sutter.htm
Robin Oliveira’s website: http://www.robinoliveira.com/