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February 26, 2024

My Name Is Mary Sutter : Book Review

By Wendy Robards

My Name Is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira.

"You won't last," the man said eyeing Mary.

"I will need a room and bedding," she said.

"I fear you will need much more than that." Shaking his head, he stood, a look some might describe as pity shadowing his eyes, softening the hard set of his mouth. "My name is William Stipp," he said. "The surgeon in charge of this misery."

"And my name is Mary Sutter." - from My Name is Mary Sutter, page 118 -

Women in the 1860's had few choices when it came to the medical field -- they were either nurses (although no formal nursing schools existed in the United States at the outset of the Civil War), or midwives. Physicians (all male) during this time period left the delivery of babies largely to female midwives. When physicians were obligated to intercede, their use of chloroform (anesthesia) necessitated the use of forceps to deliver the babies from their unconscious mothers ... this resulted in many deaths and complications due to bleeding and tearing. Robin Oliveira's first novel centers around a young woman who learns the art and skill of delivering babies at a very early age from her mother who is also a midwife.

Fifteen, and already precociously able. She was spoken of: It is something about her hands; it is something about her voice. And around the city, at suppers and church socials and dances and even upon the streets, when an alert matron spotted a newly expectant mother, Mary Sutter's name was whispered. - from My Name is Mary Sutter, page 24 -

But for Mary Sutter, simply delivering babies is not enough ... she desires to be not only a physician, but a surgeon. As the novel opens, tensions are high with Civil War threatening. As Mary's brother and future brother-in-law join the ranks of volunteer soldiers, Mary is attracted by a news release that Dorothea Dix is requesting women to sign up as nurses to care for the wounded. Although she does not meet the age requirement of 30 years old (Mary is still in her early twenties), she leaves her home in Albany against her mother's wishes and strikes out for Washington City.

Out in the channel, the ship's boards vibrated with the thrum of the engines. A rising breeze played with the loose ends of the woman's hair as the black river water slipped underneath the sharp prow.

The young woman imagined her mother finding the note she had left behind.

In her valise, she carried forty dollars, three dresses, and her stethoscope. In only six hours' time she would be dropped at the docks in Manhattan. - from My Name is Mary Sutter, page 88 -

My Name is Mary Sutter is Mary's story -- the story of an adventurous, persistent young woman during a tumultuous time in American history. In the pages of her novel, Oliveira captures the chaos, death, and trauma of under-supplied hospitals and overwhelmed doctors and nurses ... bringing to life the amazing stamina and courage of those who filled those roles. Physicians during the Civil War were inadequately trained for the trauma and infection which struck down men during battle. At the outset of the war there were only 27 surgeons and no nurses for an army of 13,000 soldiers and 75,000 volunteers. Surgeons learned how to amputate limbs in the field with no formal training.

I found myself quickly absorbed in Mary's life -- the frustration of being turned away from medical school, the horror of the battlefield and field hospitals, and the uncertainty of survival. This is not just a story of one woman's courage in the face of war, however, but it is also a love story and a story of familial ties. Mary's rivalry with her twin sister Jenny provides an emotional backdrop to the larger story; and Mary also has a surprising impact on two men who grow to love her -- William Stipp, a surgeon nearly three decades older than she, and James Blevens, a doctor who realizes that research is the key to uncovering the mysteries of medicine.

Oliveira has clearly done her homework, and the historical detail in the novel is impeccable. My Name is Mary Sutter is engrossing, vivid, and powerful. Mary is an inspiring and unforgettable character who symbolizes the many women who were the unsung heroes of the battlefields and hospitals during the Civil War. Oliveira includes many historical figures in her novel including Dorothea Dix, John Hay, President Abraham Lincoln, and Clara Barton (the 'Angel of the Battlefield') which lends authenticity to Mary's story.

I was hooked on this novel from page one. Those readers who love historical fiction and strong female characters will love this book. Robin Oliveira succeeds in revealing not only the facts and details of an era, but the motivations and emotions of the men and women who lived it. A compelling blend of politics, medicine and war ... this is a book I can highly recommend.

Four and a half stars out of five.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".


Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-06-14
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