My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira
Pub. Date: May 2010
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!!
The Burton Review Rating:
In this stunning historical novel, Mary Sutter is a brilliant, headstrong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine—and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak—Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. Under the guidance of William Stipp and James Blevens—two surgeons who fall unwittingly in love with Mary’s courage, will, and stubbornness in the face of suffering—and resisting her mother’s pleas to return home to help with the birth of her twin sister’s baby, Mary pursues her medical career in the desperately overwhelmed hospitals of the capital.
Like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South, My Name Is Mary Sutter powerfully evokes the atmosphere of the period. Rich with historical detail (including marvelous depictions of Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, General McClelland, and John Hay among others), and full of the tragedies and challenges of wartime, My Name Is Mary Sutter is an exceptional novel. And, in Mary herself, Robin Oliveira has created a truly unforgettable heroine whose unwavering determination and vulnerability will resonate with readers everywhere.
Every now and then you come across one of those stories that make you want to shout from the roof tops: THIS IS A FANTASTIC BOOK!!!!!!! This is one of those times for me. I was so totally emotionally tied in to this story as it swept from one person to another, yet it always came back to Mary Sutter. Set in the horrific days of America's Civil War, this is a timeless tale that is fraught with grief and emotion, where the entire undercurrent was despair throughout the novel. This is not for the faint of heart, but a novel that is meant to cling to your soul and not let go.
Mary Sutter is a young midwife whose sole desire is to become a surgeon. This was a job that men would normally do, and Mary wanted to learn from any of those more learned men. Finding someone to apprentice to is her chief task, and she ultimately forsakes her loving family in New York and seeks knowledge amongst those who are tending to the war heroes. The formidable Dorothea Dix called for nurses for this task, yet she has turned Mary away due to her young age which was not the required age of thirty. Mary is a resourceful, stubborn woman set on her goals and finds the medical world a place that she needs to be, especially to save the boys who resemble her brother and brother-in-law, as she searched for them among the masses of soldiers she encountered.
The author skillfully blends fiction with fact, as Lincoln steps in as a shadow of a figure in the story as well, and a young assistant John Hay who made for another intriguing storyline as the war rages on. But the story is set up to follow the members of Mary's family from her twin sister and her husband to a doctor that had also turned Mary away. Following Mary's younger brother Christian as he enlists in the war against the South was one of those moments when you felt something is going to happen to this wonderful young gentleman, but please don't let it happen.. and we follow Mary from New York to Washington to Virginia as she is stubborn in her quest, while along the way the author is so descriptive that you feel like you are watching an epic movie unfold before you. The war was not supposed to be so long, and it took its toll on everyone, from President Lincoln and his ineffective commanders to the once eager nurse Mary Sutter. Hope was not really an option anymore, as we read of the dead and dying, and the maimed. Life and death were intertwining shadows as the effects of the war ravaged the men and their beloved families, and Mary's included. Pitiful and tearful despair as impossible choices were given, and the decisions made carried grave consequences and regret. The hypocrisy of the war for the quest for freedom was also evident, and one wonders if we could ever learn. There were almost 625,000 casualties, averaging 599 deaths per day in this Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Such an astronomical number as I contemplate the effects of the war on our ancestors. And so this story gives life to that seemingly long ago time, as Mary's once happy family is reduced to shreds with not a single light at the end of the tunnel. An incredibly amazing gutwrenching novel that I simply could not put down.
A small critique from me regarding the writing was the repeated use of parentheses which seemed overly used in the first part of the book: (to demonstrate a point). Otherwise, the writing felt skilled and highly steeped with the undercurrents of potential sorrows that still managed to pull at my heart as the author intermingles her characters with ease and talent that predicts wonderful things to come for this writer. There is also a lot of medical information as Mary and her peers try to discern the best ways to help their patients, as well as a lot of surgeries and blood. This is such a fantastic debut novel for Robin Oliveira that I have to wonder what next could come from her imaginative and talented pen? I will impatiently for another page turner that takes me into another time and place but manages to keep my soul there while the written story is long over. Those readers who enjoyed The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott will enjoy this one as it packs a lot of punch into the harrowing images of the Civil War, yet it is not done in such a way to shock the reader into pity for the characters of the story. Instead, it is done with a subtle torture to your sensitivities. If you think you would enjoy a Civil War era novel, pick this one up. This would be your favorite, in a masochistic sort of way.