Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Review: "My Name Is Mary Sutter"

One of my greatest joys in life is reading. My personal tastes in books lean more toward works of non-fiction, primarily history, and especially anything to do with Abraham Lincoln. Of course, that's probably obvious to those of you who have previously visited this blog. I rarely read novels because for me, historical or current events are far more fascinating than anything most authors can dream up. So when I was contacted by the publisher Viking Press and asked to review a new historical novel, I was a bit reluctant to do so. I will forever be grateful that I agreed.

My Name Is Mary Sutter is the debut novel of writer Robin Oliveira. It is the sweeping story of a midwife living in Albany, NY at the cusp of the Civil War. Mary Sutter is a strong-willed and brilliant woman who wants more out of life than midwifery; she wants to become a surgeon. Because of her gender and the era in which she lives, medical schools and physicians refuse to accept her as a student.

Heartbreak and the onset of the war lead Mary to Washington City (as Washington, D.C. was then called) where she volunteers her services as a nurse. After the First Battle of Bull Run, she is thrown into the horrors of the primitive care and medical treatment the wounded, sick, and dying soldiers receive in that time. The reader follows Mary through the war as she is confronted with having to choose between soldiers who can be saved and those who cannot in the aftermath of The Wilderness Campaign, and after Antietam. Along the way, Mary learns more about nursing and, eventually, about medicine as the shortage of doctors during the war necessitate her being trained "on the job."

The fictional Mary Sutter has interactions with real figures from history in this novel. She meets Dorothea Dix, who became the Union's Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War, who at first refuses Mary's request to become a nurse. A chance encounter with John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln's two secretaries leads to a meeting with the president, who is mourning the loss of his dear son Willie.

My Name Is Mary Sutter is, in a word, magnificent. It is sweeping in scope, impeccably researched, and beautifully written. Ms. Oliveira's character development is outstanding and makes the reader care deeply about what will happen to Mary, her family, and the men who vie for her love.

It's not a book for the faint of heart. The author's description of childbirth and battlefield amputations are quite graphic, but only to further develop the characters and story. (The author's husband is a physician, and she credits him for helping her when she wrote about the various medical events in the novel.) Her descriptions of the conditions the soldiers live and fight in are so vivid and detailed that one can almost experience the stench of the camps and the terror of the soldiers who are grievously wounded. Rather than turn the reader's stomach, these scenes make the book gripping. I had a difficult time putting the book down. Above all, it's made me want to learn more about the "Angels Of The Battlefield" as the real Civil War nurses were called.

My Name Is Mary Sutter deserves to make a "splash" for Robin Oliveira like Cold Mountain did for Charles Frazier. I cannot begin to recommend this debut novel enough to my readers and fellow lovers of history.

My rating:


5.0 out of 5.0 Clara Bartons, a Civil War nurse and founder of The American Red Cross

5 comments:

Christy said...

I love the Clara Bartons! I am definitely going to check this book out, and I may not have heard about it if it wasn't for your review. Thanks!

Debra said...

Just finished this book.....it's excellent. I agree about not being able to put it down. I've always been fascinated by the women in medicine in the 1800s - Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix and Elizabeth Blackwell. It was nice to see each of them referenced in this book. I was also interested by the relationship of Lincoln and his generals - makes me want to read more about that.

Deborah said...

I finished the book and it will be my book pick when I host book club in October. I enjoyed the use of real history to tell Mary's story. I found myself Googling people to read their story along side the book.

Anna said...

I have just finnished this book and I highly recommend it! There are parts that are a bit graffic, certainly not for the faint of heart, but as whole, this is an excellent book!

Liz said...

I'm a nursing professor and initially chose the book because it had to do with midwives- what an excellent novel it turned out to be! Although I'm familiar with all the nursing "characters" referred to in the story, I too went back to the stacks to learn more about each of these individuals.... Dorothea Dix certainly doesn't come off as easy to work with (or for). I found this site googling "Mary Sutter" just to see if there was an obscure individual by that name- a bit diappointing that there wasn't!

 
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