Mary Sutter’s Civil War
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the War Between the States—the war between brothers—and a war in which the technology of warfare outgunned the technology of medicine. It is this latter aspect of the war that Robin Oliveira makes the focus of her debut novel.
My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira
Mary Sutter, a skilled mid-wife by trade, is denied entry into medical school because she is not a male. She falls in love with a handsome young neighbor, but she is not pretty enough, and he becomes enamored with her beautiful twin sister. Paradoxically, the door that opens opportunities for Mary is the same one that ends the lives of so many others, The Civil War. And during the young country’s struggle to hold itself together, Mary strives to old herself together as well. Mary leaves her home in Albany, New York to answer Dorthea Dix’s call for nurses in Washington DC, where she is again rejected—this time because she is not old enough. Due to sheer determination and persistence, she falls under the tutelage of two separate surgeons, who both fall in love with her, but more importantly, help her pursue her dreams. But sometimes you must be careful what you wish for…
The writer’s attention to historical details and her seamless weaving of fact and fiction makes the war come to life in this instant Civil War classic. I had to go take a shower to wash the gunpowder out of my hair.
A Favorite Passage:
The author helps to demonstrate the dire state of medicine—as well as supply lines—in the mid 19th century with the following lines of dialogue between Mary and Dr. Stipp during the early days of her work with him,
“This one can’t breathe.”
“Give him whiskey.”
“This one can’t walk.”
“Give him whiskey.”
“That one can’t stop itching.”
“Give him whiskey.”
“This one has got diarrhea.”
“Haven’t they all?”
“We’ve run out of quinine.”
“Give oil of turpentine.”
“We’ve run out of turpentine.”
“Then boil some willow bark and put it in whiskey and give it to him.”
“We’ve run out of whiskey.”
The strong female character of Mary Sutter will put you under her spell—just as she cast one on Dr. William Stipp, Dr. James Blevins and the hospitals and battlefields full of men who grow to worship her. Although completely rounded with necessary human foibles, Mary casts a long shadow and one cannot help but admire her courage, pluck, chutzpa, tenacity and will to both survive and succeed. I haven’t met a character this compelling since Jeannette Wall’s Lily in Half Broke Horses. Be prepared to fall in love with Mary Sutter.
Whether saving babies, “sorting soldiers” (you’ll have to read the novel to know what I mean here) or sewing up amputees, Mary embodies the struggle of the “women of the nation who braved disease, despair, devastation and death to nurse in the Civil War hospitals…Nearly twenty women became physicians after their experiences nursing in the Civil War…” as described in Oliveira’s acknowledgements.
In addition to Dorthea Dix, we encounter the personal side of other real-life characters such as President Abraham Lincoln, his secretary, John Hay, and Clara Barton. But the author adds them for authenticity, not to take the focus off Mary’s story.
Mary’s family—in addition to the aforementioned pair of doctors—serves the role of rounding out the cast of characters—especially her mother, Amelia, who is a strong presence.
The author plays with Paradox and Irony. For example, showing how doctors used the carnage of war as an opportunity for research and practice of their craft and technique; and how patients were more likely to die of dysentery, or secondary infection than from their original bullet wounds. She also deals with the struggle between Personal vs. Professional allegiances; issues of Family, Love, and Loyalty; Grief, Despair and Hope; and War, Politics, and Military Strategy. Overarching themes include Gender Roles and Medicine. The latter being defined as much by what that body of knowledge did not encompass (such as washing hands between patients) as by what it did (which was theoretically and not practically taught in medical schools.)
Why Book Clubs will Love it:
Of course, one of the reasons book clubs love historic fiction is because you can learn so much about history when following a story of a compelling
character. Book Clubs will enjoy not only revisiting the well-known stories of the Civil War, but also gobbling up the well-placed background details and
motivations of those who fought it. All of the themes outlined above will make for fine discussion.