MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER by Robin Oliveira

Book Quote:

“Stipp slammed his hand against the wall. He had not wanted Mary by his side, and then he couldn’t have asked for anyone better. She had stayed calm. The only requisite that really mattered, but she had given more: intelligence and charity. When that boy had died, flailing, disoriented, shouting, reliving the battle, the blood arcing everywhere, Mary had thought to kneel by the boy’s side and sing. To sing! The boy had died to the unsteady voice of a tone-deaf, blood-covered angel.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (MAY 26, 2010)

Sometimes the reader is lucky enough to pick up a book that they can get lost in. Place and time disappear and all that is left is immersion in the written word. We become one with the book. My Name is Mary Sutter is such a book. From the time I started it until the very last page, all that existed for me was the story – the ebb and flow of events. I was transported.

The time is 1861 and the novel starts in Albany, New York. Mary Sutter is a determined woman, intelligent and headstrong. She is not like the average woman of her time. “She knew that it was said of her that she was odd and difficult, and this did not bother her, for she never thought about what people usually spent time thinking of. The idle talk of other people always perplexed her; her mind was usually occupied by things no one else thought of: the structure of the pelvis, the fast beat of a healthy fetus heart, or the slow meander of an unhealthy one, or a baby who had failed to breathe.” Mary is an accomplished midwife but she has dreams of becoming a surgeon. Never has a woman been admitted into medical school nor been accepted as an apprentice to a working surgeon. Mary writes letter after letter applying to the Albany School of Medicine and does not even receive the courtesy of a reply. Mary approaches an Albany surgeon, James Blevins, and inquires about apprenticing with him. He declines to take Mary on but they begin a friendship that endures time and hardship.

The Sutters are supportive and close. Mary has a twin, Jenny, who is as unlike Mary as any person can be. Still, they are close and loving. Amelia, Mary’s mother, is a midwife from whom Mary has learned her skills. The family comes from a long line of midwives. Christian is Mary’s beloved younger brother. The family is financially secure due to Mary’s father’s business. When the book opens, Mary’s father has recently died and the family is in mourning.

A new family moves in next door and Thomas Fall, an attractive young man, is drawn into the lives of the Sutter family. Mary is instantly attracted to him and feels like he is responsive to her feelings. However, he is more drawn to her sister Jenny and ends up marrying her. Mary is crushed. At the same time, the Civil War is beginning. Mary decides that she needs to leave Albany to mend her heart and help out in the war efforts. She hopes to find someone she can apprentice with in Washington and attain her dream of becoming a surgeon. At the same time, her brother Christian signs up to fight for the Union.

Nothing can prepare Mary for the horrific conditions in Washington. Though there is a war in progress, the Union government has not prepared for the medical necessities wrought by battle. The hospitals are not equipped with anything but the barest of necessities. Most of the surgeons who are manning the hospitals have never had to do an amputation, let alone take care of epidemics like typhoid or dysentery that are caused by close quarters and unsanitary conditions. Additionally, in 1861, treatments consisted primarily of whiskey, morphine, quinine, and bleeding the patient. Causes of most diseases were rarely understood.

It is in Washington that Mary meets a surgeon, William Stipp, who takes her under his wing and agrees to apprentice her. This is a dream come true for Mary. Mary ends up going to the battlefields, living in the trenches with the soldiers, providing medicine in the worst of conditions.

The book provides information about the Civil War at the same time that it tells Mary’s story. We learn about Lincoln’s travails, his health, tragedies and his difficulty finding good military leaders for the Union. I was especially fascinated to learn that Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Union army was Robert E. Lee but that Lee went with the Confederates when his home state of Virginia chose to secede.

We are privy to the stench and filth that is Washington. During the time this book takes place, from 1861 to 1863, Washington’s streets are amok with sewage, body parts, and smells so bad that it is difficult to breathe unless one covers their face. This book tells a fascinating story about a fascinating time. There is tragedy and there is hope. There is just enough history to provide context but not so much that it becomes boring. Not usually a fan of historical fiction myself, I can vouch for the fact that there is just the right balance of history and narrative to keep this book fascinating from page one until its end. Readers who enjoyed Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier will be drawn to this book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 86 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult; 1 edition (May 13, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Robin Oliveira
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More Civil War novels:

The Almagation Polka by Stephen Wright

The March by E.L. Doctorow


May 26, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Facing History, NE & New York, Reading Guide, Washington, D.C.

One Response

  1. 47Rah1980 - March 6, 2011

    Fabulous book.

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