My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliviera, 364 pages, available now
Mary Sutter is a young,accomplished midwife in Albany, New York who dreams of becoming a doctor. She doggedly pursues surgeons in the hope they will provide her medical training. When the Civil War breaks out, she answers the call for nurses in Washington DC and ends up witnessing the horrors of war from hospitals and battlefields.
When I think about writing I am most impressed by someone who can take facts, imagine a story in their midst, and stay true to the details of the time - in other words, authors of historical fiction. Everything about My Name is Mary Sutter is so authentic I have to remind myself that Mary Sutter is not a real person (although I wish it so). The novel overflows with period detail - the bleakness and futility of practicing medicine, the manners and restraint, the deprivation and ugliness of war - all expertly woven into readable prose.
"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 that 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. She could never bring herself to care about ordinary things, like whose pie was better at the Sunday potluck, or whose husband she might covet should the opportunity arise, or what anyone was saying about an early winter or an early thaw of if the wheat would blight this year due to the heavy rains, or if the latest couple to marry had any chance at happiness. Perhaps it had been foolish to come to the theater, where potential death was being offered as entertainment, though Mary knew that no matter what she did or where she went, she would always see mortality where others saw frivolity." (pgs. 26-27)
If I have a complaint, it maybe the meticulous research and volume of information can cause the narrative to slow just a bit towards the latter third of the book. I have also seen a few readers take issue with the omission of any debate or discussion regarding causes of the Civil War, namely slavery. I admit to taking notice of that very thing, but it didn't strike me as a negative. Rather those conversations seem to be a luxury of those who make the decisions, and for those who fight it is simply a call to arms. The story's focus is the journey of Mary Sutter and the narrow scope seemed right. Any additional subject matter would have made for an entirely different book.
Mary Sutter is a character that is hard to forget. This book will easily come to mind when someone asks me for a recommendation. I hope you decide to read it so we can talk about it.
We are fortunate to live within day trip access of several major Civil War Battlefields - Antietam, Gettysburg, Manassas - and I suspect as the boys' interest in history grows we will be able to take advantage of this area's rich history. I clearly remember visiting at Clara Barton's House at Glen Echo Park when I was a child.
Spring 2010 is turning out to be historical fiction reading season here at lit*chick - specifically the Civil War period. And I must say it has been a refreshing change. During the same month I read Widow of the South by Robert HIcks (for bookclub), followed by My Name Is Mary Sutter. While both have strong female characters, a somber tone, and medicine, there are distinct differences. So if you enjoyed one, you will most likely enjoy the other and I would urge you to read both. I definitely recommend these. If your group is really ambitious you could choose both titles then compare/contrast. (That would be the nerd book club that lives in my imagination.)
Thanks to Lindsay at Penguin Books for providing a giveaway copy. Please leave me a comment and tell me your favorite historical fiction read. Winner to be chosen at noon on Monday.