At the center of Robin Oliveira’s enthralling and well-researched debut novel is an ambitious young woman who refuses to accept the limited roles women played in the field of medicine during the mid-19th century.
In her hometown of Albany, New York, 21-year-old Mary Sutter is a midwife of unsurpassed skill, so well-known that women ask for her by name. But for headstrong young Mary—whose bookshelves includes Gray’s Anatomy, Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing and The Process of Parturition—what she’s already good at isn’t enough. She dreams of becoming a surgeon, something virtually unheard of in April 1861. So, despite being coldly rejected by the local medical college and turned down by a doctor as an apprentice, she keeps knocking on doors in hopes that she’ll find her chance.
The door that finally opens is the Civil War. For Mary, it becomes the glorious, heart wrenching means to an end.
Heart wrenching because life would be so much easier if she could only settle for what she has—a respectable, steady vocation and the prospect of a husband: A neighbor, Thomas Fall, is drawn to her “dark brown eyes” and “graceful neck.” But her study of medical books hasn’t taught her “the language of courting,” and “Mary, who could coax recalcitrant babies from unwilling bodies, could not now coax words of flirtation from her mouth. Would that Thomas would ask her instead about the physical workings of the heart…” Instead, just as Mary gives her heart to him, Thomas turns to her more beguiling sister.
Glorious, because as the streets ring with war cries and men line up to enlist in the Union army, Mary leaves Thomas and Albany and heads for Washington, D.C., hoping to join the ranks of newly created army nurses under the supervision of reformer Dorothea Dix. After she’s turned away for being too young, the derelict hospital that finally allows Mary admittance will become her college, her apprenticeship, and her trial by fire all in one.
With war as her canvas, Oliveira captures the campgrounds and battlefields of Virginia as vividly as the scenes of Mary’s midwifing, and the book’s sensuous language, wealth of period details, and unflinching descriptions of battles like Manassas and Antietam place My Name Is Mary Sutter (Viking, $26.95, 384 pages) solidly in the ranks of the best historical fiction.
Believable, nuanced cameos of Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Lincoln, his secretary John Hays, Generals McClellan, Scott and McDowell, to name a few, round out this sweeping portrait of a time when a still young democracy was in danger of splitting apart and to hold it together would require terrible sacrifices.
One of which was the staggering loss of life and, literally, limb, that provided a macabre but necessary training ground for the thousands of doctors and nurses who mastered their craft in crude, makeshift hospitals like the one where Mary works alongside Dr. William Stipp, her reluctant teacher.
Mirroring Mary’s campaign to learn the ropes, the doctors in the novel struggle with lack of skills through no fault of their own—medical students of their day received little more on-the-job training than Mary gleaned from midwifing and her medical library. Stipp curses his lack of training when confronted with the shattered bones left by minie balls, requiring operations no peacetime surgeons had as yet needed to learn. Here, after the war’s first shots are fired, Mary and Stipp are about to perform their first amputation:
Any farm boy could cut up a chicken or a hog. Was this really so different? He reached for the small knife and whispered, “On the table beside my cot, [Stipp said], is a book called The Practice of Surgery. Would you get it for me please?”
Mary withdrew her hand. “My God, you really don’t know how.”
“If you faint on me,” Stipp said, “I will personally take you to the train depot and buy you a ticket home.”
Mary drew herself up. “And if this is a ruse—if you lock that door behind me, I swear to you I will get a ladder and climb through the window.”
“I need that book,” Stipp said. “I have, if I am lucky, half an hour before this boy wakes up.”
As Mary reads directions from the manual, Stipp’s saw hovers uneasily over their patient’s leg. “Six months of courses at Yale; not one surgery performed under anyone’s auspices… What would a cut muscle do?”
He soon finds out, and Mary looks on, realizing she has “left the world of women, and now all she had was tomorrow, and men, and their unreason.” As this absorbing drama about a little-known side of the Civil War unfolds, which world she’ll live in is the choice she’s eventually forced to make.
(This review originally ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Aug. 8 2010.)