Monday, July 26, 2010

Review: My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

My Name Is Mary Sutter: A Novel
From the Inside Flap:

On the eve of the Civil War, Mary Sutter is a brilliant, headstrong midwife from Albany, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine - and eager to run away from recent heartbreak - Mary travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded.

Determined to study medicine and unable to find a surgeon in New York willing to take her as a pupil, Mary Sutter, "taller and wider than was generally considered handsome", packs a bag and boards a train to answer Dorothea Dix's call for nurses in Washington at the outset of the Civil War.

What follows is a wonderful novel detailing Mary's struggle to realize her dream and reconcile her heart and her desires with those of her family, and the government's woefully inadequate struggle to treat the neverending stream of wounded men that starts pouring into Washington and the surrounding area as the war commences, along with the rampant sickness that accompanies them.

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 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 magnitude of the Civil War is so huge that I always feel like there's such a large element of anonymity - there were so many soldiers, so many casualties, so many lives effected - and what I love about this novel is that the author manages to bring people together again and again despite the enormity of it, interweaving motivations and circumstances to give the story and the war a much more personal, intimate feeling.

As Mary navigates army red tape and the reluctance of men to let her help, she forms relationships with two overwhelmed surgeons and as the war deepens she crosses paths with the aforementioned Mrs. Dix, Clara Barton, John Hays, and Abraham Lincoln himself. The author does a fabulous job of depicting Lincoln, combining a sense of hopelessness with a determination to persevere. My only complaint would be that at times I felt like these forays into his inner world and into the worlds of some of the other historical figures, while there to provide historical context and insight into the bigger picture, detracted from Mary's story.

This is an impressive, impeccably written story of not only Mary's determination and perseverance, but of that of everyone who attempted to make a difference and find some shred of hope and meaning in a bloody and oppressive war.

I marked many passages as I was reading and I'll end with one that comes near the end of the book at the Battle of Antietam, a passage that I think illustrates the beauty of how simple words can create such visceral images and have such a profound effect:

     In the night, while they had been sleeping, the Union general Joseph Hooker and his division had tramped past them toward a cornfield, where now the stalks were rustling like silk, giving the Union soldiers the misimpression of safety, which allowed them to fling themselves into the corn and disappear by the hundreds, their muskets upright against their chests, a parade of bobbing bayonets glinting above the stalks in the feeble morning sun. For one moment, the hills and woods around held their collective breath. For one last, beautiful second, the silvery light on the slender leaves made everyone believe that despite the roar of artillery falling nearby, restraint was still possible...

     By the time that last beautiful second had passed, the field enveloped both armies, the Federals and the Rebels alike, the silky corn thread brushing their weathered cheeks, the light shifting between the stalks, the cool, wet dirt cushioning their bare feet...

     But in each row of corn, the enemy appeared as if from nowhere. Face to face, at intimate range, each man was alone with his opponent. Each knelt, fired, charged with his bayonet, stabbed with his knife, and wielded the butt of his musket. Each stepped over and on the fallen, friend or enemy, wounded or dead, groaning or silent, to get to the next man and the next, until few were left alive.
     There was nothing beautiful about it.

Rating:  4.5 Stars out of 5


  1. great review! i'm glad you enjoyed this one so much. i've had this book on my wishlist for the longest time, but i haven't had the chance to get my hands on it yet. i'm glad to see so many good reviews of it though.

  2. This was an excellent, albeit disturbing book to read. Let us never forget.

  3. I so have to read this one!!! I loved your thoughts on it and I haven't read a bad review yet!


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