Monday, July 26, 2010

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira — 384 pgs



Book CoverMary Sutter, a young midwife living in 1860’s Albany, longs to become a surgeon. Though she has requested admittance to every medical school in her area, she has been invariably denied, a situation that frustrates and angers her. Mary is also struggling with the pain and heartache of an unrequited love, which is why she flees her home and practice when the Civil War begins in earnest and the call for nurses is put out. But Mary is not exactly welcomed with open arms into the nursing profession and soon finds herself in an inhospitable and unsanitary hotel that has been transformed into a Union hospital. Before she really knows what is happening to her, Mary begins to get the education that she has desired for so long, but it comes at a very heavy price. When Mary’s mother sends a message that her skills are urgently needed at home, Mary makes a choice that will have devastating consequences for both herself and all the people she loves. After circumstances force her to briefly give up nursing, Mary, with the help and admiration of her mentor, William Stipp, plunges headfirst back into the maelstrom of war and learns that to truly become fulfilled she must decide on her future and be true to herself and her dreams. Along the pitted path of war and its aftereffects, Mary discovers not only the secrets of surgery but the secrets of her hidden heart. A dual narrative that races between the fate of Mary and her compatriots and the difficult choices that faced Lincoln and his men, My Name is Mary Sutter is a charged and action-laden debut worthy of critical acclaim and praise.

Though I have read an awful lot about various wars, I've never really read much about the Civil War. Many of the specifics eluded me, and though I do have a few books on my shelf that deal with this particular war, I have not yet read them. I was really excited to get the chance to read this book, not only for the story of Mary, a woman who wants to break past the gender boundaries of her time, but also to read and learn more about the aspects of the Civil War that I had been so ignorant of. The book did not disappoint in any way, and I found myself completely enthralled with the story it told.

In Mary, Oliveira has created a woman of substance and integrity. She is described as more plain than pretty, and it is only as the reader gets to know her that her internal beauty and mettle begin to shine forth. Mary is as headstrong and ambitious as it is possible to be. Though she has mastered the art of midwifery, she finds herself dreaming of and planning for the day she will become a surgeon and does everything in her power to hasten this outcome. Though she sometimes seems to lack the internal component for being loyal and compassionate to her family, she eventually manifests loyalty to an extreme degree that awed me. Mary is not the forgiving sort and those who land on the wrong side of her temper are often forced to live in her chilly regard for long periods of time, but it can also be argued that once you have earned her friendship she is not quick to let you go. I found Mary to be an extremely complex woman and, despite the fact that I never knew what she was going to do next, I really came to admire her. Not only for her persistence and determination but also for her hard work and scruples. Mary Sutter is a woman who trades her softness for competence and ambition, and though at first this puts her at a disadvantage, in the end it is this competence that saves many lives and touches so many people.

As I've mentioned before, this book was told in the dual narrative form. One half of the book was given over to the story of Abraham Lincoln's frustrations and difficulties with his Union Army, which was mostly filled with volunteer soldiers who hailed from various towns. In these sections, Lincoln himself graces the pages with his gentle and preoccupied laments over the war. Many of the depictions of war in these sections were frightening. Oliveira makes the reader see the futility of battle and the harrowing damage that the soldiers inflict upon each other. The dead and injured lay strewn across the fields with flyblown wounds festering in the heat. These depictions were startling in their violence and horrible to really sit and contemplate. Some of the sections in these parts of the book read like a history book and it pleased me that I was able to basically get two books in one with this story. It was half history book and half historical drama folding in upon itself in complex and thought provoking directions.

I was also very pleased with the medical complexities of this story. Oliveira doesn't dumb down the medical diagnoses and treatments, but instead explains them to the lay reader who might not be very familiar with these practices. There were some nail-biting and horrific moments when Oliveira fleshes out and describes the procedure of amputation, a technique that was in its infancy during this time period. As a reader, it was interesting to see the huge differences between medicine today and medicine in those forgotten times. Simple things we take for granted everyday were all but unheard of at that time, and despite the amazing things that were done during those furiously dangerous surgeries, the things that undid all their work seem so simple to the modern reader. I found these aspects of the story to be the most compelling and watching Mary learn, struggle and triumph through them made me cheer for her and the doctors that worked beside her.

A lot of this story speaks to the huge gulf between the sexes when it came to opportunities for advancement throughout schooling and career. According to society, Mary had reached the peak of her usefulness as a midwife. Never mind the fact that she wanted to go further and could go further. Even the woman in charge of nurses during that period discounted Mary due to her age and experience. It was a hard time to be a woman. I can't imagine not being able to pursue my dreams, to always be shut in a box of society's making and to have to go to superhuman lengths to get out of that box. There was even some conversation in the book about the accomplishments of a woman named Florence Nightingale, but even then, she was the exception and not the rule. I can imagine that it must have felt so limiting and horrible to be in Mary's position, and realistically, that was the plight of women all over the country at that time. She broke free of the chains of convention, and that in itself was reason enough to love this book.

If you can't tell by now, I really loved this book. There was a lot going on but the story never seemed to be overcrowded at all and the character creation was expert. I cherished the reading of this book because it bought me into a whole new frontier in terms of understanding the Civil War and the complexities of living in 1860's America as a woman. I think this book would be interesting to many readers for a bevy of reasons, but mostly, I would steer those interested in historical fiction towards this story. There is much to admire in the story of Mary Sutter and her experiences, and I highly recommend this book!


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

19 comments:

Jenny said...

I didn't love it quite as much as you did, but I agree it was good. The war parts were difficult for me, but I've always had that issue with any book I've read. I think it would be a great book for sure for anyone that is interested in that history!

Steph said...

I'm so glad to hear you loved this book! I've been reading so many reviews in which people are really enraptured by the book, and that's definitely made me more interested in it. I love the idea of a more historical medical novel with a female protagonist, because I do love reading about medical oddities and the ins & outs of being a doctor (I guess that's a vestige of the days when I wanted to go to med school)! You've really made this book come alive in your review, and I'll be looking for it the next time I head to the library!

amckiereads said...

Wow, it really does sound like there is an awful lot going on here. I think I would like Mary's sections a lot more as they sound so interesting. The stereotypes that she faces and difficulties in achieving her dream would be hard to write about. Great review.

bermudaonion said...

I haven't read much about the Civil War either, and I'm not really sure why. This does sound fascinating - I can't imagine living during that time in our history.

Sandy Nawrot said...

There has been quite a bit of love going around for this book. It sounds wonderful! I've not read much about the Civil War, but I'd like to (if I can only get over the whole lice thing). Maybe soon the War Through the Generations Challenge will pick this war to explore.

Jenny said...

Wow, this sounds interesting! Is Lincoln the point-of-view character in his sections? I've always been curious about what kind of guy Lincoln was, but nervous to read anything about him in case he turned out to be a jerk. :p A fictional portrayal of him might be best for me.

Vasilly said...

This sounds like an incredible book. There's so much going on in it and all of it sounds fascinating. It's going on my TBR list. You wrote such a great review!

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Great job Heather. Such a beautiful debut novel.

Aarti said...

Great review, Heather! I admit I never was interested in this book previously- I don't know why, but generally, American historical fiction doesn't interest me that much. But I like the added twist of a woman trying to be a doctor in the midst of a war. Sounds like there is a lot going on there.

irisonbooks said...

This sounds like a lovely book! Like you, I rarely read about the Civil War. Actually, I think I have never read a book about it. That may all change now :)

Marie said...

Wow, I really enjoy frontier stories, especially about women and families, and this one sounds like a winner!

Anna said...

I haven't read too much about the Civil War either, so this one is going on my to-read list! Thanks for the recommendation.

Suko said...

Fantastic review and recommendation! It sounds like a truly wonderful book.

Zibilee said...

Jenny,
No. In the sections dealing with Lincoln, it is not written from his point of view, it's more of an third-person omniscient narrator, but these sections focus a lot on Lincoln's thoughts and attitudes. He comes across as a very humble and thoughtful person, who is very concerned for the boys that he is sending into the fray and the country that he has sworn to protect. I also haven't read much about Lincoln, but this version of him sounds consistent with the little I have read.

Lisa said...

I've heard nothing but good things about this one but hadn't realized how heavily it delves into the war. That's an extra selling point for me--I was raised by a retired American History teacher whose particular love was the Civil War.

Darlene said...

Great review. I've been so curious about this book - do you think it's one I'd like? It certainly sounds like it is. I haven't read much on the Civil War either and stories of the struggles women endured in these times are always of interest to me. I'm glad you really enjoyed this one Heather.

Wendy said...

Terrific review! So glad to see you loved this one as I did :) I still think about this book...which is a good sign that it has staying power!

Nymeth said...

I can't tell you how much you made me want to grab a copy of this book RIGHT NOW. As you know I love stories set in the 19th century, especially ones that deal with gender issues or women's access to education (well, lack thereof, really). So I'm pretty sure this will be a winner for me too.

Melissa M said...

I like books that have a medical aspect and think that and the historical aspect together sound great!

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