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Review: My Name Is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira
Viking, 2010. 364 pp. $27

More than anything, young Mary Sutter wants to be a surgeon, for which she’s eminently qualified. Like her mother, Mary’s a gifted midwife, known throughout the Albany, New York, region for her skill, tenderness to her patients, and success rate. From a young age, she accompanied her mother, Amelia, on her midwifery rounds, from which she learned to observe, study, and interpret the human body. Mary devours Gray’s Anatomy and other textbooks with a passion other young women of her generation might devote to cooking, music, or embroidery.

But the year is 1861, and mainstream medicine belongs entirely to men, who dismiss Mary’s attempts to apprentice herself–the typical path to medical practice–with contempt, puzzlement, or both. Even Amelia, her sole surviving parent, sometimes wonders why her daughter doesn’t simply accept the barrier, unfair as it is, and continue to do what she does best. Maybe she could also find a husband–not that Amelia’s was a paragon, but Mary locks many feelings inside her, including a yearning for love, hidden beneath a superior mien.

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 . . . .

However, the outbreak of war between North and South changes everything. Mary figures, correctly, that medical practitioners will be in great demand, so she bolts for Washington to look for a posting without telling anyone at home. With typical deftness, Oliveira handles her bold action in its implied feminism: Mary’s flight raises consternation and moral censure, whereas her brother and brother-in-law may go to war without anyone batting an eyelash. Unfortunately for Mary–and the soldiers who don’t know what’s coming-nobody has counted on the complete lack of preparation to care for the sick or wounded. To call the effort disorganized would be a compliment; Oliveira captures this negligence with shudderingly vivid detail.

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross (and the most famous Civil War nurse), around 1866 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross (and the most famous Civil War nurse), around 1866 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Such disarray might have offered Mary her chance to serve and learn, as she hopes, but there again, she faces stupendous obstacles. Among them is the fear, not entirely groundless, that a woman among hundreds of unruly men would be preyed upon. Even Dorothea Dix, who lobbies for a nursing service along the lines of Florence Nightingale’s, will have nothing to do with Mary: Miss Sutter is too young, she has no letters of recommendation, and just isn’t the right sort. That Oliveira cuts a feminist icon down to size on feminist grounds says a great deal.

In the apparently growing subgenre of novels about socially awkward young women who love science–When the World Was Young and The Movement of Stars come to mind–My Name Is Mary Sutter stands out. I like how the author reveals the inner lives of Mary and two doctors with whom she works closely, and how the relationships with her mother, sister, and brother-in-law have dangerously sharp edges. Oliveira also captures the suffering of wounded men, the incompetent army leadership, and what it takes to tend the maimed and dying despite insuperable odds. The hospital scenes are heart-breakingly raw–be warned–but I, who am squeamish, had to read every word. Meanwhile, the narrative retains an impressive grasp of the historical background, as battles unfold and the confusion and rumor become ever more blinding.

I don’t want to give too much away, but when you have a fictional midwife/nurse with a newly married twin sister and two family members who enlist, certain things are just bound to happen. Mostly, Oliveira gets away with these predictable occurrences through vivid storytelling. But she falls short, I think, in her portrait of Jenny, Mary’s twin, who feels more explained than alive, and I want to know more about what drives Amelia, besides her devotion to family. It’s also a little hard to swallow that Mary gets her foot in the nursing door through a chance meeting with John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary, though such things did happen in wartime Washington. What’s less forgivable, I think, is how quickly certain characters reconcile their differences. When there’s that much fury and hatred between people who love one another, the author owes the reader a fuller, and perhaps not entirely complete, peacemaking process.

Nevertheless, My Name Is Mary Sutter is a very fine novel indeed, especially for a debut effort, and I’m doubly pleased to say that about a fellow Seattle author.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.