In My My Name Is Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira’s debut historical novel unfolding against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the titular character is the headstrong twin daughter of the foremost midwife in Albany, New York. With single-mindedness of purpose, Mary has contacted just about every doctor and medical school within her reach in a desperate attempt to further her dream of being a surgeon. When the man she is in love with marries someone else, Mary decides to escape Albany and all the personal and professional rejection she has experienced, and steals away to Washington, DC. There she answers the call of Dorothea Dix, a Lincoln adviser who is looking for nurses to help staff the Army doctors, whom she knows to be woefully unprepared for the ensuing carnage. Turned away because of her age, Mary proceeds with grim determination to find a place for herself in the war at a price that is almost impossible for her to pay.
My Name is Mary Sutter is an engrossing read. I was captured immediately by this forceful young woman. I was taken by her mastery of midwifery and the fact that she sought to challenge herself that much more after she found that she had an unwavering thirst for knowledge about the mysteries of the human body. Even as a wealthy and well-educated white woman, the opportunities for her to satisfy her curiosity and her calling were slim. I watched her struggle with the constraints that her position in society placed on her, the need that she had to learn, and was impressed by her tenacity and boldness. Mary isn’t the best looking, nor does she have the necessary social graces that would ease her way in the world. Mary is acutely aware that these “shortcomings” might have cost her love, but she can’t be anything other than she is and she does have her intelligence and undeniable skill as a midwife, as her twin sister is quick to point out in justification of her own questionable actions.
Oliveira’s novel is richly detailed and you can see all of the research that she put into this work – it’s just dripping from its pages. She fully captures both the naivete and the horrors that surround this war in particular, but it was also apparent to me that though our methods have become more sophisticated, a lot of the situations that she explores in relation to war are still relevant and unchanged. Amidst all of the stunning detail she brings to life a few different love triangles, so that balanced against all the unnatural and surreal events of war taking place around them, there are the underlying trappings of life – mixed emotions, jealousy, heartbreak and betrayal, familial obligation and love. Though Mary has the attention of two surgeons whom she holds in high esteem, the past that she tries to escape still has a hold on her. Mary must decide whether family loyalty will win out over her needs as an individual.
As wonderful as I found the personal tribulations of Mary and the vividly portrayed times, I was a little surprised that almost no mention was made of how Mary and her family felt about the reasons two of their family members were fighting in the war, nor was there much mention of the reasons that the the American Civil War was being fought. Especially with the novel detouring into the heads of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, John Hay and Dorothea Dix, I found it odd that there was no mention of the issues, nor was there any African-American presence in the novel. This might have made more sense to me if the novel had left them (Lincoln, et al) out , and concentrated only on Mary’s quest for self -realization, but politicians are clearly, and I thought unnecessarily, introduced into the novel. Mary’s story was so compelling that I only noticed, as I closed the last page, just how little slavery or how Mary and her family felt about the issues that had drawn the country into war were mentioned. Oliveira might have been focusing solely on the medical aspect and Mary’s personal story, but a few more references in a novel based in this time period would have gone a long way.
Even though such omissions gave me food for thought, I enjoyed Oliveira’s descriptive writing and observations, and thought she did a great job in telling Mary’s story. If you are at all interested in the Civil War, strong female characters, and women’s quest to gain a hold in the medical world, this novel is sure to be of great interest.