Mary Sutter is a courageous character who has choices to make; choices between family loyalty and following her dream of becoming a surgeon. She is self-sacrificing, persevering, and just plain ‘gutsy’, but, like most women, she also is not so caught up with her own ambition that she fails to second-guess the choices she makes (and agonize over the consequences).
It is hard for me to rate this book! It certainly kept my interest, especially as I progressed through it. I kept reading to find out if Mary Sutter would ever accomplish her dream, and become a surgeon.
The fictional characters did not fascinate me as much as the real-life characters; Abraham Lincoln, Dorothea Dix — who was not rendered very sympathetically – and the members of Lincoln’s cabinet (Secretary of State John Hay, Secretary of War Stanton, and General McClellan). I found the medical history very interesting and poignant. It was astonishing to realize in reading this novel, how much America had to learn in order to care for the sudden influx of wounded men at the start of the Civil War.
“You want to be a surgeon? To be a surgeon is to look a man in the eye and tell him the truth. If you can’t do that, then get out of here. Go home.” He was shouting now, his fury echoing the thunder rising in the distance… “It is all butchery. Every bit of it. You cannot help them with just whiskey, Mary.”
The novel follows Mary Sutter from her initial occupation as midwife, into the Civil War. Her persistent desire to become a surgeon is sidelined into nursing, as she takes on menial job of caring for wounded soldiers, mopping floors, assisting at amputations, and being a general dogsbody. In between, Mary receives letters from her mother pleading with her to return to the safety of her home back in Albany, New York.
“She turned in the doorway and tried to catch her breath. What had Lincoln said? Are you willing to risk yourself? She did not know he had meant her sanity.”
Mary receives permission finally, to ‘follow’ the Union army with a wagon of supplies and assists at Second Bull Run, (where she meets Clara Barton), and helps care for the wounded following Antietam. What she meets on the battlefield is far worse than her experience at the army hospitals in Georgetown have prepared her for.
“My Name is Mary Sutter” is for those who like to read historical fiction, especially during the American Civil War. There is romance, descriptions of childbirth (one graphic), family upheaval and tragedy, all interspersed with the dilemma of supplying an army with competent medical staff and supplies at a time in history when nursing as an occupation for women was not looked upon favorably.
The author came across some interesting facts in her research:
“When I read in Louisa May Alcott’s account of her brief tenure at the Union Hotel Hospital in January of 1863 that a rat had nested in her clothing and stolen even the meager amount of food that she had purchased at a corner grocer and set aside for herself in hope of augmenting the paltry army diet, I knew I had a view into the destitute conditions under which both the nurses and patients were suffering. I acknowledge that I was perhaps a bit hard on Dorothea Dix, though I believe I portrayed her as she was perceived at the time. I am happy that history has revealed her courage and independence…”
Robin Oliveira has done a good job with this Civil War novel, and explains her motivation in writing in the introduction:
“Nearly twenty women became physicians after their experiences nursing in the Civil War; it is to honor them and their collective experience that Mary Sutter lives. The willing sacrifice of their own health and well-being to serve the men debilitated by the war deserves our commendation and admiration, but especially our remembrance.”
The author explains how she did her meticulous research here: