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My Name is Mary Sutter

My Name is Mary Sutter
by Robin Oliveira (Viking, May 2010)

Highly recommended!  My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira is the fast –paced and engrossing story of a young woman living in upstate New York on the eve of the Civil War.  Although she has a thriving midwifery practice, her one true desire, one that has been thwarted at every turn, is to be a doctor.

As the men in her life — including her beloved younger brother; the man she loves, but who loves her sister; and the doctor she wants to study under – enlist in the Union Army, she is left behind to nurse her disappointments.  But when the sick and wounded soldiers begin to stream in from the battle fronts, she decides to go to Washington to serve as a nurse, in hopes that there she will learn more of what she needs to be accepted as a student doctor.

As her family back home disintegrates under wartime pressures and the vagaries of ordinary life, Mary perseveres in nursing the men in her care, although the conditions are deplorable, the supplies non-existent, and the illnesses and injuries are horrifying.  In spite of her dedication and the pervasive need for skilled doctors, she continues to be rejected as a medical student on account of her sex.

Filled with rich details and authentic settings, Oliveira has given us a window on both the state of medicine 150 short years ago, and also on the low status of women at the time.  The battlefield scenes are vivid and intimate without being gratuitous, and the detailed descriptions of medical procedures are skillfully woven into the narrative.  Mary herself, and the people who surround her, are rendered in all their human complexity, including the historical characters such as Abraham Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, and the various military commanders who play a part in the rolling devastation that was the Civil War.

Reviewed by Annie Leonard
The Next Chapter, Knoxville, Iowa
March 2010

 

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