Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review -- My Name is Mary Sutter

My Name is Mary Sutter My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many things did you want to be when you grew up? It’s a common refrain from my daughter – “When I grow up, I want to be a waitress at IHOP!” Her love of pancakes currently outweighs her long term life goals. But at least, heaven forbid, it’s an option.

For Mary Sutter, her dream of becoming a surgeon was not an option. Prepared as a midwife by her mother, Mary has midwifery in her veins. But she dreams of something more. Her solicitations to train at the hands of other doctors are turned down. That doesn’t stop Mary. On the eve of the Civil War, Mary travels from her home of Albany, NY, to Washington DC, where she begs and pleads with every medical professional she encounters to give her a chance, they all tell her to go home. Even Dorothea Dix, a woman who is in charge of organizing nursing for the anticipated onslaught of war casualties, tells her she isn’t wanted. Thus, Mary’s courage and stubbornness take over, and she witnesses and participates in the horrible suffering that the Union is about to encounter.

I was very skeptical of this book at first. The first 60 pages were slow to develop. We meet Mary in Albany where she lives a privileged life with her mother, sister and brother. The author also introduces Thomas Fall, a potential suitor for Mary, but who ends up falling in love with her sister Jenny. It was all very awkward and one dimensional for me, and I nearly gave up on this book.

However, my patience paid off, and once Mary decides to make the break from the safety of home to pursue her dreams, the book really takes off and the author finds her groove.

I loved Mary’s narrative once she arrives in Washington DC. The author does a fabulous job of intertwining historical figures (Pres. Lincoln, John Hay, Dorothea Dix, among others) with fictional characters. I must admit a bias here, having lived in DC for many years, I love most books dealing with or talking about our Nation’s Capital. This is no exception. The author’s description of 19th century, Civil War-era Washington DC was perfectly swampy and sticky. Even modern day DC hasn’t changed much (except the cows grazing on the Mall are gone).

Mary really blossoms as a character under the worst possible circumstances. She assists a Dr. Stipp in a deplorable hospital, treating patients with very few supplies. She witnesses the butchery the doctors are reduced to perform on the wounded in an attempt to save their lives. But she preservers. This is what she wants to do, and she goes to the White House herself in order to obtain the necessary supplies to help the wounded.

The Civil War back drop was also well done. The author’s research was evident as she describes military maneuvers, battle formations, leadership conflicts and the devastation of war. I also appreciated the author’s ability to bring to light how the Civil War really changed the medical field. So much of what we know now about infection and sanitation was learned as a result of this awful war.

Finally, there was an interesting love triangle the author deftly wove throughout this book. It was always in the shadows, never taking away from the seriousness of Mary’s goal of taking care of the injured. And it left you guessing until the end. It was a pleasant surprise.

I ended up adoring Mary and her bravery. I truly enjoyed the author’s writing and appreciated her comprehensive research.

For the sensitive reader: There are many detailed battle scenes, descriptions of remidal surgery and hacking amputations. And one "F bomb."

Although, not one of my original selections, this book qualifies for my Women Unbound Challenge.  A worthy contribution.

Book source: Public library


Kathy said...

I'm glad you liked this novel. I went to a signing with Robin Oliveira last week. She was a wonderful speaker and I really enjoyed hearing her read from this book.

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

Love this review! It's true the love triangle did not overtake the story but added another dimension. I really liked the way it ended because halfway through the book I wasn't sure how it would end.

Irish said...

Looking forward to reading this one next year as part of our book club ... I am loving the cover :)