Image Credit: Seattle Times
Choices. Some of us have one too many and we end up regretting it or loving it. Again that’s a choice made unconsciously most of the time. This is the predominant theme in Robin Oliveira’s “My Name is Mary Sutter.” Summary from the book jacket:
Mary Sutter, a brilliant young midwife, dreams of proving herself as capable as any man. But medical schools refuse to teach women. So when her heart is broken, she heads to Washington DC to tend the Civil War wounded. Assisted and encouraged by two surgeons, who both fall for her, and ignoring requests to return home to help her twin sister give birth. Mary pursues her dream of becoming a surgeon and saving lives – no matter the cost to herself or those she loves and no matter the harrowing conditions she has yet to face.
This book was, for quite a while, a constant in book club discussions and topping best books charts. Plus, history, a strong woman protagonist, war. Do I need more reasons to pick it up? The first few chapters give a background on Mary and her family and about Mary’s passion for the medical profession. Mary is an accomplished midwife, beginning to gain more acclaim than even her mother. But she nurses a strong ambition to become a surgeon, which is quite outlandish for women at the time.
Initially, disappointment is Mary’s companion. She loses the one man she develops more than a like for to her twin sister, is rejected by several medical schools purely on the basis of her gender and turned away by Dr Blevens even though he had heard that she was exceptional. But ironically, Mary’s luck turns with the onset of war. To be more specific, the circular from Dorothea Dix the Female Superintendent of Army Nurses, calling for “ladies to serve in (hospitals) in the tradition of Florence Nightingale in her recent successful work caring for British soldiers in the Crimea,” is what inspires Mary.
Mary sets out the very next day to meet Dorothea and later on encounters Dr Stipp who gives her preliminary training to be a surgeon. From here the story winds through Mary’s trials not just as a doctor but as a daughter.
I liked the way Oliveira portrayed Mary – a strong willed woman who appears selfish and heartless but is essentially just torn between giving in to sentiment and chasing her dream. Mary and other women doctors are modeled on real Civil War nurses who went on to become physicians after their experiences in the war. What is different in the book is the way the ravages of war are shown from the perspective of medical care. There are graphic descriptions of legs being sawed, bones being set and of course, childbirth, which are not for the faint of heart. Oliveira also makes the book quite atmospheric with descriptions of the stench, of amputated limbs piled up at the hospital and of the moaning of wounded soldiers.
Verdict: Read it for the delightful historic descriptions and for Mary