Published back in January 2011, a proof of Robin Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Sutter has been knocking about my house for a long time now. Several times I went to clear out books and it cropped up. I hung onto it each time. I’m sorry now that it took me so long to get around to reading because it is fantastic. Set during the American Civil War, Oliveira’s novel covers romance, tragedy, high drama, and feminism. I loved it.
The story is based on the life of the eponymous Mary Sutter, a smart and determined young woman anxious to become a surgeon in a society that still saw a woman’s place as being alongside the hearth. Unless they were skilled midwives, in which case they added more value to a community. Mary’s mother, Amelia, was one such woman, as was her mother before her. While Mary’s twin Jenny blanches at the sight of blood or discomfort, Mary thrives on the adrenalin rush of aiding women through labour. But it’s not enough, she wants to study the hows and whys of the human body. Unfortunately, no man is willing to teach her.
Her opportunity to learn comes along in the unlikely form of war. Mary’s brother, Christian, along with her sister’s lover, Thomas, and local doctor James Blevens (the latest in a long line of medical men to reject Mary’s request for tutelage) all volunteer to head to war. Not long after their departure, Mary spots a flyer calling for able-bodied, stern, and ‘plain’ women to offer their services as nurses for wounded soldiers. Seizing the opportunity, Mary flees the family home against their wishes and heads into the chaos. Then, among the disease, injured, and dying Mary makes her mark.
As historical fiction goes, this is top-notch. I admit I occasionally skimmed over the more intricate passages on military movements, but recognise that they did add authenticity to the tale. Mary’s character is strong, unapologetic but flawed … in other words, perfect. If you’re in any way faint-hearted you might want to give this one a skip as there are lots of detailed descriptions of childbirth, amputations, and various other gory medical procedures. It’s difficult, with our modern-day medical knowledge, not to flinch at the appalling sanitation situations described.
Aside from the gutsy heroine and convincing depiction of the casualties of war, Oliveira has written a love story. A slightly offbeat one, but a love story nonetheless. War brings heartbreak, we know that, but reading this novel introduces the multifaceted affects of battle on the family anew.
In short, it was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while.