Mary Sutter is a young midwife, following in the footsteps of her mother, Amelia. She lives in Albany, New York with her twin sister Jenny. Despite her renown as a midwife, it is a surgeon Mary wants to be. She has been turned away from every medical school and cannot find a doctor with whom to apprentice. When her first love, Thomas Fall marries Jenny, and Dr. James Bleven refuses to apprentice her, Mary takes things into her own hands.
Mary flees to Washington City (which would eventually be known as Washington, D.C.) to answer the call by Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Army Nurses. It is the beginning of the Civil War.However, when Dorthea Dix turns her away, Mary offers her services as a nurse/apprentice at the Union Hotel in Georgetown. In this vermin infested, dilapidated foul "hospital" that Mary finds herself under the tutelage of surgeon Dr. William Stipp.
In the meantime, Mary's mother Amelia is distraught over her sudden departure and begs Mary repeatedly to return home. Although Amelia is also a midwife, she feels that she will not have the skill necessary to deliver Jenny when her time comes.But Mary in her determined quest to become a surgeon and because her intense heartbreak prevents her from facing Jenny, delays until the last possible moment to travel home to help her sister Jenny -with disastrous results. This causes Mary to have a crisis of confidence and she vanishes into the maelstrom of the Civil War, only to resurface at the battlefield months later.
Amid the disorganized carnage of the early Civil War, Mary, William and James struggle to cope not only with their own personal demons but with the blood, gore and exhaustion as they attempt to minister to the overwhelming numbers of injured and dead. Mary and William work amid the chaos to save the lives of soldiers while James believes that if they only knew more, doctors could save the lives of many of the wounded. All three men, Thomas Fall, James Bleven and William Stipp find Mary Sutter an utterly remarkable, if not incomprehensible woman. None of them quite understand her but are drawn to Mary by her courage and her intelligence.
Ms Oliveira successfully combines a detailed historical fiction with a touch of romance. She is able to weave significant figures of this time period into her narrative, making them believable and three-dimensional. We meet Mr. Lincoln, John Hay and Dorothea Dix. Lincoln seems extraordinarily vulnerable, suffering terribly and undergoing a crisis of faith when his son Willie dies of typhoid.
Something I wasn't aware of and hopefully is realistically portrayed in the novel, was the ineptitude of both sides in preparing for war as well as the incompetence of the each army command which led to failed battles, unexplained retreats and battles that turned into bloodbaths.
Descriptions of childbirth and battlefield are equally graphic, thus realistically portraying what it was like to die for both women and men in the mid 1800s. I had never considered that the Civil War occurred just prior to most of the major discoveries in modern medicine including basic knowledge about surgical hygiene. It is disheartening to read about surgeons treating severe compound fractures by amputation and to read about how doctors believed suppuration and fever healed wounds. Water to clean wounds was used over and over again. Patients where regularly treated with whiskey and/or quinine.
There are detailed descriptions of the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam (also known as Sharpsburg) in which over 20,000 men died.
"The day after the battle, the sight of the crowded yard nearly knocked Mary off her feet. Men lay next to one another without room for anyone to walk in between them. She staggered and caught herself....Cries for water and for mothers and sweethearts mingled with sobs of pain. It was a great rabble of suffering, and now it was her great rabble."
Considering the amount of historical detail in the novel, it is evident the author did considerable research involving both primary materials (journals, lectures, diaries newspaper articles) as well as consulting historians and librarians. Among sources consulted, The Library of Congress for Dorothea Dix's letters, Interlibrary Loan of the King County Library for books, The Special Collections at the University of Washington Medical School Library for information on midwifery, the online librarian at the Library of Congress who directed Oliveira toClara Barton's War Lecture and as well as a number of books on Civil War Medicine, Civil War hospitals and Civil War surgeons and doctors.
It is a pleasure to read historical fiction when the author has taken such attention to detail. This small time frame of American history came alive for me - and that is what historical fiction is all about.
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira
Viking Press 2010
For further investigation:
Photographic History of the Civil War