“I Always Loved You” left me wanting more of Robin Oliveira’s absorbing prose. “My Name is Mary Sutter” is her only other novel, her debut. It garnered rave reviews and literary awards, but I overlooked it. Perhaps you did too, because the Civil War time period is not my favorite setting for historical fiction; I even live in Virginia where many battles were fought. It took this immersive reading experience to bring the Civil War alive for me.
The Making of a Civil War Heroine and Modern Medicine (Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; Virginia and Maryland battlefields, 1842–1867): There is no mystery how Mary Sutter, a gifted young midwife as competent as her mother, Amelia, nurses and doctors her way through the Civil War to become an unforgettable heroine: through sheer single-mindedness of purpose, boldness, courage, and endurance. The mystery, for me, is how Oliveira emotionally connects us to a fictionalized character who awakens us to the real heroes and heroines of America’s Civil War. She wants us to admire and remember them; she even tells us so in her Acknowledgements detailing her exhaustive research process.
Notwithstanding the author’s experience as a registered nurse and former literary magazine editor, I think the answer lies in her exacting prose. You do not read this novel casually. Instead, you are pulled into it, to grasp emotions and visualize scenes word by word, sentence by sentence. The reader senses the novelist poring over every word, analyzing and re-analyzing until she’s satisfied she’s landed upon the best way to show us her characters’ mindset and feelings. The skill is in seamlessly embedding her fictionalized characters into Civil War history and battlegrounds, peopled by the likes of President Lincoln, John Jay, and General McClellan. The fictional Mary feels as real as Lincoln feels present, as if the two really met each other.
The many compelling storylines all connect to Mary’s fight to do the one thing she wants more than anything else in the world, become a surgeon – a fight against society’s negative views about women’s role in medicine. She’s repeatedly rejected by Albany’s Medical College; Albany is where she lives in her parents’ beautiful home. Her father Nathaniel made his fortune in railroading, but he died before the story begins, introducing grief as an overarching theme.
In the opening pages, we witness Mary’s medical excellence in an emergency. She unexpectedly encounters a surgeon, Dr. James Blevens, who urges her to take over a complicated delivery. The subplot enables Mary to seize the opportunity to offer herself as his apprentice. But he too rejects her, and then spends the rest of the novel regretting his decision, trying to make amends.
In Albany, Mary falls in love with her recently orphaned neighbor, Thomas Fall, who instantly admires her seriousness but finds that sharing grief with Mary’s prettier, easier, more vulnerable twin sister, Jenny, is a more powerful attraction and marries her. The blow sends Mary off to Washington, even more determined to pursue her quest, seeking to join Dorothea Dix’s fledgling nursing corps.
In Washington, Dorothea also rejects Mary, this time because she’s too young. Mary is undeterred. Scouring the city, she finally finds work as a charwoman and nurse in the wretched Union Hospital, where she encounters another surgeon, Dr. William Stipp.
As the war escalates, Mary visits President Lincoln to plea her case to tend to the wounded on the battlefields. Lincoln grants her wish, for he has an “endless capacity for grief” and the ability “to look into the future [is] his greatest skill.” That is how brave Mary ends up performing so many amputations that no one even knows where or how to dispose of all the limbs.
Was this what medicine was? Barbarity? By comparison, even at its worst, childbirth was artful. Even when women bled or seized, there remained at least the elegance of hope. The flickering promise of life.
Mary’s love for Thomas, Blevens, and Stipp plays out in different heartfelt ways, as she discovers each of them at different times on the battlefields. “Why is it that voices break hearts?” Mary wonders when she comes upon Thomas wounded. When she’s finally working alongside the two war-challenged doctors in the chaos of battle, they repeatedly fail to convince her to return to the comforts and safety of her family home, where she is also desperately needed. Through both doctors, we vividly see Mary’s “gentleness combined with competence seduced beyond measure,” as each develops strong feelings for her that grow from deep admiration to love and a need so powerful at least one of them declares out loud that he cannot live without her – “Only Mary’s presence kept him from weeping.” By now, Mary Sutter has evolved into “a purveyor of hope,” because no matter how hellish the working conditions, her indomitable and indefatigable spirit offers hopefulness. For the reader, this means the novel is inspiring, not depressing.
The absorbing prose is a mixture of contemporary phrasing, period language, and medical terminology. Some examples:
Contemporary: An arc of sunlight struck the firm contours of his body, and for a moment Mary thought she could see right through his heart; dignity an elusive thing when professors and drunkards alike answered Lincoln’s call; a national chess board realigning; time was on its own meter; privacy, after tenderness, the second casualty of war.
Period: privy trenches, picket duty, tintype
Medical: vulnus puncture, Dover’s powder, bilious fever, ichtyocolla plaster
To sum up Oliveira’s writing style, let me offer another example from the beginning of the novel, reflected on at the end: Mary Sutter does not simply sit under an oak tree in the northern landscape of Albany – she sank into it. That’s how you feel as a reader: you sink into the historical landscape of this novel, precisely the author’s intention.
Enjoy Reading! Lorraine