Review: ‘My Name is Mary Sutter’ by Robin Oliveira

By Sandhya Shyamsundar, WBNUJS, Kolkata

This riveting saga takes place in New York, during the American Civil War in 1861. Enter Mary Sutter, much respected, remarkable and adept midwife who’s sole intent is to become a surgeon and to prove equal to any man. But sadly, medical schools refuse to teach women and repeatedly turn her down. Mary suffering from a broken heart, heads off to Washington DC where Dorothea Dix having persuaded Abraham Lincoln, recruits a band of nurses to tend the Civil war wounded and, serve the army doctors. Further, she is assisted and encouraged by two surgeons who both, infatuated, fall for her and help her in every possible way in the hope that one day, she will establish her medical career. The book chronicles not only the story of miss Sutter but of each and every soldier involved in the war suffering at the hands of corrupt politicians, incompetent generals and surgeons who are forced to amputate several limbs in filthy and noxious camp sites.

Characters

One dominant fact about this book is that each and every character involved in the story have huge bearings on one another, direct or indirect. Each, however insignificant they may be, have a paramount role to play without which, the story wouldn’t be the same.

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First up is the lead, Mary Sutter who embodies a personality that all women aspire to be. She is head strong, sedulous, courageously single minded and wonderfully skilled. As a midwife, her reputation remains unmatched and in the townspeople’s eyes, appears as a cold and highly stubborn female (the exact opposite of how women are ‘supposed’ to behave). She falls in love with a certain Thomas fall who later marries her twin sister Jenny who being too involved in beauty, soft natured, showcasing docile attitude, is so unlike her sister (The point repeatedly crops up in the book stressing on the strong contrasts between the twins’ personas). Jenny asks “You prefer beauty to cleverness?” to which Thomas replies “I prefer not beauty, but you.

Then there is Amelia Sutter, Mary’s warm-hearted mother, a former midwife and who like every other, has her heart wrenched when her children leave home. In this case, Mary’s younger brother, darling Christian along with Thomas leave Albany to volunteer as soldiers in the war.

Further, there are our two surgeons who take up dual male protagonist roles – James Blevens, a young doctor who has an admirable messianic zeal towards research and the human anatomy who at the very beginning, declines Mary’s offer to work and learn under him ; and William Stipp, who in his 40-50′s, is the chief surgeon of the unsanitary and grubby Union Hotel Hospital, Washington DC where Mary volunteers to work there. Stipp has a greater role to play than Blevens as Mary mostly remains under his guidance, learns how to hold a scalpel and precisely amputate damaged arms and legs of the wounded soldiers. At first, he appears to have a mighty temper, reprimanding Mary’s dream of becoming a surgeon, calling her nonsensical and a fool, but gradually warming up and developing feelings for her as she starts to showcase her deep passion, keen interest and solid determination in committing herself to work.

Conversations and discussions between Abraham Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, and various colonels also fill up the rest of the pages making the book not only a dramatic fiction but also a historical novel.

Scenes and plot development

As the story progresses from the life that Mary experienced in Albany to what awaits her in Washington,she mops floors, cleans and bathes the soldiers all very dexterously, in the deplorable conditions of the hospital. She ignores the repeated requests from her family to return home so as to deliver her sister’s child. The book significantly lays down the transformation of what Mary talks about as passion to what she later realizes is a surgeon’s immense firmness of mind regarding any situation. Elaborating on this point is a scene in which Sutter is ordered by Stipp to choose among the millions of soldiers and ‘hand pick’ the ones who are relatively assured to survive once cured, leaving the others to die as she consoles them with whiskey. (“Someone has to decide.” “I cant…” “Then go home!)

The mask of war hardens any man in the deepest way ever imaginable and in this story, various characters struggle to surface out of the war, each undergoing a unique transformation in their own way.

Writing and flow

Oliveira’s scripting style is detailed, precise and to the point; no hesitations, no unnecessary melodrama whatsoever. The vivid imagery is spectacular leaving the reader to smell the acrid smoke of the gunfire, and the pungent stench of rotten and decayed soldier cadavers strewn all over the battlefield; each play of word summoning and evoking every kind of strong emotion in the reader. The book meanders from letters written between husband and wife, mother and daughter, parts that sketch Abraham Lincoln’s strategy, and intense narratives of doctors with limited medical knowledge and skills, who laboriously help the wounded and tend to damaged arms and legs of soldiers in unsanitary conditions, endlessly throughout days and nights that seem forever. The author expertly lays down the  prejudice about what men consider of women as well as their morality during the time of war.

Final verdict

Well, there is nothing more to be said about this book. If you are looking for an engrossing historical saga with a tinge of medical science added to it all revolving around a gritty and admirable female lead, then ‘My name is Mary Sutter’ would make for a fantastic read!

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