My Name is Mary Sutter/Robin Oliveria: Reflections

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I have spent much of the last two days impressed into the world of Robin Oliveira's making—the immaculately researched and thoughtfully conveyed story of a Civil War midwife-cum-surgeon named Mary Sutter.  I hadn't thought I'd like this book as much as I most assuredly did.  I had wondered about its title, a first-person declaration that does not capture the close-over-the-shoulder third-person chorus that carries the story forward.  Within the first two dozen pages none of that mattered.  What mattered was how brilliantly Oliveira captures the details of that time, those years, when blunt artillery plowed through shins and germs were not understood, when amputations were performed on dirty, blistering battlefields with little more than chloroform, whiskey, a saw, and a needle to see both patient and doctor through.

We get cameos of Abraham Lincoln and Dorothea Dix and John Hay in this novel.  We get Albany in winter and love at first blush and love at the end of too much knowing.  We get Mary Sutter's determination to enter into the ranks of surgeon, indistinguishable in talent and mastery from any male peer, and the price that is exacted for entry.

Oliveira lists her Civil War, history, and medical resources at the start of this book; she is graceful with her abundance of knowing.  The big, hard details of war, midwifery, and amputation are laid out, unflinchingly, before us; but so is the rising and falling of the sun, and the look and feel of Albany ahead of storm:

Now, in the distance, thunder rumbled. A day of contradiction: Mary's bonnet shaded her from a sun bright enough to strain her eyes. The alley percolated: a privy tilted a half block away; the neighbor's poorly kept chickens flapped in protest at the confusion. An ice wagon lurched into the narrow ruts and climbed the slow rise, its wintered-over ice blocks crusted with sawdust. The last of the last, before winter set in and ice would be everywhere. The verge of deprivation and plenty.

Beautifully done.  And did I mention this book has twin sisters at its heart.  An historical novel with twin sisters at its heart.  Just my kind of thing, as it ultimately turns out.

6 comments:

Julie P. said...

I am so glad that you ending up liking this one. I thought it was a fantastic book and wish more readers would discover it!

bermudaonion said...

This sounds fantastic! Julie shared her copy with me, so I have something to look forward to.

Carrie said...

I bought this one after Julie's review - now to find time to read it!

Wendy said...

Oh, I totally loved this book as well...brilliantly executed :)But then, I love novels with strong women at their center.

Becca said...

I've been coveting this book all summer. Now I'm definitely getting it.

47Rah1980 said...

Wonderful review. The author posted it on her FB site as well.
http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/pages/My-Name-is-Mary-Sutter/168189337845?v=wall&ref=ts

and I agree that the omniscient viewpoint added to the depth of the narrative.

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