Monday, November 22, 2010

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira had great buzz. This is generally the type of book that I love or discover pretty quickly that I'm not going to like and don't read. (By this type, I mean historical fiction that focuses on medical people or medical themes.) I read the opening scene while browsing in a bookstore and was so captivated I bought it without hesitation, eager to read more. But by the time I finished, my overall reaction was...lukewarm.

Mary Sutter is a midwife in antebellum Albany, New York, who enjoys a great deal of local renown for her skill. Her competence springs in a small part from compassion for the women she cares for, but mainly from a strong intellectual curiosity. And Mary has outgrown midwifery. She wants to know more. She is desperate to become a surgeon. Unfortunately, she lives in a time when women are not admitted to medical schools and no surgeon will accept her as an apprentice.

The start of the Civil War provides Mary with an opportunity to pursue her goal. Beginning as a nurse, she puts herself under the tutelage of a surgeon whose circumstances are as desperate as her own. Gradually, she absorbs knowledge from him and begins to learn surgery.

This is the kernel of the book. Other issues are swarming around to round out the book: family, duty, love, the politics of the war itself. The author succeeds in presenting the war in all its gritty horror. She succeeds in showing the medical realities and shortcomings very realistically. Mary is indeed an admirable woman, strong in the face of human suffering, intelligent, and capable.

Mary was, however, human. And I suppose it was in showing her human side that the book bogged down for me. Because there was a parallel plot. Mary had a failed romance. She misinterpreted a man’s interest and could not bear to be around the happy woman he married instead. And so, she fled Albany for Washington to become a war nurse. She refused all entreaties to return home.

What was Mary's motivation after all? Sometimes, it seemed that it was not her vocation that drove her to and kept her in Washington, but simple spite. Perhaps having been hurt once, Mary was not going to open herself up to caring about people again. Humanity, yes; people, no. Her service to the wounded seemed not compassionate, but detached. I couldn't exactly fault her for this. Considering she lived surrounded by slaughter, she would have to develop a degree of emotional detachment or be destroyed. The novel portrayed the woman and her situation realistically. But I began to find Mary Sutter a bit tiresome. I wanted to finish the novel, but it wasn’t something I looked forward to reading.

So my summary is that this is a well-written, well-researched portrayal of a courageous and intelligent young woman whose determination to become a surgeon takes her onto the battlefields of the Civil War. Historical fiction fans who want to see strong female protagonists and who like a lot of historical detail will likely enjoy this. I think my negative reaction to Mary might have just been an overreaction to the way she dealt with her feelings of being jilted and the avoidable tragedy that results.

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