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Book Review: My Name is Mary Sutter (Civil War novel)

Robin Oliveira is a remarkable woman. She has scored a home run with her very first book, a historical novel set in the American Civil War entitled My Name is Mary Sutter. The award-winning effort follows the storyline of a young midwife in Albany, New York, who is repeatedly frustrated as she tried to convince a skeptical medical establishment that she wants to be a doctor, an unheard-of vocation for a woman in mid-19th century America. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the local medical college and a veteran practitioner who rebuffs her entreaty to be an apprentice, she slips away from Albany to seek a learning experience in the U.S. Army hospitals in Washington, D.C. as the war begins. There, she befriends pioneering nurse Dorothea Dix and works in a temporary hospital set up in a dilapidated riverfront building in the capital. Her quest to become a surgeon becomes complicated by her growing affections for two army doctors.

The writer shows an uncanny knowledge of Civil War and period medicine and emergency treatment for the wounded and critically ill patients under Mary’s care. It is clear that Oliveira has done her homework, and did it well. The depth of her research into ACW surgery and post-op care adds a dimension to this work that makes it compelling and believable, something lacking in so many historical novels that I have read and discarded as being cheap pulp fiction. This book, by contrast, is hard to put down. Oliveira’s writing style is lucid, well flowing, and compelling, and her development of the key characters-Mary Sutter and doctors William Stripp and James Blevens-are vivid and well done. Key historical supporting characterizations are nicely-researched and written, such as Dix, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, General George B. McClellan and others.

This is certainly among the better Civil War novels that I have read and, frankly, it would make a good script for a Lifetime or Hallmark made-for-TV movie. The plot moves along at a nice clip; the background text gives a wonderful feel for the settings for each major event, and the key players offer some interest dynamics and often complex interactions that draw the reader into the storyline in a way that is both entertaining and educational. You walk away from this book satisfied with the ending, as well as having gained a useful general background at a very high level of the drudgery and heartache, as well as the satisfaction, of being a Civil War medical worker.

On so many levels this book works well – good plot, fine writing, vivid characterizations, and crisp details that don’t overwhelm the story. If this is her first book, then I can’t wait to see what Robin Oliveira produces in the years to come. My Name is Mary Sutter, however, raises the bar high both for the author’s next few books, as well as for other fledgling Civil War novelists. This one will be tough to match in the quality of writing and immediacy of the plot.

To Robin, all I can offer for this intriguing first book is the age-old Civil War cheer:
Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

My Name is Mary Sutter
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (May 13, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0670021679
ISBN-13: 978-0670021673