Review: My Name Is Mary Sutter

After choosing My Name Is Mary Sutter as our very first book club selection, I was thrilled when fellow nursing blogger (and newly minted pediatric NP) Jen Vitti offered to review it for us. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy, hopefully Jen’s excellent review will convince you that it is worth the read. And I hope you’ll come back here and offer your own thoughts (you can also respond to the discussion questions posted earlier). Thanks again, Jen!

My Name is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliveira, was chosen as Nurse Teeny’s first book for the book club, which began in June of this year. After reading this novel depicting the beginnings of true nursing in the United States, I do not think a better book could have been chosen to get us going. This book had a little something for everyone’s interests (and I admit it touched on everything I personally love in a novel)! It contains history, with the plot taking place during the Civil War, medicine—both nursing and medical, love, and loss.

The book is a fascinating story about a young midwife, Mary Sutter, from Albany, New York, who is desperate to get the education she needs to become a competent surgeon. After hearing “no” too many times due to an era when women did not have the right to a medical education or hold the title of a doctor, she leaves home during the Civil War and travels to Washington, D.C. to enlist as a nurse, hoping there she will get the education she so desires. Thanks to her stubborn personality, she bumps heads quite a bit along the way with key figures, and is far from the “perfect heroine”, but I found myself rooting for her and for women of that time to not give up on their dreams.

Throughout the novel we meet her family: her mother Amelia, her sister Jenny, and her brother Christian, as well as Jenny’s husband, Thomas Fall, an old love interest of Mary’s, as well as two of Mary’s mentors, Dr. James Blevens and Dr. William Stipp. These characters all possess interesting story lines of their own and play important roles in the war and in Mary’s life.

I refuse to give away too much of the plot, but I will say that Oliveira definitely keeps readers interested. Her plot, like in any great novel, has a consistent story line, but one with lots of drama and mini-story lines to keep it moving.

The medicine in the book is particularly fascinating. As a nurse I was captivated and also saddened while reading about the lack of medical knowledge in that time period. Fr example, whiskey and turpentine were used quite frequently for the soldiers, as well as the process of “bleeding” patients, which would never have a place in a modern day hospital due to our advanced knowledge and technology. Oliveira also notes that although many soldiers died due to their war wounds, still more died from infection and illness against which today we have medication and vaccines.  It also made me think of what medicine and technology will be like 150 years from now, and what practices will be seen as ridiculous, or even humorous.

What made this book truly great, however, was Oliveira’s attention to detail. Her descriptions of war, of medicine, of everyday life in the Civil War era were so exact, I truly felt like I could picture the delivery of the babies in the novel, the gruesome amputations, and even simpler scenes of Mary trudging through the snow in Albany. And although a fictional book, Oliveira did an enormous amount of research about this time period – you will be hard pressed to find false historical information – even while introducing us to real life characters like Dorothea Dix, General McClellan, and Abraham Lincoln.

With Oliveira’s beautiful writing and all the aspects of this book, I must repeat that My Name is Mary Sutter has something for everyone. As a nurse I enjoyed special aspects of it, but as an avid reader I really enjoyed this book as a whole and will be passing it on to all my family and friends, no matter their profession.

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