Monday, September 27, 2010

Mary Sutter, Civil War Nurse

My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira (F OLI Main; CD F OIL Main)

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

This is a debut novel that deserves attention.

Mary Sutter wanted to become a physician.On the eve of the Civil War, the idea was preposterous. Nursing had been revolutionized in Europe by Clara Barton, but only men could become doctors.

This is a tale of determination and Mary is a compelling character.Brilliant and headstrong, she is a skilled midwife, descended from several generations of midwives and very strong women. At the start of the Civil War, her fraternal twin sister has snagged the man that Mary is interested in. Refused by medical school and denied an apprenticeship by a local physician, at 20 she is too young to join the new nursing corp.

Set against the butchery of the Civil War, this story has an unexpected love story.There are three men who enter Mary's life, and unwittingly fall in love with her courage, will and stubbornness in the face of suffering. Dr. James Blevins, the young doctor who refused her apprenticeship. Thomas, her brother-in-law, widowed when Jenny, her sister died in childbirth. And William Stripp, an older physician who apprenticed Dr. Blevins and learned to depend on Mary, both emotionally and professionally, giving her a chance to become a surgeon in the battlefield hospital.

The characters are well fleshed out.Dr. Blevins is interested in research, determined to discover why infection and disease ravage the soldiers.Having forced Dr. Stripp to apprentice him by dissecting a dead cat on his desk, he becomes a hero but has secrets that keep him and Mary apart. Thomas Feld, Mary's brother-in-law, who realizes that he made a mistake in his marriage. Dr. William Stripp, who thought he could never love again.

There are wonderful depictions of historical people. President Lincoln, sharing his weariness of war and attempting to minimize the pain of the people around him and the nation. John Hay, his secretary, who respects Mary and gives her unknown help in her struggles. Another headstrong woman, Dorthea Dix, who established the need and the guidelines for an American nursing corp.

Make no mistake.This book is not for the faint of heart. The battle scenes and surgeries are realistic and graphic. Medical knowledge and hygiene were primitive at best, but the depiction is appropriate for this book.

This is rich historical fiction with a satisfying conclusion.

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