Before it was over, the War Between the States would claim several hundred thousand lives. Sadly, a good many of those lives were given up by men who never saw a battlefield or by those who succumbed to secondary infections spread to them by the very doctors and nurses whose job it was to save their lives. Volunteers, especially at the start of the war, were thrown together in crowded camps within which little regard was given to sanitation. Young men from rural areas were suddenly victim to numerous infectious diseases to which they had never been exposed. Those from the city, not as likely to fall to the more common diseases, were still easy prey to the dysentery that ravaged the tent cities.
The war offered a unique opportunity to someone like Mary Sutter, the heroine of Robin Oliveira’s Civil War novel, My Name Is Mary Sutter. Already an accomplished midwife in her native Albany, New York, Mary desires more. With all her heart, she wants to become a surgeon. The local medical school, however, refuses even to consider the possibility of admitting a female and none of the doctors in the area will agree to teach her what he knows. When Mary hears that Dorothea Dix has convinced President Lincoln to allow her to recruit female nurses, she heads to Washington to offer her services to Dix - only to find out that she is too young to qualify.
But no one would accuse Mary Sutter of being a quitter. If Dix will not accept her as a nurse, she will find someone who will. A chance meeting with John Hay, one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries, ultimately leads Mary to the Union Hotel Hospital and the job of assisting the hospital’s chief surgeon, William Stipp. Stipp needs Mary’s help as badly as she needs him to teach her, so the two form a partnership each of them will barely survive. Mary is shocked by what she sees: the hospital is short on supplies and long on patients, Dr. Stipp seems to be learning as he goes, and many of the wounded survive horrific amputation surgery in good shape only to die within days anyway.
My Name Is Mary Sutter is Civil War history as seen primarily through the eyes of the doctors and nurses who struggled, so often in vain, to save the lives of the wounded and sick soldiers placed in their care. Robin Oliveira vividly portrays the medical knowledge and limitations of the day, be it through her detailed descriptions of amputations or those of the potential terrors associated with childbirth of the period. She also reminds her readers of the great number of lives lost so needlessly to secondary infection, a medical problem that would not be solved until after the war.
All of this is tied together by the intriguing story of the Sutter family itself and how the war all but destroyed it. Some readers, I suspect, will find some aspects of the family story to be a little too strongly of the sort found in romance novels; others will find this to be the best part of the book. My Name Is Mary Sutter will appeal to a variety of readers.
Rated at: 3.5