The title character in Robin Oliveira’s Civil War novel My Name is Mary Sutter is an accomplished midwife with aspirations to be a surgeon, thwarted at every chance by men who discourage her goals. But when the soldiers are wounded at a rate faster than hands can set a tourniquet, Mary’s desire to be a surgeon becomes a necessity, and she leaves her family in Albany to lend a hand in Washington, D.C.
Oliveira’s debut novel is magnificent historical fiction. She skillfully advances the plot with Mary’s experiences—the losses of an unrequited love and family members, the doubts about continuing on her medical path—while making each character and his or her life during the war feel intrinsic to the storyline, from Mary’s twin sister to President Abraham Lincoln.
Oliveira’s characters are hushed and contemplative, yet strong and enduring. The novel is well-researched, particularly the standards for medical practice during the Civil War, and Oliveira doesn’t skimp on studied details. Instead, My Name is Mary Sutter is beaten, bloodied and sorrowful, and at times it feels as though this story will end without Mary’s shining achievement. But this isn’t simply a book about a girl who wants to be someone else; it’s the story of a woman who must summon all her strength and skill to succeed. Her skirts are weighted down by blood and a bone saw is placed into her hand while piles of limbs surround the makeshift operating table. The war requires that Mary be a surgeon, and she rises to the challenge.
It would be easy to call this novel gritty, because at times the streets are slicked by filthy snow and the battlefields scattered with bloody, fly-covered bodies. Still, Mary glows; despite her tired eyes and dirty clothes, she is floodlit from the inside with a passion to mend.