Last week when I wrote about Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress, I referred to the author’s talent for placing the reader in a time machine and setting it on stun. Well, the ravenous reader has been similarly “stunned” by Robin Oliveira’s My Name is Mary Sutter. This time the story starts in 1861, at the earliest days of the Civil War. It’s the tale of a passionate, stubborn, committed young woman who is determined to become a surgeon, no matter that the odds and the times are all stacked against her.
The period detail and historical references are indeed stunning. I stand in awe of the research it requires to write a novel like this, one that can evoke not only a time and place, but also people, with such an exquisite, lifelike rendering. Of course, it’s not all pretty detail, no indeed. Actually, it’s mostly pretty horrific, and (Scarlett O’Hara aside) there’s nothing pretty about the Civil War. But if Mary Sutter can stomach it, then so can I.
In an article on her website, Oliveira says that the character of Mary came to her as a vision with a story demanding to be told, seeming not to care about the author’s ignorance of the 19th century. It was then that Oliveira began haunting the National Archives, the Library of Congress, The University of Washington’s Special Collections, Florence Nightingales journals and letters…five years later, Mary emerged from the stacks, a full fledged, strong willed woman with a mission.
Much of Mary’s initial training takes place at the Union Hospital in Georgetown (an abandoned hotel confiscated for use as a field hospital). Initially, it’s filled with young men suffering from dysentery, the ailment that killed nearly as many Yankee soldiers as did Rebel bullets and bayonets. Here’s where Mary and Dr. Stipp, her mentor, begin their work.
It seemed that no cleaning had been attempted in the eighty years or so since George Washington had eaten at the hotel, when the humble building was still only a tavern on the turnpike north. Neither had anyone cleaned the single water closet in an age. Its box seeped through the floorboards to the cellar, where a shimmering lake of sewage pooled in the corner before bubbling into the unseen swamp that lurked beneath the city. Not even the linens were clean. The laundresses, hired by Stipp to work once a month, frequently did not show, and the sheets soured for weeks at a time under the patients’ backs. The cook knew how to prepare only two meals, oatmeal and boiled beef, but since there was no beef to boil, oatmeal was a mainstay of the 189 inhabitants of the least sanitary building in a hundred-mile radius of the nation’s capital.
“Men cannot get well in such a place,” Mary tells Stipp.
“In all the world, there is not medicine enough to heal what ails the Union army…”
Now tell me, where has your reading taken you this Sunday?