My Name is Mary Sutter
Updated: Jan 2, 2019
By Robin Oliveira
This book was recently highlighted via my Facebook connections at the Historical Novel Society. And although this blog is about real women in history, I found the story line compelling after reading the author’s ‘the story behind the book.’ Seventeen young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the Civil War.
The heroine, Mary Sutter, is a brilliant young midwife from Albany, NY, who is determined to become a surgeon, regardless of the prejudices against women in medicine. Fleeing heartbreak and disappointment, she leaves her mother’s home and travels to Washington, D.C. to care for wounded soldiers after the onset of the war. At first, she seeks out Dorothea Dix to enlist as a nurse but is rejected. Undaunted, she goes from hospital to hospital, offering her assistance, finally landing at the run-down, vermin-infested Union Hotel under the supervision of surgeon William Stipp. Both he and James Blevens, the surgeon in Albany who first turned down Mary’s request for training, eventually fall in love with her steadfast courage and determination. Woven with historical detail, Mary’s interactions with Lincoln, John Hay, Dix and General McClellan add delight to an already delightful read.
Despite her mother’s pleas to return to Albany to help with the birth of her twin sister’s baby, Mary pursues her dream, eventually landing in a field hospital (read barn) near the battle of Antietam, assisting Stipp with amputations, then handling these surgeries on her own. Several of the surgery and childbirth scenes are vividly descriptive. One wonders how anyone survived in such conditions. Simply washing your hands between surgeries or boiling drinking water to prevent the spread of disease would have made a world of difference.
Robin put it best “Mary, flawed and intelligent, careening between desire and remorse, stumbling forward out of courage and stubbornness, hiding a broken heart, but hoping to redeem something beautiful from a life humbled by regret.” I didn’t want it to end.