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My Name Is Mary Sutter: A Novel

My Name Is Mary Sutter: A Novel

3.9 211
by Robin Oliveira

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An enthralling historical novel about a young woman's struggle to become a doctor during the Civil War

In this stunning first novel, Mary Sutter is a brilliant, head­strong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine-and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak-


An enthralling historical novel about a young woman's struggle to become a doctor during the Civil War

In this stunning first novel, Mary Sutter is a brilliant, head­strong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine-and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak- Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. Under the guidance of William Stipp and James Blevens-two surgeons who fall unwittingly in love with Mary's courage, will, and stubbornness in the face of suffering-and resisting her mother's pleas to return home to help with the birth of her twin sister's baby, Mary pursues her medical career in the desperately overwhelmed hospitals of the capital.

Like Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Robert Hicks's The Widow of the South, My Name Is Mary Sutter powerfully evokes the atmosphere of the period. Rich with historical detail (including marvelous depictions of Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, General McClellan, and John Hay among others), and full of the tragedies and challenges of wartime, My Name Is Mary Sutter is an exceptional novel. And in Mary herself, Robin Oliveira has created a truly unforgettable heroine whose unwavering determination and vulnerability will resonate with readers everywhere.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Despite her skill as a midwife, Mary Sutter cannot overcome the obstacle that bars her from further medical training: her gender. The Civil War changes everything. After her brother enlists in the Union Army, Mary follows him from Albany to Washington, DC, to volunteer as a nurse. She ends up at the ramshackle Union Hotel, crowded with recruits dying of disease, where Dr. William Stipp reluctantly agrees to hire her. As Union losses mount, her work becomes essential. But she relents to her mother's pleas to return home to help her twin sister through childbirth. After failing to save her sister, Mary returns to the front, where she eventually performs surgery in partnership with Stipp, whose admiration for her skill deepens to love before new family concerns carry her home again. VERDICT Oliveira deftly depicts the chaotic aftermath of battles and develops her own characters while incorporating military and political leaders of the time. The historic details enrich the narrative without overshadowing Mary's struggles. This well-written and compelling debut will engage all readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the Civil War. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/10; eight-city tour.]—Kathy Piehl, Minnestoa State Univ. Lib., Mankato
Publishers Weekly
The Civil War offers a 20-year-old midwife who dreams of becoming a doctor the medical experience she craves, plus hard work and heartbreak, in this rich debut that takes readers from a small upstate New York doctor's office to a Union hospital overflowing with the wounded and dying. Though she's too young for the nursing corps, Mary Sutter goes to Washington, anyway, and, after a chance meeting with a presidential secretary, is led to the Union Hotel Hospital, where she assists chief surgeon William Stipp and becomes so integral to Stipp's work she ignores her mother's pleas to return home to deliver her sister's baby. From a variety of perspectives—Mary, Stipp, their families, and social, political, and military leaders—the novel offers readers a picture of a time of medical hardship, crisis, and opportunity. Oliveira depicts the amputation of a leg, the delivery of a baby, and soldierly life; these are among the fine details that set this novel above the gauzier variety of Civil War fiction. The focus on often horrific medicine and the women who practiced it against all odds makes for compelling reading. (May)
From the Publisher
"A vivid romantic novel about love, medicine, and the Civil War, My Name is Mary Sutter features an indomitable, memorable heroine whom the reader will root for until the very end."—David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife 

"Think of Mary Sutter as a northern Scarlett O'Hara without the man-killer good looks for feminine wile... [Oliveira] peels back Mary's vulnerable, human side in this intriguing slice of Civil War history."—USA Today

"[A] riveting saga about trying to break a 19th-century glass ceiling."—Good Housekeeping

"Oliveira's debut novel is magnificent historical fiction."—Bookpage

"The title of Robin Oliveira's historical novel, My Name is Mary Sutter, perfectly evokes its eponymous heroine's style: clear, determined, and, unline most women of the Civil War era, unapologetically direct."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"Oliveira's graceful, assured portrayal of a courageous woman shines through in her outstanding debut novel... [an] impressive historical epic."—Booklist

"Compelling voice ... [Oliveira] does a splendid job of reminding us how much the known world has changed ... and how much has not."—Oregonian

"Oliveira deftly depicts the chaotic aftermath of battles and develops her own characters while incorporating military and political leaders of the time. The historic details enrich the narrative without overshadowing Mary's struggles. This well-written and compelling debut will engage all readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the Civil War."—Library Journal

"The language is beautiful and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout." 
—(Albany) Times Union 

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.26(w) x 6.46(h) x 1.25(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

"Are you Mary Sutter?" Hours had passed since James Blevens had called for the midwife. All manner of shouts and tumult drifted in from the street, and so he had answered the door to his surgery rooms with some caution, but the young woman before him made an arresting sight: taller and wider than was generally considered handsome, with an unflattering hat pinned to an unruly length of curls, though an enticing brightness about the eyes compensated. "Mary Sutter, the midwife?" he asked.

"Yes, I am Mary Sutter." The young woman looked from the address she had inscribed that afternoon in her small, leather-bound notebook to the harried man in front of her, wondering how he could possibly know who she was. He was all angles, and his sharp chin gave the impression of discipline, though his uncombed hair and unbuttoned vest were damp with sweat.

"Oh, thank God," he said, and catching her by the elbow, pulled her inside and slammed the door shut on the cold April rain and the stray warble of a bugle in the distance. James Blevens knew Mary Sutter only by reputation. She is good, even better than her mother, people said. Now, he formed an indelible impression of attractiveness, though there was nothing attractive about her. Her features were far too coarse, her hair far too wild and already beginning to silver. People said she was young, but you could not tell that by looking at her. She was an odd one, this Mary Sutter.

A kerosene lantern flickered in the late afternoon dimness, revealing shelves of medical instruments: scales, tensile prongs, hinged forceps, monoral and chest stethoscopes, jars of pickled fetal pigs, ether stoppered in azure glass, a femur bone stripped in acid, a human skull, a stomach floating in brine, jars of medicines, an apothecary's mortar and pestle. Mary could barely tear her eyes from the bounty.

"She is here, at last," the man said over his shoulder. Mary Sutter peered into the darkness and saw a young woman lying on an exam table, a blanket thrown across her swollen belly, betraying the unmistakable exhaustion of late labor.

"Yes, yes," he said, waving her question away with irritation. "Didn't my boy send you here?"

"No. I came to see you on my own. Are you Doctor Blevens?"

"Of course I am."

Now that her chance had come, Mary felt almost shy, the humiliation of her afternoon rearing up, along with the anger that had propelled her here, looking for a last chance.

"Doctor Blevens, I came here today-" Mary stopped and exhaled. All the hope of the past year spilled over as she stumbled over her words. "Today I sat in the lobby of the medical college for four hours waiting for Doctor Marsh, and he didn't even have the courtesy to see me." Mary shut out the memory of her afternoon spent in the unwelcoming misery of the Albany Medical College, where after several hours the corpulent clerk had finally hissed, Doctor Marsh no longer wishes to receive letters of application from you, so you are to respectfully desist in any further petition.

"When he refused to see me, I decided to come and ask something of you," Mary said.

"Would you mind asking me later?" Blevens asked, propelling Mary toward the young woman. "I need your help. This is Bonnie Miles. Her husband dropped her here early this afternoon. He said she has lost a child before-her first. I think the baby's head is stuck."

Mary pulled off her gloves and unwrapped her shawl, her quest forgotten for the moment, all her attention focused on the woman's exhaustion and youth. Bonnie was small-boned, tiny in all her features, too young, Mary thought, perhaps fifteen, maybe seventeen.

She resembled Jenny. It was something about the way she spoke, the shape of her lips against her teeth. It was then that Mary knew she had to guard against the resemblance, for her antipathy to her sister might cause her to be unkind toward this girl who needed her.

"My last one died," Bonnie said, whispering, drawing Mary close to her, her face transforming from a feverish daze to one of grief.

"I beg your pardon?"

"The baby before this," Bonnie said, her eyes half-closed. "I didn't know it was labor I was taken with, you see?"

The ignorance! It was exactly like Jenny. But Jenny's ignorance was something altogether different, a refusal to engage, to exert herself. A lack of curiosity.

Outside, above the street clatter of carriages and vendors came the hard clang of the fire bell, and cries of "On to the South!"

Blevens rushed to the window and threw it open as Mary whispered to Bonnie not to worry. The rising strains of a band joined the bugle, producing a festive, off tune march that beckoned like a piper. A swelling crowd hurried along the turnpike, shoulders and wool hats bent against the rain. In the distance the flat pop of gunfire sounded.

"You there! Hello? Can you give me the news?" Blevens cried.

A man who had stopped to don an oilskin looked up, revealing a slick, battered face, pocked, the doctor was certain, at the ironworks where the spitting metal often scarred workers' faces.

"Haven't you heard?" the man shouted. "The Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter!"

"Has Lincoln called for men?" the doctor asked, but the scarred man melted into the stream of revelers pushing down the muddy turnpike toward the music as if something were reeling them in. James Blevens slammed down the window and turned.

"I cannot believe it," he said. "It is war."

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
A "skillful debut ..." -The Daily Beast" ...riveting saga about trying to break a 19th-century glass ceiling." -Good Housekeeping"Oliveira's debut novel is magnificent historical fiction." -Bookpage"The language is beautiful and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout ..." -(Albany) Times Union" ...compelling voice ... does a splendid job of reminding us how much the known world has changed ... and how much has not." -(Portland) Oregonian"Oliveira deftly depicts the chaotic aftermath of battles and develops her own characters while incorporating military and political leaders of the time. The historic details enrich the narrative without overshadowing Mary's struggles. This well-written and compelling debut will engage all readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the Civil War." -Library Journal

Meet the Author

Robin Oliveria received an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for a work-in-progress for My Name Is Mary Sutter. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband and two children.

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My Name Is Mary Sutter 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 211 reviews.
Gertt More than 1 year ago
Mary Sutter is not your typical, strikingly beautiful, heroine, however, she is truly a beautiful person, full of strength and grace that you will admire and love. This is a compelling story of the young men who fought during the Civil War without leadership, food, medicine or proper weapons and the surgeons and nurses who tried, against unsurmountable odds, to help and comfort them. My Name Is Mary Sutter is a beautiful story of love and survival in the richly historical setting of the Civil War. Robin Oliveira's writing style and characters will stay with you long after the story ends. This was her first novel, hopefully she's working on her second.
LauraFabiani More than 1 year ago
Oh. My. Goodness. What an unforgettable book. Author Robin Oliveira has created a heroine unlike any other and a powerful story that captures the despair, horror and agony of one of the bloodiest battles in American history. The year is 1861. Mary Sutter, a remarkable midwife trained by her mother, dreams of becoming a surgeon but is refused entrance to medical schools or to be apprenticed by a doctor. When the Civil War breaks out between the North and South, Mary Sutter leaves the comforts of her home to escape from a recent heartbreak and to help take care of the injured soldiers in Washington and eventually right in the battlefield. What ensues is a riveting tale that pulled at my heartstrings for the loss and despair that the characters lived through. I admired Mary's perseverance and self-sacrifice when faced with heart-wrenching decisions, and I shook my head in stupefied disbelief and sorrow at the carnage and futility the soldiers and surgeons faced on the battlefields. And apart from being severely prejudiced, it was brainless of the institutions to initially keep the women from nursing or doctoring the men. After all, women experience childbirth and are used to the sight of blood. Oliveira's writing is brutally honest and she doesn't spare details of the amputations performed in the crudest environments, but I never felt it was gratuitous or glorified. The scenes were from a medical point of view, and I marvelled at how doctors worked bone-tiring endless hours day and night with limited medical knowledge and few supplies and still saved lives. The imagery was vivid and I was transported to that time in history. I could smell the acrid smoke of the gunfire, feel the misery and hopelessness, see the deplorable hospital conditions and hear the desperate cry of the dying young men. The author weaved historical details beautifully into the story including scenes with President Lincoln and General McClellan. But ultimately, My Name is Mary Sutter is not a book about war, but one about choosing to be the person you think you could be. It's about a young woman who pursued her medical career in the face of great obstacles, proving she was a doctor at heart. It made me appreciate the countless doctors who strive to improve the medical profession and perform amazing feats to save and preserve lives. An excellent read.
saratoga99 More than 1 year ago
For those who thought that Gone with the Wind epitomized a fictional authoritative chronicle before and during the Civil War, in this tumultuous period of our own current history, it is clear that My Name is Mary Sutter, has commendably garnered a pinnacle in what this voracious generation desires to know. In a magnificent debut novel, Robin Oliveria offers an unsurpassed entre into one woman's unrelenting quest to ascend from mere acceptable midwifery to a 19th century avant-garde physician and surgeon. My own personal curiosity developed from the introduction of Albany, New York as Mary's birthplace and pivotal foundation for her initial unremitting quest to Albany Medical College in pursuit of her befitting profession as a female physician and surgeon. Immediately with excitement, the unforgettable locales presented an Albany I knew from early childhood, and the impeccable descriptive narrative tendered Mary Oliveria's impermeable research not only to locales but also to characters imbedded in this superbly written narrative. The haunting depiction of young warriors, whose only knowledge of war was the initial exuberance of proclaiming victory yet to be won, the vivid portrayal of unrelenting suffering in needless battles, the laudable women who sacrificed decorum for indefatigable efforts to save the wounded without adequate medical supplies, and Mary Sutter, unforgettable in her unwavering courage and undoubting determination to risk all. This year is less than six months old, but I venture to say this book will be a valiant tribute to the women who willingly forfeited a conventional life to advance women in the medical profession fully as physicians and surgeons.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A book that caught me in the first chapter. Anyone interested in the history of the Civil War or medicine in early America will love this book. Parts are heartbreaking as the few doctors available then struggle with the lack of hygiene and medicine during the war, parts are incredible in the bravery and selflessness shown by those who tried to save young lives and keep supplies coming through enemy lines. Mary Sutter breaks all the rules in her deep desire to be a surgeon and I rooted for her the entire book. Details of life during that time are well documented and the writer kept the story moving and interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have returned to "Mary Sutter" several times since its publication and have even used it one of the American Literature courses I teach on the university level. While the author does take some liberties with minor historical details (and admits so while discussing her intensive research/bibliography), "Mary Sutter" is a captivating read, crammed full of (often graphic) eye-opening details of the Civil War. While Mary, as a character, can be frustrating (okay, infuriating) in her myopic, obssessive, quests, (to the point I sometimes want to slap her), I can never give up on her or her journey. While there is a love triangle, per se, it's not overly romanticized or trite--this is grown up emotion caught in overwhelming circumstances. A fluid and fascinating combination of history and fiction, I think "Mary Sutter" is a great book, a wonderful read--and FULL of situations that cry out for discussion and analyis. When is Oliveira going to write something else??
gshIA More than 1 year ago
As a lover of the Civil War era, I was intrigued by the premise of the book. I found it interesting and an enjoyable read. It takes a look at a part of the war that is often overlooked by writers due to the nature of the topic, the inadequacies of war time medical practices. I found it quite historically accurate with the descriptions of wartime medicine and the surrounding events and people of the time. It was a good story about the challenges women faced in the 1800's if they tried to break out of their 'wifely' role. The main character faces not only physical challenges, but internal ones as well that make her a strong female character to read.
bookworm56SB More than 1 year ago
This book was so informative of the Civil War events that took place during the time period, but was so personable on a woman's level with the trials and tribulations of a midwife who wanted to pursue a medical occupation during the time. My husband has always been a civil war buff, but as a woman it was a bore. This book brings it all together from another point of view... Can't wait for Ms. Oliveira's next book.
Jonohoh More than 1 year ago
Bravo to Oliveira for so brilliantly illuminating a fascinating but rarely told aspect of the American Civil War-namely the challenges faced by women who had the calling to heal, but faced a masculine tradition-bound war machine. The author presents involved and detailed medical procedures in a masterful yet completely understandable manner! I never once doubted the authority of this writer. I was particularly fascinated by how she is able to frame the tension between human savagery and the crude but idealistic human drive to heal as a major conflict in the book. It's always a delight to find a book that is exciting to read and at the same time educates, filling in the blanks of the traditional accounting of history.
llamamia More than 1 year ago
An unbelievable amount of research has gone into this novel, including some little known details of events that took place during the Civil War. Wonderful character development of Mary Sutter that makes one urge her on in her unrelenting quest to become a physician & surgeon at a time when there were prejudices against women in medicine. There are explicit descriptions of the deplorable sanitary conditions during this period as well as gruesome amputations that were performed on wounded soldiers...not for the faint of heart. But it also has its tender moments. An historical novel at it's best. Highly recommended!
nookinginfl More than 1 year ago
I learned so much about the Civil War and the practice of medicine during that time ~ how far we have come. The book held my attention from first to last ~ a terrific historical, and love, story. I highly recommend it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Melanie Davis More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this very much. The author had facts interwoven into the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the story of Mary Sutter! It was a fast and enjoyable read! It brought the Civil War to life!
wellreadOR More than 1 year ago
Engrossing book from the first page and does not let up. Robin has managed to include all the emotions of life in one satisfying read. Her decriptive writing allows the reader to see and feel the emotion in the story. She has made Mary a strong and determined woman and her other characters are equally well developed. Good selection for reading groups and book clubs. I will not hesitate to read her other works.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
In the early 1860's, Mary Sutter, a young midwife, wants more. Known locally as the most talented midwife, she wants to learn the entire body and become a doctor. She approaches a medical school and is turned away. She then asks a local doctor to teach her and again is denied. But events are about to overtake everyone's life in America. The War Between the States is beginning, and families are torn asunder and cultural conventions are changed forever. Mary leaves her family and moves to Washington where she hopes to achieve her goal. Her brother, her brother-in-law and the local doctor that denied her all enlist. Mary becomes a nurse in a hospital in Washington. As time goes on, the doctor in charge of the hospital realises that Mary is different from the other nurses, and that she has the ability to do more. Hospitals and doctors are overwhelmed with soldiers, both wounded in battle or taken ill with one of the epidemics that swept Army camps. With so much need, throwing away the talents of anyone willing to help is not possible. As the war progresses, Mary gets her chance to learn medicine and become a surgeon. Robin Oliveira has created a book that will remain in readers' minds long after the last page is read. Neither war nor early medicine is glorified or simplified. The butual cruelty and waste is laid bare. Readers learn the history of President Lincoln's decisions and his inability to get talented generals. It is difficult to imagine how different war was with the limited medical knowledge available. This was the first war with mass amputations. Doctors learned from these about keeping wounded individuals alive. Sanitation's role was unknown, as were most medicines and procedures. The breaking apart of families by war is also portrayed realistically. There was no ability to communicate easily; letters could take weeks to arrive. Transportation and getting from one city to another took days if not weeks. A soldier might be dead for weeks or months before the news got back home to his family. This book is recommended for historical fiction readers, and well as those interested in how women fought the bonds that kept them from the professions. Many historical fiction books are written in medieval times. While those are interesting, this look at our own country a century or so ago is breaktaking. This is Robin Oliveira's first novel. I know I'll be anxiously awaiting her next one.
bridget3420 More than 1 year ago
Mary is determined to make her dream a reality, no matter what other people think. For generations the women in her family have served as midwives. Not Mary, she wants to be the first woman to change all that. She wants to be a surgeon. When her aspirations as a surgeon didn't quite pan out, she went for the next best thing and became a nurse. The Civil War is bringing in too many patients and Mary tries her best to tend to every one of them. It's impossible not to be touched by this book. There are moments where I literally just wanted to burst into tears. Whenever you are in the mood for a moving story that will tug at your very soul, pick up this book.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
Set just before and during the Civil War, this is a book I have long meant to read. Mary Sutter is an experienced midwife in Albany, NY who is obsessed with the idea of training to be a surgeon - and is shot down as a "woman" even after medical schools are emptied of male students due to the war. Knowing she will find training of some sort with the armies, she makes her way to Washington DC and beyond. This is a complicated tale, with journal-like entries of the trials and tribulations Mary Sutter goes through in her efforts to find herself, define her career needs, satisfy her families needs, and get through the war. Due to stubbornness and weather, she has a frantic race back to Albany to attend her sister's lying in, satisfy her mother, to deliver the baby of her twin sister and the love of her life. There were times I was totally frustrated with Mary - she has the tendency to complicate everything in her life - but that was the point, I believe. I appreciate the effort and research that Robin Oliveira put into the war scenes in this book, and find myself again bound in research of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency. This is an excellent book, with good but unconventional characters and historic teasers that will involve you in the times and troubles of 1860's America. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in these troubled historical times. I will keep this book, to read more leisurely in the spring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful story that I couldn't put down
Helie More than 1 year ago
This is a compelling read. I could not put it down. It has well developed characters and a bit of history. I will recommend this book to my Book club.
Debs13 More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best civil war novels I have read! It approaches from a different angle. A mid-wife (Mary), who wants to be a surgeon. Of course, that is taboo back then. Mary is a respected , stubborn and sometimes quick tempered woman, who has made a name for herself as a mid-wife. But Mary wants more. She flees to Washington DC to be a part of Dorothea Dix's nurses, only to be turned down. She does manage to work in a run down hotel turned hospital. She does manage to make her mark on DC and the Union Army. She even manages to be out in the field. Does she ever achieve her goal, well, you will have to read the book for that answer. She also has family demeans that she will have to learn to live with. Having MANY family members who fought in the Civil War on both sides, it is very sobering to realize just how unknowing the medical field was at the time. During the war a doctor would have to do maybe a hundred amputations a week. How many, if any, had they done before that? This is a book for anyone interested in the Civil War, American history, American women's history, medicine, or the psyche of war on families. The writing style of Robin Oliveira is very smooth and flowing. I would compare her to Jean Plaidy. Hope Robin Oliveira will do another historical novel!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
60143pbr More than 1 year ago
For a personal experience of the medical conditions during the Civil War this is a well researched story. From a reader's point of view it was also a very entertaining story with vivid characters and lively scenarios. For information it read so much better than any non-fiction account. I loved it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like the read very much but became frustrated at times with Mary's character. I also wanted more character interaction and found more history of the civil war taking precedence over the story content. It lacked some cohesiveness. The theme of the story was great and had good history of the civil war period. Mary's character was strong and I liked that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago