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MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER by Robin Oliveira
Talented and ambitious,
twenty-one year old Mary Sutter is a respected Albany midwife who longs to
be a doctor. Refused by the medical college simply for being a woman, Mary
presses surgeon Dr. James Blevens for an apprenticeship. Despite calling on
Mary's expertise during a difficult delivery, Blevens refuses her, setting
in motion a chain of events which will take Mary through the carnage of the
Civil War and set the stage for a great romance. Robin Oliveira's debut
novel My Name is Mary Sutter is the epic narrative of one woman's personal
strength and struggle, a story which encompasses grand history and private
grief, the progress of an entire gender and generation, and the tale of one
Frustrated by her lack of professional opportunities, Mary rebels, running
away to Washington and straight into the heart of the Civil War. Working
side by side with Dr. William Stipp, the very man who mentored James Blevens,
Mary is soon witness to unimaginable suffering and loss of life. She
struggles to keep up with the ever-increasing tide of wounded soldiers
arriving at Dr. Stipp's makeshift Union Hotel Hospital, and Oliveira’s
unflinching depiction of the horrors of the Civil War—both on the
battlefield and in the hospitals—is matched by her deep understanding of the
contradictions in Mary’s complex character. While Mary's stubborn streak and
singlemindedness are an asset to her medical aspirations, they also have
heartbreaking consequences. Torn between her commitment to her family and
her obligations to the soldiers, when Mary's mother begs her to return home
to help deliver her sister's baby, Mary makes a decision that she will
regret forever. Beneath that steely exterior lies a vulnerable, even
occasionally frightened young woman who is nearly overwhelmed by the pain
and suffering of war but never doubts her own talents or abandons her
Filled with true-life Civil War characters such as Dorothea Dix and Abraham
Lincoln and built on meticulous research, My Name is Mary Sutter is a rich
tapestry of historical fact and compelling fiction in which Oliveira
effortlessly melds the voices of the past with those of her characters. Her
prose is gripping, intense and lively, and she controls her sprawling
storyline with expert precision, and at the center of it all is the
unforgettable Mary Sutter – an inspiration to those who struggle against the
obstacles others have set for them, who break down barriers of prejudice,
and who, after waiting for so long, find a fulfilling and passionate life.
1.The end of My Name is Mary Sutter is both satisfying and
surprising. What was your response to the conclusion of each character’s
2. Women's rights have greatly improved since Mary's time, but do you
believe that women are still limited by prejudice as to what they can or
should do professionally? Do you believe men and women should have
different roles or responsibilities within society?
3. Beyond Mary, which character did you find most interesting? Why?
Which character did you find the least interesting?
4. Blevens explains that he cannot accept Mary as an apprentice because
of the Civil War. Do you believe he would have taken her on had the the
war not begun? Why?
5. As a woman and midwife, Mary has a particular kind of medical
knowledge; Blevens and Stipp have another. What are the values and
limitations of each? How does Mary eventually blend the two?
6. Describe Mary and Jenny's relationship. What type of tensions exist?
Consider the relationship from both women's perspectives.
7. "From labor to death, she thought, despite every moment at the
breast, every reprimand, every tender tousle of hair, every fever
fought, every night spent worrying, it came to this: you couldn't
protect your children from anything, not even from each other" (p. 43).
Do you believe Amelia is right? What experiences from your own life make
you feel this way?
8. How is Dr. Blevens affected by his experiences during the Civil War?
9. From Jake to Thomas to William Stipp, there is a wide range of male
characters in the novel. What type of masculinity does each demonstrate?
10. Have you ever struggled with the same kind of professional or
personal obstacles that Mary does? How did you handle it? What did you
learn from the experience?
1. The title, My Name is Mary Sutter, is an assertive statement,
direct and confident, like Mary herself. Why did you choose this title?
Were there others that you had in mind while you were writing?
For the duration of the writing of this book, the working title was The
Last Beautiful Day, under which the book won the 2007 James Jones First
Novel Fellowship. In rainy Seattle, where I live, Indian summer is often
the most beautiful weather; we dread the onset of the winter deluges.
One evening in mid-September, when the light seemed particularly velvety
and warm, a thrush was singing in the Kousa Dogwood in our backyard. To
me, the thrush’s song is plaintive and operatic and always arouses a
sense of yearning. I turned to my husband and remarked that it might be
the last beautiful day for a long while. About that time, I was thinking
about writing a novel and having a vision of a character whom I would
eventually name Mary Sutter. She was seated in shabby period dress at a
trestle table, bent over the shaft of a brass microscope fitted with a
slide, a shallow candle burning under its glass stage. My sense of
longing and loss collided with this curious young stranger, and so the
working title was born. But when the novel was finished, my agent Marly
Rusoff remarked that the story and the title didn’t quite match. She
suggested My Name is Mary Sutter and I thought it was perfect. Sometimes
authors need a little help to see the crux of the matter. I’m delighted
with the title and think it works as a more specific signifier of “aboutness.”
This story is more about Mary’s journey than the elusive meaning the
phrase ‘the last beautiful day’ held for me during the novel’s creation.
2. You tackled an enormous amount of research for this novel. How do
you find, organize, and incorporate such a wealth of information?
I tell people I write novels just so I can do research. I love
libraries, old documents, centuries-old buildings, and the secrets they
hold. Finding the information is a matter of hunting down primary
sources, which involves taking advantage of interlibrary loan, archives,
newspapers, diaries, microfilm, site research, bibliographies, old guide
books, rare books and manuscripts and, when possible, talking with
historians and experts who can illuminate elusive points of history and
custom. I spoke with dozens of people who generously answered my
questions on arcane details. When I couldn’t obtain the information I
needed, I traveled to Albany, Washington D.C., and Civil War
I am an intuitive worker, which is another way of saying I have terrible
paper organizational skills. Whenever I reached a point in the narrative
for which I had tucked away in my numerous folders and computer’s hard
drive some salient detail that would expand the story, a little bell
would go off in my head and I’d go searching. I am an ongoing
researcher, too. If I need an answer, I stop writing to hunt it down
rather than wait, because I never know how that detail might affect the
characters and the story.
I try to avoid writing paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition, which
was at first difficult, because when I started writing the book, I knew
very little about the Civil War. Reams and reams of pages fell by the
wayside until one day the accumulation of details and facts became less
something I needed to tell the reader than something the characters were
living. That’s when incorporating the research became, to use an
overused modifier, organic. It was a moment of alchemy that took place
only after I had written many boring drafts.
3. For readers who are only familiar with Dorothea Dix or Clara
Barton through your novel, could you elaborate on their histories and
accomplishments? In what ways is Mary modeled on—or against—these? Did
any other historical figures influence the creation of her character?
Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton were extraordinary women who achieved a
great deal in a time when very few women had the freedom to pursue their
Born in 1802 into an abusive, alcoholic family, Dorothea Dix was raised
by her grandmother in Boston for the latter part of her childhood. As a
young woman, Miss Dix taught and wrote. However, in her thirties she
developed ill health, reportedly tuberculosis, and traveled to Europe to
recuperate. There she met Quaker reformers interested in improving the
treatment of the mentally ill. This was radical thinking, for at that
time little understanding existed regarding mental health. When Miss Dix
returned to the United States, she not only led campaigns for better
treatment of the mentally ill, resulting in legislative initiatives in
Massachusetts, Louisiana, Illinois, North Carolina and Pennsylvania for
the building or expansion of state hospitals for the mentally insane, as
they were then called, but also for the imprisoned. During the war, she
worked as the Female Superintendent of Army Nurses, to variable reviews.
Afterwards, though ill, she again traveled the world to champion care of
the neglected. Extensive biographies exist enumerating this woman’s
indefatigable efforts on the behalf of the imprisoned, impoverished and
Clara Barton was born in 1821, nearly twenty years after Dorothea Dix.
She was an unassuming recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office when the
war began. Dismayed by the stories of suffering, she requested supplies
and a pass to visit battlefields from General Hammond. She first visited
Cedar Mountain, and then Fairfax Station after the Second Battle of Bull
Run, or Second Manassas, as Southerners call it. From there her work
expanded until she began to be called the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
After the war, she helped find missing soldiers, including helping to
identify those Union soldiers who had expired at Andersonville, the
notorious Confederate prison. She also embarked on an exhausting
speaking tour describing her experiences during the war. Her doctors
ordered her to rest, and so she went to Europe, only to work with the
International Committee of the Red Cross in the Franco-Prussian War.
Upon her return to the United States, she advocated for an American Red
Cross and in 1881 became its first president, later expanding its role
from wartime relief to include national disasters. A complete history
can be found at: http://www.redcross.org/museum/history/claraBarton.asp
I was an avid fan of both these women before I even began the novel,
having read and reread their biographies as a child. My memory of their
courage, independence, and vision may have inspired similar traits in
Mary, but if so, it was unconscious. From the beginning, Mary was
4. Are there still prejudices against women in the medical
Women’s participation in the medical profession has surged in the last
thirty years. I believe admissions to medical schools are now fifty
percent women. What prejudices remain are mostly subtle, and different
for each specialty, but others are overt. For instance, an emerging
point of conflict is the number of hours women physicians choose to work
as opposed to male physicians. This choice is attributable in part to
maternity leave and childcare, still the primary province of mothers,
but in many cases also represents a philosophical and generational shift
away from the long-held belief that the punishing eighty-hour work week,
common when men overwhelmingly dominated the profession, should remain
its inviolable standard. But it should be mentioned that this pursuit of
a schedule that is more tenable for family life has been used throughout
the centuries as a barrier to women’s success in nearly every
profession, not just medicine.
5. What was the state of hospitals and the nursing profession at the
beginning of the war?
Neither the nursing profession nor the hospital system as we know it now
existed then. Nurses were listed in City Directories, but they were
women for hire who fed, bathed and soothed a sick or dying person. (It
has been reported that prostitutes posing as nurses roamed the halls of
Bellevue Hospital offering another kind of comfort to the ill.) Neither
were there nursing schools. For the most part, the few hospitals
available, especially the public hospitals, were generally places to
which only the poor and indigent resorted, because infection was rampant
and privacy non-existent. Whenever possible, a sick or dying person
wanted to be cared for at home, in the company of his family.
6. What inspired you to write about this particular era? In what ways
is this period a turning point for the country, for women, and for the
science of medicine?
I didn't so much choose the era as the era chose me through the
character of Mary. The Civil War served the role that most wars play:
they have a tendency to liberate women. We all remember the image of
Rosie the Riveter in WWII. Women step into the gap absent men leave
behind, and in that gap lies freedom. While the war was our country's
adolescent rebellion—our exploration of who we were going to be—it was
also the beginning of modern medicine in America. The wealth of medical
cases and trauma prompted the research that, later coupled with Lister's
and Semmelweis's discoveries regarding germ theory, launched medicine
decades ahead of where it might have been if not for the war.
7. The descriptions of Mary’s medical work are fascinating, detailed,
and often grueling; how did you incorporate your experience as a nurse
into the writing of this novel?
During my career, I worked in Ob-Gyn, Bone Marrow Transplant, and
Intensive Care. Though I drew on all these specialites in the writing of
Mary Sutter, I will never forget the emotional impact of walking for the
first time into the room of an intensive-care patient with multiple
lines, tubes, IV drips and medications. Though I'd been well trained, it
was a daunting, terrifying, and humbling experience to know that the
patient's life depended on my competence. Writing Mary's experience was
a matter of translating my twentieth-century situation with its
profusion of medical supplies, support, technology and shift relief, to
nineteenth-century battlefields and hospitals lacking any of the same.
However different, all life and death situations render the caregiver
intensely focused. It was at this sensory and emotional crossroad that I
was able to write Mary.
On a less extreme level, the medical research I undertook was very
pleasurable, because I already knew the language, instruments and
pathology. The medical histories in the six-volume Medical and Surgery
History of the War of the Rebellion fascinated me, as did the French
surgery text I found on amputations. What others might have found
ghoulish, I found engrossing.
8. While collecting limbs on the battlefield, Blevins thinks that
“despite all the specimens he’d collected over the years, he had always
been able to separate the person from the object.” (p. 340). Is this
type of detachment necessary for a doctor or researcher to do his job
It depends. A pathologist working with tissue is far more able to detach
himself than a physician at a bedside. Midwives, physicans and nurses of
all specialties daily manage a delicate balance between the objective
and the subjective, knowledge and compassion, attachment and detachment.
9. Which character was most difficult to write and why? What tools
did you use to overcome this challenge?
Jenny was the most challenging. She seems to be one person at the
beginning of the novel, then emerges as another. That she possessed a
set of values different than Mary’s (and mine) made rounding her out as
a character a task that took quite a bit of thought and revision. I
relied on the principle that while characters are often posed as
opposites, no one is one-sided, and characters’ motivations are always
10. In a story with many different points of view, you include
President Lincoln’s. Why did you include him and why is he important to
Lincoln inserted himself into the story as soon as he met with Dorothea
Dix. Sometimes characters insist, and Mr. Lincoln insisted. Only near
the end of writing the book did I realize that Lincoln’s and Mary’s
stories mirrored one other: they were both coming of age in their
respective roles, he as a president fighting to gain control of a
disobedient general and an unwieldy war, and she as a woman fighting to
become someone no one believed she could be. Each, too, had a very
personal grief to overcome. And had Lincoln never given Dorothea Dix the
go-ahead to create a nursing force, Mary’s story may never have
happened, or would not have happened in the same way. In my mind, Mary
and Lincoln became inextricably linked.
11. Mary’s mother Amelia is a fascinating and nuanced character. In
what ways is she conflicted about motherhood in general and Mary in
specific? What is her greatest strength as a parent?
Like Mary, Amelia was a woman ahead of her time. As a midwife, she
practiced a profession that, while giving her greater social and
economic freedom than other women, also isolated her. She could deliver
babies, but her children, as other women perceived it, were out of
control. Amelia knew this gossip was envy, and yet when it came to her
children, she despaired: her dissimilar daughters could not find common
ground; her son, whom she adored, skipped off to war; and the daughter
to whom she was closest, Mary, defied her requests at almost every turn.
Amelia is a woman who exhausted herself for her children and yet in
adulthood they confounded her. I think her greatest strength is her
willingness to self-examine, which allows her to endure despite her
12. What is your next project? Would you consider writing another
I am writing another historical novel, which involves a new era and a
subject about which I know very little, again providing another chance
for prodigious amounts of research. The learning curve on this next one
is very steep, however, and is keeping me up nights.