The questions and material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of 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 woman’s love.
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 ambition.
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 story?
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 battlefields.
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 goals.
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 afflicted.
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 herself.
4. Are there still prejudices against women in the medical profession?
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 well?
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 complex.
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 the story?
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 disappointments.
12. What is your next project? Would you consider writing another historical novel?
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.