Even though the story is placed at the time of the Civil War in the US, I imagine Robin Oliveira’s own background as a nurse helped in describing some of the work and attitudes we read about in her novel My Name is Mary Sutter. At this time being a physician and a woman was practically unheard of. Physicians were trained through apprenticeships, and for a man to take in a woman as a student would mean overcoming prejudices. Professionally schooled nurses were also a thing unheard of. Apprenticeships were the way to go if a woman wanted to become a mid-wife or assistant to a physician.
All of this haphazard training of either physicians and nurses left both professions with vast differences in the abilities of the people who had finished their training. Some nurses and doctors made matters worse for their patients while others were miraculous healers.
Mary Sutter’s mother was a mid-wife and Mary had gone along with her on her many trips into the child-bearing population. What Mary learned about herself during those trips was that she would love to become a surgeon and thereby save people who otherwise did not get visited by a physician in time. Due to the above apprentice-shipping she was refused this opportunity and also refused admittance into medical school.
Mary Sutter was nothing if not determined in eventually reaching her goal. The US Civil War presented her with one such path. Washington was desperate for help on the battlefield and many women felt called to duty. Mary Sutter happened to be one of them. Her experience seems representative of the others I have read of. As such Sutter’s experience seems to correspond with the experiences my nurse friends tell me of today. Arrogant doctors, incompetent doctors, miracle doctors and patients who span the gamut from assholes to angels. As a someone who has been a patient I have met nurses of all kinds but mainly wonderful ones. Most of my nurse friends feel a “call” to serve and this is their way of serving others. Amazing people!
War is a gory and horrifyingly brutal affair. Not one gram of glory is present anywhere on the battlefield. But what a school for aspiring doctors and nurses. One doctor Mary Sutter had to work with had to care for more than 100 men. She helped with operations and learned how to treat stitch wounds. Eventually she managed to be sent to the front and learned how to amputate and live with the gore of poor medical hygiene.
I liked her character. Mary was a goal-oriented woman who worked extremely hard to achieve her dreams and she was certainly a woman that I could have looked up to. Inserting extraneous yet historical characters did not work well for me. It was Mary I wanted more of. But my wishes are irrelevant to an author’s work and it isn’t even a complaint just an observation.
Winner of the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction
Civil War-Era Women Physicians
Invisible Women Now In Clear Focus
Nursing During the US Civil War: A Movement Toward the Professionalization of Nursing