My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

17th Feb 2011


As a young woman, Mary Sutter leaves her comfortable home in Albany to try to become a nurse for the Union when her sister announces her upcoming marriage to the man she loves.

Mary is an accomplished midwife in the family tradition, and has always dreamed of becoming a doctor. In Washington she apprentices herself to the mature, also heartbroken Dr Stripp.

Although at first Mary is rejected by the establishment as too young and inexperienced, her amazing capacity for hard work and dedication soon win her legions of fans and she follows the army to battle.

Mary herself is a great character, extremely likeable and relatable. Although she is clearly incredibly intelligent she has that human weakness of falling for men not good enough for her and we see a naivety in her love for her far less clever, but sweet and good (and more importantly attractive) sister Jenny’s husband Thomas that on occasion caused me to wince at the familiarity of it.

Mary is described throughout the book as not attractive, having too much hair, being too tall and broad, but of having a pretty neck. Despite this, she manages to attract many men to her because of the force of her personality.

This grated with me a little; what’s so wrong with being normal looking, and why does our value rest solely on how men respond to us? However, the book is well written, although the pace in parts lacks vigour, and I could forgive the book for these little annoyances.

Obviously impeccably researched, the attention to detail on describing the day to day life in Civil War hospitals in gruesome and gag-worthy in parts; look out for the particularly horrid descriptions of amputating blown-off legs and arms. Yum.

Set in a world where the only real consolation a nurse can provide is a glug of whiskey, the advancements hinted at coming during the book are fascinating.

The parts set in the hospitals and sick beds are definitely the strongest parts of the book. If the book had purely been about Mary and the history of medicine this would have got four stars, as opposed to three.

It is the inclusion of the “history” bits that let the book down for me; I wasn’t interested in meeting Lincoln or any of his cronies, although to those fascinated by the Civil War, the parts that focus on Lincoln and the war cabinet I’m sure would be equally as enjoyable.

Mary herself is a stand-alone character and I would have loved to read more of her adventures, rather that those of the Union. There was also no explanation as to what the characters themselves thought about the war and the reasons behind it; apart from a brief anecdote by Lincoln slavery is not mentioned at all. I would have enjoyed the book better if it had been a personal, rather than overall history of the time.

However, I did enjoy the book and would look forward to reading more by the author. If you are a fan of historical fiction, or the history of medicine, then this is definitely one for you.

Published last month, you can buy it in paperback for £8.44, or get the Kindle edition for £8.99.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Fans of historical fiction, especially Geraldine Brooks, Katharine McMahon, and Julia Gregson.

Jess Haigh