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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Wonderful Novel Set During the American Civil War

My Name Is Mary Sutter: A NovelMy Name Is Mary Sutter: A Novel by Robin Oliveira

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A young mid-wife from Albany wishes to study medicine but Albany Med will not consider her. A young Albany surgeon, who apprenticed to a doctor in Manhattan City and married a waif from the Five Points while ministering to her family, refuses to accept her as a student. He prefers to volunteer to serve in the Army being raised by Abraham Lincoln to preserve the Union. The doctor under whom he studied, widowed, has been in the Army serving in Texas and has now been recalled to Washington. A young man, the mid-wife's neighbor whose parents have died in a carriage collision and who seemed attracted to her, has now become engaged to her more fragile, attractive twin. He, too, is to volunteer to serve for the three months it will take to subdue the South. Her brother, the youngest of the family signs up as well.

Heart-broken, her dreams seemingly unattainable, Mary Sutter leaves a note for her widowed mother and her sister and steals off to Washington on an early morning train. She is to present herself to Dorothea Dix and volunteer to nurse the wounded soldiers returning from the first battles. Even here she is rejected but finally is accepted by a surgeon in a broken down hovel of a place--the decrepit Union Hotel--now a hospital--not as a nurse but as a charwoman.

In some ways a romance, but more of a story of heart-break, grief, suffering, guilt, remorse, forgiveness and survival, My Name is Mary Sutter is an engrossing tale set against the back drop of war and its victims, treated with medical procedures and knowledge not far removed from the Middle Ages.

The story moves from 19th C. Albany, not much changed when I studied there in the mid '60's, to Washington, a dismal swamp of a place the conditions of which caused more death from illnesses of poor hygiene than wounds, to New York City. The description of train travel along the Hudson River Valley is exactly the same Amtrak route now in existence.

I've been to many of the battle sites described as well and the story of Antietam and its cornfield and sunken road and Burnside Bridge is heart rending. The barn where Clara Barton actually ran a hospital and provided medical supplies is still there though here is serves as the place where Mary Sutter finally decides to go home to Albany.

In the end, the war is over, the survivors move on with their lives and to some extent there is healing but the scars remain.

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