Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review and Author Interview - "My Name is Mary Sutter"

I had the great pleasure of receiving an advance review copy of a terrific new debut novel, My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira from the good folks at Viking. The novel was officially released on May 17, 2010, and has already enjoyed enthusiastic reviews and brisk sales.

The reviews - and sales - are well-deserved. I am pleased to add my own voice to the positive reception:

"My Name is Mary Sutter is a remarkable debut novel. Set in the Civil War, it is to be especially commended for its accuracy in portraying the surgical and medical practices of the war, which are generally portrayed inaccurately by Hollywood and other writers. However, this commitment to truth goes well beyond the technical aspects of the book: Ms. Oliveira's honest treatment of the human condition during war - love, ambition, sickness, death, jealousies, and more - is what makes this thoroughly modern novel worth reading." - Jim Schmidt

I am also thankful that Ms. Oliveira answered a few interview questions while on the road with a very busy book tour! Thank You, Robin!

My Name is Mary Sutter was immediately of special interest to me as historical fiction because it takes place during the American Civil War but mostly because it includes a significant amount of medical content of the era. The novel is exceptionally well-researched and the author gets many details about Civil War medicine right. Over the course of the war in the book, we get a glimpse into midwifery, the complications of childbirth, the exclusion of women from medical schools, amputations, anesthesia, disease, nurses, hospital conditions, battlefield surgery, and much more. One of the best aspects was that one of the characters does some of his most important work away from the battlefield using the microscope. This is not to say that the characters do everything right...they do make mistakes...and those mistakes cost lives.

Ms. Oliveira told me why it was important for her to get the technical aspects of the book right:

I wanted to be as accurate as possible about the medical details because we’ve forgotten now, as a nation, the courage of the physicians and nurses who took care of the wounded without our modern medical knowledge, supplies, medicines, and surgery skills. And there are misconceptions about anesthesia that I wanted to dispel. Onlookers believed that most of the amputations were done without anesthesia, but that simply wasn’t true; they mistook the chloroform induction seizure for struggle, thereby initiating a rumor that has lasted for more than a century. And as a former Critical Care nurse, I wanted to get things right, just as I always tried to when I took care of patients.

As you can see above, Robin refers to her career as a nurse. You can learn more about her here. What you will realize is that one of the most intersting things about the author, is that she is...well...interesting! A leap from RN to MFA and a background in Russian language! Wow! Here's what she told me about that transition:

When Sputnik went up, the Defense Department began a series of language courses in select schools. Ours was one, and in seventh grade, when college-bound students had to choose a language to study, the French class was full, so I took Russian. I discovered I had a facility for it, and soon fell in love with the odd sounds and the unusual alphabet. I majored in Russian in college and even got a chance to study in Moscow, USSR. But after graduation, it was hard to find a job in Russian in the seventies—believe me, I tried—and I had to eat, so I thought I would be a nurse, and much to my surprise it turned into a calling. I loved working as a nurse. But I am first a reader and lover of books, and I wanted more than anything to write one, so I decided to try.

Among her influences and favorite authors, she told me:

A.S. Byatt, J. M. Coetzee, Cees Nooteboom, Shirley Hazzard, Douglas Glover, Ann Patchett, Virginia Woolf, Colum McCann, to name a very few, and I know I’m leaving out favorites, but I’m not at home when I’m writing this and so can’t prowl my bookshelves. Skilled story-telling combined with lyrical writing whether in film or novel form are my influences, and when I’m really stuck, a gorgeous poem can usually get my writing juices flowing.

The characters - men and women - are well done. In particular, the jealousies and conflict between the sisters Mary and Jenny, and the envy among the men, seems more "real/human" than the sisterly devotion from period works such as Little Women. I asked Robin if this was purposeful:

Writers write in a way that reflects the time periods in which they live, and therefore work under different conventions. Though it is historical fiction, My Name is Mary Sutter is a modern novel,. Ms. Alcott lived at a time when womanly devotion was a prized virtue. I believe that human nature hasn’t changed much, but our values have. Separated by time, our values as writers and women are necessarily different. Also I wasn’t writing a “period” piece. I was writing the story of a character with a strongly-felt desire.

The locales in the book stretch from the hometwon of Albany to the streets, places of power, and hospitals in Washington, DC, to the battlefield at Antietam. In other books or other time periods, many of the "chance" meetings among the Albany characters in these seemingly far-flung places such would seem "contrived," but in this book they are believable. They are believable in no small part because the Civil War is special, in a way, in that most regiments (at least companies) were composed of men from the same towns and neighborhoods? I asked Robin if those special circumstances influenced her writing:

Absolutely. Friends, brothers, fathers and sons enlisted together in regiments, all mustering in and serving together, and thus, sadly, had to watch one another die in battle or from disease. That was part of the special heartbreak of the Civil War, though I believe that all soldiers form unbreakable familial ties. But there is something acute about watching your son or your father or your brother die in battle next to you.

My only criticism of the book is in the "asides" that Ms. Oliveira included of high-level discussions at the White House among Lincoln, his cabinet, and leading generals such as McDowell. The interludes - while they helped set the stage for what was going on in the war - were distracting and not as believable as the rest of this well-written story.


For more information about My Name is Mary Sutter, visit Ms. Oliveira's excellent website, where you can read an excerpt, learn about the story behind the book, and see a wonderful reader/book club guide.

Disclaimer: Please note that my only compensation for this review was a complimentary advance (uncorrected proof) review copy of the book.

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