The debut literary work of historical fiction My Name is Mary Sutter by promising novelist Robin Oliveira offers an ambitious and unsparing glimpse into the life of aspiring physician Mary Sutter amid the turbulent U.S. Civil War.
The story opens with young midwife Mary Sutter of Albany, NY denied another apprenticeship in her quest to become a doctor. At a time when there were virtually no female physicians, Sutter is gifted, driven and unyielding. Ostensibly out of heartbreak, she pursues her desire into the heart of the Civil War.
Offering this antitype through a third-person omniscient view, Oliveira showcases her considerable character development skills, evoking Ann Patchett and Bel Canto. Yet, that novel was Patchett’s third, and mature restraint was evident in her focus on one character at a time. Oliveira’s tendency to delve into the minds of all characters, major and minor, sometimes in the span of a scene, may deny the reader emotional intimacy, especially with Mary Sutter.
This emotional gulf, also partly the result of Sutter’s driven personality, is reinforced by Oliveira’s scrupulous hand. As Sutter is repeatedly barred from a calling she believes is hers, the focus is more on her frustration than her love of medicine. A similar disconnect surfaces in Sutter’s professed love and grief over the apparent loss of a man in her life. With little evidence beyond the telling, and because of Sutter’s rigorous self-control, a fuller emotional connection with the reader is forfeited.
Despite this and the novel’s sometimes bumpy pacing—a solid block of back story early on and scant chapters later—there is strength and originality in Oliveira’s style and technique, and the story she tells refuses to romanticize. Real figures like Abraham Lincoln and Jonathan Hay come alive as much for their failings as their strengths, and Oliveira is adept at drawing these and other characters—male and female, friend and foe—with equal depth and integrity.
Though the omniscient view distances the reader from the person for whom we most desire to feel empathy, the contrast and conflict between Sutter and real-life superintendent of army nurses Dorthea Dix is effective. Like all pioneers and leaders, Mary Sutter isn’t someone we always like, but we respect and trust her, partly for her unstinting self-examination and desire for self-improvement, as the oft-repeated novel title implies.
With emphasis on people over place, Sutter has comparatively little descriptive differentiation between North and South, preferring instead to create a sense of setting through the people who inhabited the Albany, Manhattan and Washington cities of the day, and through their response to the casualties of war in all its forms.
Keeping the story’s promise of the unconventional, Oliveira sidesteps the trap of the sweeping epic. Relationships never break their realistic bounds to become melodrama, nor does war descend into a body count, making Sutter consistent as an intensely personal tale. In light of this painstaking care, it’s somewhat disappointing to see a key facet of the story’s culmination receive short shrift via epilogue. Yet, even in conclusion, Oliveira evades cliché, neatly avoiding both hopelessness and happy ending.
Most memorable in a Sophie’s Choice kind of way are Sutter’s people and their decisions, whose consequences are heightened amid war. This inward labor and outward toil give birth to more mature characters and an adult nation later in life than is seemly, making the effort more painful but the result more lasting, and Oliveira does all these things well.