Mary Sutter is a woman on a collision course with nineteenth century mores. As she trains to be a midwife, she wants to become a surgeon more than anything. Such is her hunger for knowledge that she is willing to sacrifice a privileged position, the comfort of an affluent household and the approval of her family and peers. Fortunately for her, medicine is not a socially acceptable career for a woman of her time. Her compulsion to shape her own destiny saves her from becoming one of those bland Victorian heroines prone to the vapors.
Robin Oliveira’s characters grow and acquire more facets in the course of the story. Mary never loses sight of her goal, but she learns to make space in her life for deep compassion and love. Hers is not easy, flowery path. Her battles parallel, in a smaller way, more personalized way, the turmoil and suffering of a nation that nearly self-destructs while trying to right its own wrongs. In her on way, she is at war with her own society and just as the soldiers she attempts to cure, she is willing to go through fire and sword for a cause she believes to be righteous.
Mary begins her progression towards a career in medicine as nurse who must wash bed linens and, on occasion, do work reserved servants at her Albany home. Desperate to impose some order in the chaos of the primitive hospital hastily and inadequately set up in the Union Hotel,in Georgetown Mary mops a floor that seems symbolic of the national of affairs. It is an Augean tasks she attacks with the determination,
She felt that she was fighting the entire history of the country, all its residue, all its neglect, all its ignorance.
Oliveira’s impeccable research of medical history, her great familiarity with social conditions in the era she chose for her novel, the plausibility she conveys to characters and situations alone would not inject life into what is, essentially, a love story. But the force of her writing infuses vitality into the people and places Mary Sutter comes across during her quest for legitimacy among Civil War surgeons. Albany, Washington, DC, Georgetown, Centreville, Antietam, Bull Run, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, General George McClellan and unnamed sixteen year-old privates in both the Union and Confederate armies, come alive in a myriad of details. Oliveira renders sounds, colors, smells, the sneer of a grubby waiter who refuses to serve unaccompanied women, with a deft touch. Her Mary is human enough to experience doubt when she finally attains the object of her desire,
Mary pulled away. Her skirts had stiffened with the splatters and stains of blood of three men. The saw sang in her head, She hate (surgeon) Stipp now. Hated his brutal persistence, his fumbling, his ignorance, his lack of preparation. Was this what medicine was? barbarity? By comparison, even at its worst, childbirth was artful. Even when women bled and seized, there remained at least the elegance of hope. The flickering promise of life.
All in all, this is a brilliant first novel. It has power, beauty and audacity.