Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My Name Is Mary Sutter

The Book: My Name Is Mary Sutter

The Author: Robin Oliveira

The Dealio: MNIMS tells the story of a young woman standing at two thresholds: she is a midwife, like generations of women in her family before her. Problem is, she wants to become a surgeon- an unthinkable ambition for any woman at this particular time in history: the United States is about to become un-united by one of the most catastrophic events to visit the barely-out-of-its-adolescence nation.
A parade of characters both real (John Hay, Dorothea Dix, George McClellan, Clara Barton and, of course, Abraham Lincoln) and imagined (Mary and her 'lovely' twin sister, her mother, who taught her everything she knows about delivering babies, and is now forced to admit that Mary has outpaced her teacher, and a trio of men who love Mary, just as she is) pop in and out of the story, alternating American history with the tale of Mary's struggle to capture her dreams.
I love reading about the Civil War, and I especially like any book that provides details of the science of medicine at that time in history (hint: lots of blue mass, laudanum, whiskey and bleeding were pretty much the entire kit and caboodle). Without much knowledge of- or imagination to picture- microscopic threats, it is scant wonder that the toll was so high from non-battle related ailments- like dysentery, chicken pox and malaria.

The Grading Session: 4.12 pengies out of 5. Lost some pengies over the seemingly endless dwelling on bits of dialogue (especially between Mary and her mother, her first 'beau', her erstwhile mentors and Mary, herself). There were intriguing glimpses into the personalities of prominent figures of the time (Dorothea Dix, used to stomping over people's feelings without regard to tact, falls apart when a newspaper takes her to task for not visiting any of the improvised 'hospitals' she has popping up like mushrooms all over the Eastern US. Priceless.). And there is an enormously draggy recitation of entries Mary must make into a Sanitary Commission-mandated log book, which seems to go on for years. We gained nothing from this passage except sympathy for the tedium of paperwork required by the bureaucracy of the time. Hey- be it ever thus, Mary. Paperwork sux and this much has not changed a minim since then.
This review is based on an audio book, read by Kimberly Farr, who did a credible job- although her 'man voices' seemed fairly similar and, sometimes, hard to individualise. Overall, I was pleased with her efforts-especially as she portrayed Mary herself.
BTW- if it bothers you to read about the barbaric and primitive nature of the 'surgeries' of the day...skip this book. It could make you have nightmares. But if you, like me, are intrigued by the state of Civil War era medicine, and interested in a story about a woman who defied odds -and there were real-life women who did-this is a book for you.

Lessons Learned: Nothing you have not already heard before, but bears repeating, I think: women were discouraged from having any sort of professional ambitions at that time. Too, there were very few avenues for women to pursue surgery as a career until a woman opened up a medical school for 'ladies' shortly after the Civil War.
Next: washing one's hands is always a good idea.
Lastly: even experienced midwives or surgeons really were helpless to convert the lying-in room into anything but a horrendous crap shoot where anything could-and often did- go wrong.

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