Whiskey, petticoats, and surgery by candlelight

Jen McCormack“I cannot help you become a physician. What you are asking is impossible.”

"My Name Is Mary Sutter" is available from the library in hardcover and audio download

“My Name Is Mary Sutter” is available from the library in hardcover and audio download

These are some of the first words Mary Sutter hears from Dr. James Blevens.

Mary has heard this many times but she refuses to give up her dreams; while her twin sister Jenny was blessed with good looks, Mary inherited her mother’s skill at midwifery as well as her ambition and outspokenness.

So with James Blevens’ words echoing in her ears and the opening shots of the Civil War echoing across the South, Mary does the only thing she is permitted to do as woman: follow the Union armies into war as a nurse, at times provisioned only with water, whiskey, and the bandages she tears from her own petticoats.

Performing surgery by the book
If you are interested in the history of medicine like I am you’ll appreciate the chapters in which Mary is working alongside Dr. William Stipp at the Union Hotel Hospital, the two of them learning surgical techniques from textbooks and wondering what to do with the limbs that they’ve amputated. And infection control? They’ve never heard of it, although they did use some interesting methods to treat fevers.

But beyond the drama of war and battlefield medicine My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira is also about a young woman disappointed by love and struggling to forge an identity beyond that of daughter and sister. Mary leaves her mother Amelia home alone to care for pregnant Jenny, and the correspondence between them is poignant even as Mary resists Amelia’s pleas to return home.

And although Mary was never considered the beautiful sister her passion and dedication is attractive to the doctors she serves alongside, and even in the midst of war the possibility of a new love emerges. I made it all the way to the last chapter of the book without guessing how Mary’s story would end and enjoyed every minute of it.

Looking for more recommendations for historical fiction? Leave a comment below or email me directly at Jennifer.Hinderer@nashualibrary.org.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

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