(Don’t you love volunteers? Better yet, volunteers that read? I suppose I don’t need to tell you that she was grey-haired, shorter than me, and about ten years older?)
“My Name is Mary Sutter” by Robin Oliveira* tracks the experiences of a headstrong midwife from Albany who volunteers as a nurse in Washington during the Civil War. Not only was it a good read (a downright page turner, in fact), the novel also offered a provocative model for my own writing.
Oliveira manages to include tons of vivid historic detail without ever letting the story falter. I learned so much about medical training/procedures of the era, the war, the physical state of the capital at that time, and the limiting expectations foisted upon women in the mid-nineteenth century. Even so, the story and the characters drove the narrative, start to finish. I couldn’t put it down.
Hospital wards for the wounded are a grim landscape, of course, and Oliveira does not spare us. There are descriptions of grotesque amputations, filth, fever, and the suffering caused by inadequate supplies and staff. The sense of national loss is overwhelming. Personally, Mary Sutter suffers one loss after another herself and is tormented by the notion that she has her ambition to blame.
Though unrelentingly dark, the themes of forgiveness and redemption also run through these pages. It’s a tale of striving, grief, and resilience — on both personal and national levels.
I didn’t expect to find relevant political wisdom within, but did.
“A country’s imminent failure should
rouse even the stars to fainting.”
Wow. They have stayed with me for days.
I’d like to tattoo them on Nancy Pelosi’s forehead. Or, email them to the Newton City Council, which seems poised to shoot down a House Resolution on Impeachment at a hearing tomorrow for various lame reasons.
The quote wakes me up to the fact that the Civil War is a far better historic reference for our current catastrophic government than Watergate. Then as now, it is not at all clear that we will survive as a nation.
More about the local impeachment resolution on my Tumblr blog here.
*The author describes the fascinating genesis of the novel and her research here.
The B&W photo is mine from Climate Science March, Boston, 2017