I was pawing through boxes of historic fiction at the Schenectady Library book sale not long ago, when one of the volunteers sidled up to me and said, “This one’s really good.” Of course I bought it.
(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.
These words take my breath away. Not surprisingly, they describe Lincoln’s sense of urgency in a moment of crisis — his awareness of how much was at stake.
“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
an Excellent Post!….i will return and it will inform my days. Thank you.
Thank YOU Grace. I came across an amazing quote referencing “agency” today, BTW. I’ll try and find it again and post it for you, for me, for all of us.
thank you (((Dee))) who would have ever thought we would see such strange days as these in the 21stC… when will we, all 7 billion of us human beings living here on Planet Earth, collectively start cleaning up after ourselves and look after our beautiful home? just a paradigm shift from greed to love
Listened to a 72 minute channeled session by Claire Montanaro this weekend about what it will take. One of her key take aways (it’s a recent recording) is that the earth is stronger than we are.
I just lost my comment into the ether. Got run to work. Powerful, Dee! more later…
Oh so sorry Maggie. I hate it when that happens. Hope it’s a good days with your students!
Hi Dee. It’s not the first time we have read or are currently reading the same book or a similar subject! I, too, loved My Name is Mary Sutter and you make me want to reread it in a deeper way. Rereads are tricky though, you never know how it’ll go over — currently rereading Down the Common by Ann Baer, one I loved In the 90’s — so much so I don’t want to admit my disappointment 60 pages in. Xo
I know what you mean about re-reads… Don’t know of Ann Baer. I’ll look her up.
I’ll put this on my list. Have you read March by Geraldine Brooks? Completely agree that the Civil War is becoming a more apt description every day.
I have read it and it was interesting I thought. Yeah I think the Civil War is more apt than Watergate as a historical reference.
Thanks for the book title..and the thoughts on our broken country.