Robin Oliveira was a graduate assistant during my first residency at Vermont College. I met her only months before her first book would be published by Viking.
Mary Sutter is a midwife, and what she wants is clearly stated in dialogue in the first chapter: “I want to become a doctor.” The reader also knows the obstacles at the time of the Civil War: women are not doctors.
My Name is Mary Sutter is 364 pages and fifty-four chapters plus an epilogue. It has a strong female protagonist, lots of characters, and many different points of view. It’s historical fiction with an epic feel to it, and it’s difficult to believe it’s a first novel. It was quickly selected as an Indie Next Great Read and was on Oprah’s Summer Reading list.
The writing is skilled and lyrical. Even with all the different points of view, the reader is never lost. Listen to some of the voices:
From the omniscient voice, a metaphor:
On Amelia’s river of words, everyone was swept down the hallway to the dining room.
The roast was delicious, but unimportant.
From Mary’s brother, Christian, a moment:
He did not know what to say, but instinct kept him there. Between them there was perfect stillness. He did not move, only breathed in silent rhythm with Bonnie’s muffled sobs. Time flickered and then flared, with its peculiar ability to alter perception. In its throes, we enter another life, one of possibility: I will overcome.
From that omniscient voice again, breadth:
The head wounds were hopeless, the abdominal wounds impossible. By then, the thirst and humidity, gunsmoke and cannon powder had rendered everyone slightly mad. It seemed to affect even the air. That’s what would be said for years afterward. Conjured our own weather that night. You remember?