What is that moment in your life that leads to an unforeseen result decades later, a result that can then be traced back to that seemingly small moment? For Robin Oliveira, author of the All Iowa Reads selection “My Name is Mary Sutter,” that moment happened when she was dropped off at an Albany, N.Y., theater with 25 cents for the movie and 25 cents for popcorn.
What movie was playing? It was a revival showing of “Gone with the Wind.” Oliveira says that after seeing that movie decades ago, she was “undone,” and her debut novel is “rooted in that moment in the theater.”
As described in the program, Oliveira’s “historical novel features Mary Sutter, a brilliant, headstrong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine—and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak—Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C., to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. Under the guidance of William Stipp and James Blevens, Mary pursues her medical career in the desperately overwhelmed hospitals of the capital.”
Oliveira described the moment several years ago when she had a vision of Mary: “Five years ago I had a vision of a young woman in shabby period dress seated at a trestle table, bent over the shaft of a brass microscope fitted with a slide, a shallow candle burning under its glass stage. The candle illuminated both the object she was studying and the walls of bookshelves filled with thick volumes, specimen jars and human bones. She seemed so hungry for knowledge. Who was she, I wondered, and what was she doing by herself in that lonely place at night? What were her disappointments, and to what lengths would she go to become the woman she wanted to be? Was she loved? I became worried about her. I had to find out who she was. It was when I learned that 17 young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the Civil War that this beguiling stranger began to declare herself.”
It took Oliveira nearly 10 years to tell Mary’s story. It’s all about “verisimilitude,” she said, “the appearance of being true.” It’s grounded in details. She found those details through research at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Gettysburg battlefield and the National Museum of Health and Medicine, just to name a few. Details are the “kind of thing that rocks my world,” said Oliveira. She hunts them down and marries them to a story.
The City of Albany is one location in the story. Just to give you a tiny sample of the kinds of details she researches, Oliveira finds out what the tolls were on the roads during that era, which singers sang at which bars, what time the whistle blew to signal the end of the work day, the laws that governed ice harvesting, the problems of typhoid, which streets were brick and which were not and on and on.
As an historical novel, “My Names is Mary Sutter” has both fictional and non-fictional characters. The non-fictional characters include President Lincoln, George McClellan and Dorthea Dix.
All the documents in the book are real and quoted verbatim as are the questions asked by a Sanitary Commission Officer—“Is there a regimental band? Is there a regimental library? Are the men required to regularly wash their underclothing?”
Approximately two-thirds of the deaths in the Civil War were due to disease. Oliveira said that we were “medically unprepared for the apocalypse to come.”
“I knew what they were doing wrong and I couldn’t stop them,” she said of the characters in her book. Even readers who are not trained Registered Nurses, as Oliveira is, will cringe at the medical practices of the times and the amazing lack of knowledge.
Character William Stipp, wiping an amputation saw on his no doubt dirty pant leg and moving on to the next patient, is one example of the horrid practices. Stipp’s last name was taken from a primary document Oliveira came across in her research. She did not research the actual person but used the last name and created her fictional character.
Shortly after the book was published, Oliveira was contacted by a distant relative of the actual Stipp. Oddly enough, not only did some of Oliveira’s created story match the life of the real Stipp, but a picture of Stipp’s second wife that was shared with Oliveira took her aback for how much it resembled the vision she had of Mary Sutter, the book’s main fictional character.
The ghosts of the Gettysburg battlefield were reaching out to her to have their stories told.
Asked how she and character Mary Sutter are alike, Oliveira pointed out how they are different. “She has snappier comebacks,” she said, “It takes me three weeks to write those.”
“I’m interested in women who broke that 19th century glass ceiling, women who are just as important as men,” she said. What they share, she said, is a “determination to reach our goals.”
Oliveira grew up just outside Albany in Loudonville. She has a bachelor’s degree in Russian and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow. She worked for many years as a Registered Nurse, specializing in critical care and bone marrow transplant.
In 2006 Oliveira received a master of fine arts degree in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and in 2007 she was awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for her debut novel-in-progress, “My Name is Mary Sutter,” then entitled, “The Last Beautiful Day.”
“My Name is Mary Sutter” received the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction and the 2010 American Historical Fiction Honorable Mention from the Langum Charitable Trust.
Oliveira lives outside of Seattle, Wash., with her husband, Andrew Oliveira.
Her goal for her debut novel was relatively low, Oliveira said. She said her highest hope was that it not fall off the face of the earth.
She said she is thrilled that “My Name is Mary Sutter” is the 2015 selected book for All Iowa Reads.
Oliveira’s book is available to check out or purchase at the Perry Public Library. A book discussion is scheduled for Thursday, April 30 at 7 p.m. in the library’s community room. The guest facilitator will be George Minot, author, English instructor and graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The discussion is free. And the public is invited to attend.
For more information, contact the Perry Public Library at 515-465-3569.