Pages: 364 pages
Finished: July 18, 2010
First Published: May 13, 2010
Genre: historical fiction
"Are you Mary Sutter?" Hours had passed since James Blevens had called for the midwife.
Acquired: Received a review copy from Penguin Group (Canada).
Reason for Reading: I'm very interested in this time period especially involving stories of women. The doctor angle grabbed me right away.
Mary Sutter is a twenty-ish young woman who is an experienced midwife. She comes from a long line of maternal midwives. Her twin sister was trained for a while too but she was pretty, flighty and not interested in midwifery while Mary, on the hand, was not satisfied with midwifery. She wanted more, she didn't want to nurse, she wanted to be a doctor and was determined to become one, no matter what. Medical schools would not accept her application, she could find no doctor to apprentice her. Then the Civil War happened and she snuck onto a train full of male "nurses" (really any volunteer who would go, mostly drunks) being sent to the front. Thus begins Mary's apprenticeship and journey from charwoman to doctor.
The historical setting is wonderfully done. It is genuine yet the war aspect, meaning the political/tactical aspects of war are kept to a minimum. We're given enough information to know and understand what is going on but not bored to tears with a "war book". Medicine is the focus of this book. For the first part of the book we experience childbirth in the 1860s. The complete use of midwives for this situation unless something horrible goes wrong and then a doctor is called in with his dreadful chloroform and forceps. Mary is known as the best midwife in Albany, even better than her mother, now that she's grown older. Then we see how a doctor (a male) gets his license as a surgeon: a year of apprenticeship with another doctor and then 6 months of courses at a college where he would be lucky if he even got close enough to a body to touch it.
Women of course were not doctors at this time. In fact, only certain kinds of women, would be nurses. No self-respecting girl from a reputable home would become a nurse. When Dorothea Dix put out her first call for nurses wanted during the Civil War she was only allowed by the government once her call described the type of woman wanted as over thirty, hard working, plain looking, wearing black or brown with no jewelry, sober and "can exercise entire self-control".
The history of medicine as it grows through the War is fascinating as they know little of diseases and infections. There is one surgeon who gets laid up by having his hands burnt who is already a proponent of microscopy who goes around collecting samples so he can perhaps learn more from this tragedy. The descriptions of the wounded, the unsanitary conditions in the makeshift hospitals and non-stop amputations is sickening.
Mary is a determined figure who sets out to do what she wants to do. But at what price? She has many decisions to make along the way. What we want to do and feel compelled to do may not always be the right thing to do and Mary often has to look back on her past decisions and wonder. This makes Mary a real, flawed character who though she is an admirable woman of her time fighting for her rights and those of women everywhere is also someone who has to make choices, some right, some wrong, to get where she wanted to go and she ruminates upon this often.
The final component of the story is a love triangle involving three men with Mary at the centre. Plain, tall, certainly not attractive Mary, has three men in love with her. Mary knows she is plain, her mother knows she is plain and each of her suitors definitely mentions she is plain but there is something that attracts them to her, especially her determination and loving nature. Which of the three she ends up with may be a surprise but I was overjoyed.
A fabulous read, compelling, hard to put down. I did find it somewhat of a slow read, not for any bad reason, but simply I had to slow down my natural reading pace to simply take it all in. Riveting!