Being a nurse, I became interested in this book when I picked it up at the bookstore and read the jacket. We lived in the Washington Metropolitan area for several decades. Because my husband is a Civil War nut, we often went to the numerous battlefields in the area just to get the sense of it. I thought those two counts alone would make the book interesting.
The book turned out to be so much more than just interesting. The story line takes Mary Sutter, a mid-wife from a well-tended family of Albany to the degradation of charwoman/chamber-pot-emptier/nurse in a Georgetown, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital; all because she is determined to become a surgeon. She meets and overcomes barriers from every direction, including her own family. This is the story of how she would not be dissuaded.
But there is so much more in these pages. If you look in the Library of Congress titles for the book, you will find it under “Nursing,” yet it is not all about nurses, though there are references to the formation of the Army Nurse Corp. I would have categorized it book under “American Civil War” first, and “History of Surgery in the U.S.” second. Reading the book taught me things about the Civil War I wouldn’t have found in my high school history book. For instance, it illuminates how spectacularly unprepared both the North and South were to handle their casualties; how the soldiers died more from disease and infection than from bullets; and in numerous graphic details, I learned not just how, but why so many amputations were done in a vain attempt to save lives. I’d forgotten President Lincoln lost a child. I never knew how deeply this affected him and Mary Todd Lincoln. And who knew military Generals could be so flawed?
On several levels this was a tough read because it was easy for me to imagine the look and sounds and smells of the carnage. But all that repulsed me also made me root for Mary simply because I too am a woman. Nursing school is full of blood and guts and smells, and no one who goes through it will ever forget it. So I imagined doing my work in a field with a war raging, and decided early on Mary Sutter was braver than me. Triage is the most difficult part of the practice of battlefield medicine, and that chapter was both horrifying and poignant.
This is a full-circle novel that will appeal to both men and women. It has romance, adventure, historically-correct battles, suspense, and one particular scene of a childbirth that will haunt me all my days. It isn’t a novel for the squeamish. But it’s also not just for people who are interested in medicine and American history.
The book, Oliveira’s first, is hard to put down and, in my mind, worthy of the five stars many reviewers give it, most especially me.