This recap is cross posted on Reading Local: Portland.
Event Recap: Robin Oliveira, “My Name is Mary Sutter” Author, Speaks at Powell’s Burnside Last Night
By: Cara Holman
[ My Name is Mary Sutter | Robin Oliveira | Viking | $26.95 ]
Friday night, Robin Oliveira spoke to a full room at Powell’s Burnside about her recently released debut novel, My Name is Mary Sutter. She described her novel as a family saga containing multiple love stories, including several love triangles, a story of the birth of modern medicine as a result of the Civil War, but most of all, the story of 20 year old Mary Sutter, “a preternaturally talented midwife”, who upon watching her father die a terrible death (before the story begins), decides she wants to become a doctor.
In real life, the first woman to be admitted to medical school was Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 received a medical degree from Geneva Medical College in New York. But she was the exception, and at the time fictional character Mary Sutter was looking for a medical school, the choices open to women were slim. Oliveira described the state of medical knowledge before the Civil War. There were no nursing schools in America, physicians graduating from medical school often had never operated on a live patient, there were no IVs, no antibiotics, and the germ theory of Lister was still several years off.
Further, the development of the Minie ball for ammunition, which was deadlier than the musket ball, led to more serious injuries. Due to unsanitary field conditions and physicians not washing their hands between patients, twice as many soldiers in the Civil War died of disease as of battle wounds. Oliveira, a nurse from Seattle, traveled back to the east coast while she was writing this novel, to examine rare documents in the Library of Congress, regarding medical conditions of the day, as well as visiting Civil War sites including Gettysburg, to keep the novel factually accurate.
After reading from her novel, Oliveira then took questions from the audience. We learned that due to the Civil War, the state of medicine progressed much faster than it likely would have otherwise. When asked how long this novel took to research and write, Oliveira responded that she began the novel in 2002, but actually began teaching herself how to write 20 years ago, when her son (who was in the audience) was born. She attended the Vermont College of Fine Arts, receiving her MFA in 2006, and at that point, began rewriting her novel in earnest.
Oliveira said she had no idea until late in the writing process how things were going to end up, and that she had to “live with her characters for a long time” before making those decisions. When asked, she said she did not let her family read the book until she was finished writing it, so that they would not give her advice over the dinner table. She is working on a second historical fiction novel currently, saying only that the new subject matter is daunting, and will require a lot of research before she is ready to write it.