In the last few years I've enjoyed quite a few books set during the American Civil War - I'm not interested in the battles themselves, but the social changes taking place in the background (abolition of slavery, changing role of women etc) and this compelling story is one of the best I've read.
Despite coming from a relatively wealthy family, Mary Sutter (like her mother before her) works as a midwife. However, her fascination with medicine doesn't end there and she dreams of becoming surgeon, an almost impossible ambition for a woman of her class at that time, and accordingly, the doors of the city's medical school are closed in her face. She almost succeeds in persuading a local doctor, James Blevens, to take her on as an apprentice, when the Civil War intervenes and changes the course of both their lives.
Blevens enlists as a regimental surgeon, and Mary responds to the call of Dorothea Dix (America's own Florence Nightingale) who has persuaded Lincoln to allow her to recruit a band of female nurses to serve alongside the army medics. In order to avoid inflaming the ardour of wounded soldiers, Dix is very specific about the type of nurse she requires:
"No woman under 30 need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses are required to be very plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black with no bows, no curls, no jewellery and no hooped skirts".
Despite being turned down because of her age (otherwise she fits the bill perfectly), Mary's determination secures her a position in an army hospital in Washington, where she finds herself working alongside Blevens' mentor, William Stipp, assisting him as he carries out countless amputations and other gruesome surgical procedures. I was a little worried that the `romantic' element of the book would get in the way of Mary`s ambition, but it doesn't. Blevens and Stipp are integral and very interesting characters; both have their own reasons for wanting to throw themselves into the chaos of war and escape their pasts. I found myself becoming absorbed in Mary's dealings with them (and another potential suitor) and cheering when she picked the right one in the end!
Robin Oliveira has obviously done a lot of research into the Civil War and the medics who tended to the wounded soldiers. She mentions in her acknowledgements that "nearly twenty" women became physicians after their experiences nursing during the Civil War - okay that doesn't sound a lot, but quite remarkable when you consider the hostility and prejudice they would have encountered at the time.