March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: Falling in love with a story

Behind the Book by
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Once, when I was in grade school, my mother dressed me and three of my sisters (the fourth was still a baby) in our velvet party dresses, combed our bobbed hair, pressed into each of our palms a quarter for a ticket and another for popcorn and dropped us off at a movie theater in Albany, New York.

Before you worry about child neglect, back then, dropping your children off on their own for an afternoon at the movies was an everyday affair. My mother had told us nothing about the movie we were about to see; its title, Gone With the Wind, meant nothing to us. We were even a bit miffed. Our mother had forced us to come, knowing, as mothers do, what we did not: that the revival showing of the classic melodrama was something too special to miss. As I think about it now, it’s entirely possible that she had really wanted to see it herself and perhaps couldn’t find a babysitter, and so had had to send us alone at the last minute. (For my lack of awareness, I apologize, Mom.) But there we were, all dressed up, our feet wiggling in ankle socks and Mary Jane shoes, barely heavy enough to keep the auditorium seats from flipping under us, waiting for the curtain to open. And when it did, and the epic unfolded on the screen, I sat in wonder, my heart undergoing an indelible and lasting transformation induced by the intoxicating power of story.

I expect every writer has a moment like that, and if pressed could name the phantoms that guide their imaginations. My Name is Mary Sutter is rooted in that moment in the theater, when I fell in love with epic storytelling, multiple subplots, myriad jealousies, family secrets and the sustaining lies that characters tell themselves. So that when a woman appeared to me one evening in period dress, seated at a table, looking through a microscope by candlelight, I was immediately haunted by her, believing that she had a story to tell. I began to read about women in science, and soon I learned that several young women had become surgeons out of their experiences in the Civil War. I knew very little then about the war, my childhood introduction to GWTW notwithstanding. But at least I had my time period, and I began my research by reading old newspapers on microfilm, then history books, and soon found myself at the National Archives, reading primary documents of the Civil War hospitals in Washington City, as Washington D.C. was then called. Reading through the few yellowed, crumbling ledgers and hospital journals that had survived the war, I soon discovered that the story of this young woman was going to turn into a very large story, because it was deeply apparent to me that the divided country had not only been medically unprepared for the apocalypse to come, but was also politically and logistically unprepared, and that the story of this disarray extended even to Abraham Lincoln and his generals.

Soon I was in the Library of Congress mining Dorothea Dix’s personal letters along with the archives of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. I visited the exhibits at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Civil War Museum in Frederick, Maryland. I located the site of the demolished Union Hotel in Georgetown, the hospital whose history intrigued me the most, and stood awed before its location, thinking of the courage displayed by the women and men who cared for the wounded without antibiotics, IVs or antiseptics—and challenging my own courage, for as a Registered Nurse, I could not imagine facing such a disaster without the tools we take for granted today. The next day, I visited the Gettysburg Battlefield, where I stood above the field of Pickett’s charge, and there the story became deeply personal, holy, even, for it’s impossible not to feel the ghosts of all of those who gave their lives there, whatever their loyalties. And then the guide led me to the hillock where Lincoln gave his perfect address consecrating the cemetery. Returning to the site of the Union Hotel that day, I made a promise to reveal the bravery and boldness of those who devoted their lives to the impossible task of repairing broken human beings, and the politicians and generals unprepared for the devastation they had wrought.

My afternoon at the movies, when I fell in love with story, still haunts me. In its honor, I wanted to write a book about the generosity and resiliency of the human spirit, and I hope that in My Name is Mary Sutter, I have.



Robin Oliviera

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