Readers digest novel at book club supper

January 18, 2011

By Laura Geggel

The members of a local book club sit down to one of their regular dinners to discuss ‘My Name is Mary Sutter,’ which they spent six weeks reading before meeting their invited guest, Issaquah author Robin Oliveira. By Greg Farrar

The women could not stop talking about Mary Sutter — the 20-year-old midwife who left home to train as a surgeon during the Civil War.

Mary Sutter’s creator, Issaquah author Robin Oliveira, sat demurely on a chair near the kitchen counter, listening to the book club gab about her book between answering questions about her research and characters.

The Issaquah book club had spent the past six weeks reading, “My Name is Mary Sutter,” a fictional account of a woman aspiring to learn about medicine and surgery in the 1860s. Book club member Debbie Bichsel invited author Oliveira to join the discussion of her book at the group’s Jan. 11 meeting.

The book club started after four Issaquah friends held a dinner party in 2004 and quickly discovered they could not stop talking about their reading lists. A book club of four was too small, so they invited friends, bringing their number to nine and doubling the amount of hosts.

Their rules were simple enough — read a new book every six weeks. The moderator of the book discussion hosts the next group and serves dinner, sometimes adapting the menu to the book.

Bichsel kept the tradition alive for “My Name is Mary Sutter,” pouring the women a popular anesthetic during the Civil War — a shot of whiskey.

Knowing they would meet the author caused some of the women to read the book differently.

“I was so enamored with the idea that I knew the woman who wrote this book,” Bichsel said. “I’m not a writer and I’m so impressed by people who write so beautifully.”

The group agreed Oliveira writes beautifully, although she learned later in life. Like her character, Mary Sutter, Oliveira grew up in Albany, N.Y., and went into health care, earning a nursing degree. She moved to Issaquah in 1990 and stayed home to care for her two children.

“When my son went to kindergarten, I started teaching myself how to write,” she said. Oliveira attended Bellevue College, University of Washington extension classes in fiction and eventually received her Masters in Fine Arts in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

One day, an image came to her of a woman peering through a microscope and dressed in period clothes. Oliveira began researching women in science and found a group of women who became physicians after their experiences in the Civil War. That, she decided, would be the basis for her story.

She flew to Albany, Civil War battlefields and Washington, D.C., where she accessed the National Archives, sifting through 150-year-old materials from hospitals in the capital, including ledgers cataloguing admissions and papers detailing doctor contracts. She traveled to the Library of Congress and read the personal letters of Dorothy Dix, the woman who served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union during the war.

Research was only stage one in the seven years it took her to write the book, though two of those years were spent at graduate school.

“I rewrote the book three times,” Oliveira said. “Each chapter was probably rewritten 10 times. Writing is rewriting.”

Along the way, she received the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for a work-in-progress. Viking published the book in May 2010 and Oliveira left for a five-month book tour.

Her Issaquah readers said her research helped draw them into the novel.

“It was very specific about Civil War battles,” Blythe Meigs said. “She talks about all of the medical scenes and the amputations.”

The topic of hygiene came up — Civil War doctors did not know to wash their hands between patients and the South successfully used maggots to clean out wounds — causing the women to marvel at the leaps modern medicine has made since then.

As the book club dinner progressed from appetizers to minestrone soup, the women began talking about the characters like they were old friends.

“It was great. They were really wonderful readers,” Oliveira said after the dialogue. “This particular group loved the book, so it was particularly nice to hear them puzzle through characters.”

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