An author’s education
A character and her creator search for
knowledge in the maelstrom of the Civil War
By Stephanie E. Ponder
I don’t know yet. I could tell,” she says. “[So] I
decided to get an MFA [master of fine arts degree],
thinking that if there were things that I just knew, I
could probably write the story that was in my head.”
By that time she’d begun work on the novel that
would become My Name Is Mary Sutter, but none of
that original material made it into the final novel.
The novel’s central character,
Mary, is a talented midwife determined to become a doctor. Her quest
is both aided and complicated by the
recently started Civil War. When she
leaves home looking for a doctor willing to teach her, she is faced with both
the emotional and physical effects of
DURING A TWO-week stretch of beautiful summer weather in 2002, Robin Oliveira heard a mountain thrush singing outside her Pacific Northwest
home. While listening to the bird’s plaintive song
and contemplating the upcoming rainy season,
Oliveira had a vision of a woman in period dress
looking through a microscope in a
room filled with books. The need to
find out that woman’s story led to this
month’s Book Buyer’s Pick, the historical novel My Name Is Mary Sutter.
DID YOU KNOW that this
year marks the 150th
anniversary of the start
of the Civil War? I hadn’t
given it much thought
until I read this month’s
book pick, Robin Oliveira’s
debut novel, My Name Is
Since the early 1990s Oliveira had
wondered if she could write a book. So,
on her son’s first day of kindergarten,
she sat down at the computer for two
hours and tried to write a paragraph.
“Which I found to be among the most
difficult things I’ve tried to do in my
life,” Oliveira, a Costco member, tells The Connection.
FRED MILKIE, JR
I’ve never been what
you might call a history
buff, but Mary Sutter is
such a well-crafted and
interesting character that
I was immediately drawn
into her life and determination to pursue a career
The statement is nearly unbelievable considering that Oliveira had already earned degrees in
Russian and nursing—and spent the previous seven
years working as a critical-care nurse.
Oliveira didn’t just take time to
learn about the craft of writing. After
realizing that her vision was of a
woman during the Civil War, she set out to learn
about that era, which she knew nothing about.
She spent the next decade teaching herself how
to write. The New York native started by taking
classes at a community college and moved on to an
extension program at the University of Washington
in Seattle. By the time she graduated from that program she had “written a novel and had several short
stories rejected,” she says.
“I think one of the reasons I have three degrees
is because I love school. There’s so much to know;
there’s so much to learn. For me that’s part of writing
historical fiction: I’m forced to learn about things I
didn’t know,” she explains.
Her quest for information took her to the
Library of Congress and the National Archives.
Because she is driven by a need to get the details
right, all of the documents she cites—including
train schedules—are copied from the originals.
It’s fascinating to look
back and see how far
medicine has advanced—
along with women’s careers
in the ;eld. Oliveira also
succeeds in examining the
implications of being driven
to achieve one’s goals to
the exclusion of all other
She found an agent who submitted the manu-
script to only a few publishers before dropping
Oliveira. “At that point I thought, there’s something
What most fascinated Oliveira—and helped
define the main character’s story arc—was the prim-
itive state of medicine at the time. “I had no idea that
it was the war that catapulted medicine as far as it
did,” she says.
When you combine
such a strong character with
thorough research, you get
a historical novel that educates while it engages.
Signed book giveaway
For more book picks,
see page 59.
As she dug deeper, she began to recognize wider
themes. Even though she didn’t set out to include historic figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, she soon realized he was essential to her story. “I thought the two
themes reflected well on one another: Lincoln’s maturation as a president and a commanding general, and
Mary’s ability to assert herself and effect change—as
well as [advances in] the medical field,” she says.
These days Oliveira is working on another
book. She’s leery of saying anything about it other
than it’s another work of historical fiction—and
likely driven by strong characters.
“I don’t see historical fiction as history texts masquerading as novel. I’m
at all times trying to avoid the 3-by-5-
card paragraph where you sort of
explain things,” she says. “When it
comes down to it, all a reader cares
about is the characters and what they’re
going to get.” C
Pennie Clark Ianniciello,
Costco book buyer
COSTCO HAS 50 SIGNED COPIES of Robin
Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Sutter to give
away. For a chance to win, send an e-mail
with your name and mailing address to
firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Robin Oliveira”
in the subject line. Or print your name,
address and daytime phone number on a
postcard or letter and send it to: Robin
Oliveira, The Costco Connection, P.O. Box
34088, Seattle, WA 98124-1088.
NO PURCHASE OR PAYMENT OF ANY KIND IS
NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. Sweepstakes is sponsored by
Penguin Group, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY, 10014. Open to legal residents
of the U. S. (except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at the time of entry.
One entry per household. Entries must be received by May 1, 2011. Winners
will be randomly selected and noti;ed by mail on or before June 1, 2011. The
value of the prize is $15. Void where prohibited. Winners are responsible for
all applicable federal, state and local taxes. Odds of winning depend on the
number of eligible entries received. Employees of Costco or Penguin Group
and their families are not eligible.