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Originally published Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

'Wench' and 'My Name is Mary Sutter': Novels of 19th-century women

Two Puget Sound-area authors have penned historical novels set in the 19th century. Robin Oliveira's "My Name is Mary Sutter" tells the story of a Civil War nurse; Dolen Perkins-Valdez' "Wench" is the story of slave women who are concubines of their masters. Oliveira will read from her book Monday May 17 at Barnes & Noble in Seattle's University Village shopping center.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Robin Oliveira

The author of "My Name is Mary Sutter" will read from her book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Barnes & Noble in the University Village shopping center; free (206-517-4107 or http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/store/2573).

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'My Name is Mary Sutter'

by Robin Oliveira

Viking, 364 pp, $26.95

'Wench'

by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Amistad, 294 pp, $24.99

Two new historical novels set in mid-19th century America focus on seldom-told stories of women's involvement in an era that profoundly redefined this nation. Each book is steeped in research, and each was written by a Puget Sound-based author.

"My Name Is Mary Sutter" is Robin Oliveira's debut novel. The Seattle writer was awarded the prestigious James Jones First Novel Fellowship when this was a work-in-progress.

Considering the newspapers, journals, books, letters, lectures and government documents that Oliveira cites as crucial to her understanding of the time, the vote of confidence that she received mid-project must have been gratifying. This work of fiction is built on years of research.

The payoff comes in the rich details of this feminist story, which follows a young midwife from her upstate New York home to the battlefields of the South as she pursues her ambition to become a surgeon.

Mary Sutter's goal may be single-minded, but her motivations are many.

The midwifery practice she and her widowed mother run is busy but unfulfilling. Mary yearns for advanced education in the field of medicine but repeatedly has been denied college access because of her gender. And finally, a young man she once fancied has married her more beautiful and tractable sister instead.

As the Civil War looms and the menfolk of Albany enlist in the army, Mary decides to travel to Washington D.C., to become a nurse. When war breaks out, her unflappability in the midst of daunting conditions wins the respect of a gruff surgeon who, having fled from disappointments of his own, recognizes a kindred spirit. Dr. Stipp grants her a de facto apprenticeship that holds for as long as the bleeding bodies keep coming — and for a time it seems they never will stop.

Mary's dedication to her work comes at the expense of virtually everything else, and her negligence toward family responsibilities has irrevocable consequences.

History indicates that more than a dozen women who went into the Civil War as nurses did indeed emerge as physicians. "My Name Is Mary Sutter" gives an idea of the immense sacrifices these women made in terms of social acceptance, close relationships and personal health.

"Wench" is another book that pits personal ambition against family ties, but through a very different lens. University of Puget Sound writing instructor Dolen Perkins-Valdez sets her antebellum story at Tawawa Springs, a real location in Ohio that before the Civil War was a resort that Southern slaveholders frequented — with their slave entourages.

In Perkins-Valdez's tale, three slave women have become friends over the course of several summers spent north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Their masters bring them along as concubines, and the women appreciate the extra (if temporary) privileges they enjoy away from their respective plantations.

But it isn't until a new slave woman shows up one summer that they begin to question the status quo. Mawu has notions of escaping to freedom. The others are reluctant — particularly Lizzie, who has given birth to two children by her master and who has to leave them behind in the South every summer.

This book probes the psychological and physical chains of slavery, and the interlinked history of white and black. It is a mesmerizing read.

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