"MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER," by Robin Oliveira, Viking Adult, 384 pages, $26.95 (f)

It seems strange now, but there was a time not that long ago when women were not allowed to practice medicine.

The few women who worked as midwives, though revered, were considered an anomaly — more of a necessary evil if anything.

And if a woman wanted to become a doctor? Well, that was quite unthinkable.

Such is the plot in "My Name is Mary Sutter," a dazzling debut novel by Robin Oliveira set during the Civil War.

Mary Sutter is a brilliant midwife. She's even better than her mother, who also works in the field. When there's an emergency, Mary is the one expectant mothers want attending.

The young midwife is unmarried but doesn't seem to mind breaking with social conventions. She loves her work but wants more — she wants to be a surgeon.

When Mary seeks admission to medical school, she is snubbed at every turn. Women have no place in the field, she's told.

Undeterred, Mary seeks out the next best thing — becoming a nurse for the Union Army under the direction of Miss Dorothea Dix. Mary sets out for Washington, D.C., sure her skills will quickly be put to use. But even there Mary fails to meet qualifications, being too young to join the nursing corps.

Mary can't bear to return home rejected and determinedly sets out to find a doctor or a hospital that will take her in. And eventually she is successful, finding a position as a charwoman and nurse at the dirtiest, most dilapidated, most rank hospital in D.C. — the Union Hotel.

The Union Hotel offers Mary nothing but hard work, mostly keeping things clean and trying to make soldiers comfortable. But as time passes, Mary catches the attention of Dr. William Stipp, a surgeon.

Under his guidance, and that of Dr. James Blevin, another surgeon from Mary's past, Mary begins to pursue her medical career, all the while trying to care for the thousands of wounded soldiers pouring off the battlefields.

"My Name is Mary Sutter" is historical fiction at its finest.

It's clear that Oliveira has painstakingly researched the era and its medical practices.

Though not overly graphic, Oliveira does not shy away from medical procedures or the side effects from them — particularly that of amputation, which is both spine chilling and heartbreaking. And her detailed discussion of childbirth will make readers glad they live in this day and age.

What makes this novel work, however, is not the medical procedures or the historical elements but the namesake character. Headstrong and unwavering, she's an unstoppable force. But there's also a vulnerability to Mary, an overwhelming desire to do good and an insatiable curiosity that is instantly appealing.

The only drawback to "My Name is Mary Sutter" is one instance where a so-called R-rated curse word makes an appearance. It's completely out of tone and stilts the flow in an otherwise beautifully written book. This unfortunate inclusion should not keep readers from this gripping debut novel.