Robin Oliveira is the author of the new historical novel Winter Sisters, which takes place in New York State in 1879. She also has written My Name is Mary Sutter and I Always Loved You. Oliveira worked as a registered nurse for many years, and she lives in the Seattle area.
Q: Why did you decide to write a second novel about your character Mary Sutter?
A: Actually, I didn’t make a concrete decision to write a second novel about Mary; it came about somewhat organically.
I was at the beginning of writing an entirely different book about an American woman who marries a Russian in the early 20th century, when, in the process of researching that book, I discovered that in 1879, in New York State, the age of consent was 10 years old.
That changed everything. I abandoned the earlier story and returned to historic Albany, N.Y., as the setting for the book.
Early on, when I knew that a doctor’s services would be called for, I thought Mary might make a cameo appearance. But the issues explored in the novel turned out to be grave, and I knew that if Mary got wind of them, she wouldn’t stay silent or stand by while somebody else dealt with the problem. She wouldn’t be content with having a distant role.
So she needed to be intimately affected by the events of the novel. And voila! A new Mary Sutter novel was born.
Q: You’ve noted that you were shocked to discover that in 1879 in New York State, the age of consent was 10 years old. Can you say more about how that factored into the development of Winter Sisters?
A: It’s one of those shocking historical facts that seem absurd but still actively factors into our society today.
Much as the lingering aftermath of slavery continues to imperil the lives and safety of black men today, how women and girls were treated in patriarchal societies, including ours, has reverberated through the centuries and manifested in current societal issues, not just here, but across the globe.
The #MeToo movement is rooted in the kind of appalling history I discovered in my research, when girls as young as 10—10!—were considered fair game for unwanted sexual activity.
No amount of backpedaling regarding “those were different times” or “values were different then” can defend the fact that this abuse was both condoned and protected by law.
Though the #MeToo movement hadn’t even begun when I turned in my finished manuscript, what interested me about Winter Sisters is the same thing that has fueled that movement: For centuries, men have gotten away with far too much in regard to sex trafficking, oppression of women, abuse, etc. Time’s up.
Q: What do you think the novel says about the obstacles women faced in the later decades of the 19th century?
A: I think Winter Sisters reveals that not much has changed from the later decades of the 19th century to now. It seems that women make two steps forward only to be forced backward.
What struck me most about reading the 19th century trial transcripts during my research for this book was not how different things were then, but how similar they are to what occurs now, especially when women report crime. They are disbelieved, ignored, pacified, mocked, and attacked by the very people who are supposed to protect them.
One only has to think of the lengths some famous men have gone to to cover up their misdeeds to understand that little has changed, even for supposedly powerful women.
In those last decades of the 19th century women were campaigning for the vote, fighting for changes for protection inside the law, even as they were seeking to protect themselves in a world that paid lip service to their status while undermining them at every turn.
As a result of their efforts, we have the vote, but we have only to look at current events to see how much still needs to be done to forge a completely equal society for all women and girls.
Q: How do you think your character Mary evolved from the first novel to the second?
A: Personally, she has made some changes. She has married. But her single-minded focus on medicine, her patients, and the morally correct thing to do hasn’t changed one iota. In fact, in this book, it gets her into trouble.
In My Name Is Mary Sutter, she returns from the Civil War and becomes a physician. Society accepts this unusual circumstance because it is still reeling from the depleted population of men after the war.
But Winter Sisters takes place 15 years later, and the so-called indulgent way society may have viewed her before has evaporated. Much like after World War II, when Rosie the Riveter was told to don an apron and give up her job to returning veterans, Mary and her women physician colleagues are denied access to hospitals on pretexts as suspect as faux male concern for their supposed delicacy.
I love that she won’t stay quiet in the face of injustice, no matter the consequences men mete out in their inability to curb her activities. She says exactly what needs to be said at the time it needs to be said and it is always the truth.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I took a little time off after writing three novels in a row. I needed it. I needed to go see the doctor and smell the roses and see my son get married and visit my daughter and convince my friends, who I neglect terribly while I meet deadlines, to still be my friends. (I’m always shocked when they do.)
But in the last couple of months I’ve started a new novel. I can’t say much about it, because it’s in the precarious fledgling stage, when anything can change. But it’s historical. A small clue is that in June I’m heading to Scotland to do a little research.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: That you, and all readers, have my great thanks. Writing a book is a long and arduous process. It’s genuinely a delight when readers take my books into their hands and sit down with my characters and discover meaning and hope as a result of that process. I am grateful to each and every one of you. Thank you.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb