Listen to or download this article:
Imagine a fearless, hard-as-nails contract surgeon hired by the Union Army who often works 48-hour shifts in battlefield medical tents amputating limbs, healing previously inoperable gut wounds, sewing up children’s hare lips, and diagnosing what we now call PTSD as critical in military patient care as patching physically wounded bodies.
Meet Dr. Abby Kaplan. And yes, she’s a woman.
A native of the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Abby stands six feet tall and exchanges her dresses for breeches, totes a gun on her hip, engages in military defensive maneuvers, and is wounded multiple times for her efforts. Dr. Kaplan takes no guff from anyone and uses the language of soldiers appropriate to the situation. In a time when men are in charge and women are not, she wins the respect of her male colleagues in the most gruesome medical cases, winning over even those who could not fathom a woman examining a man’s most private parts.
Even more remarkable, despite the prejudices of her times, she finds ways to celebrate her Jewish heritage and even finds a man unafraid of her enough to become her occasional lover, but virtually only at her request.
A woman as strong, complex, and dedicated to medicine probably existed somewhere during that time. A small number of women doctors did work on soldiers during the Civil War. Richard Alan develops his lead with guts and gumption, so much so, that readers will likely fall in love with Dr. Kaplan.
A Female Doctor in the Civil War pays little attention to romance or sentimentality. Dr. Kaplan’s issues in pre-suffrage America are more about stopping male prejudice from interfering with her work than self-conscious screeds about being a female in a man’s world. We learn little about her past. Her more reflective moments are about the medical debacle she sees as she stitches and saws and mends the broken bodies that fill her medical tents, as well as her reflections on how much more the minds of these soldiers need to be treated during the war.
When she does find a lover, he is a momentary respite from the battlefield, not a “rescuer.” Their discussions about the differences between men and women are by two adults who respect each other. Others in that period of our history may see Dr. Kaplan’s sex and religion as problems. She sees them at worst as inconveniences that sometimes prevent her from doing her job as well as she thinks she can. Her one weakness, the nightmares that keep plaguing her after her work is done, are those any adult would suffer after working in the carnage she witnesses that is her life.
In other words, Dr. Abby Kaplan is a strong, capable, and uniquely modern physician working within the social and medical limitations of her time. She is there to do a job only a handful of doctors have the stomach to undertake.
A Female Doctor in the Civil War won First Place in the CIBAs 2018 Laramie Awards for American Fiction.