Sharon Johnston on Matrons & Madams

Sharon Johnston on Matrons & Madams

Posted on April 16 by Kyle in Fiction
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Tell us about your book.

Matrons and Madams is a story of how two courageous women managed their lives as they faced a decade of social upheaval between the Great War and Great Depression. The younger of the protagonists (a teacher by profession) managed a brothel after facing severe economic hardship when her husband died from a mining accident. The older protagonist was a British war widow who arrived in Lethbridge, Alberta to become matron of the Galt Hospital. At the centre of the upheaval are the young returning soldiers whose social and physical needs could only be met if the two women cooperated


How did you come up with the idea?

I discovered a dozen letters written in 1929 by business, medical and political leaders in Lethbridge and Edmonton, Alberta extolling the virtues of my grandmother who had been the matron of the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge following the Great War. I asked myself why would she need so many letters of commendation. Then I booked a flight out to Lethbridge to find out why.


How did you come up with the title?

Late 19th and early 20th century matrons and madams could be described generically. Matrons were usually single woman with no nonsense attitudes, high standards and respect from the doctors. Madams were organized professionals, strict with the prostitutes generous to the community and cooperative with the police. The two protagonists fit these definitions well.


What's the overarching theme of your the book?

Matrons and Madams is about the life changing events that war brings. War impacts on morals, finances, relationships and physical and mental health.


How did you research your book?

The research was the best part. Hundreds of hours looking at archived newspapers, 10 years of hospital board notes, personal interviews and finally a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge to help me sort out the facts. Add to this many books written about the west and its wildness.


What did you read growing up?

I read books about female characters at odds with society:  Madam Bovary, Therese Desqueyroux, L’Assommoir, Main Street, Anna Karenina. Marjorie Morningstar and Gone with the Wind were my romantics and Margaret Atwood’s prophetic The Handmaid’s Tale.

Presently, I’m reading A tree grows in Brooklyn (Smith), Divisadero (Ondatjee), The Painted Girls, (Buchanan). I’m also reading Ontario Since Confederation (Montigny and Chambers) an account of social service policies in preparation for the next book.


What is your new project?

Matrons and Madams is the first of a trilogy. The second book will be entitled Bread and Roses and the third The Boy In The Orange Pyjamas.