Sharon Johnston’s Matrons and Madams tells the story of Clara, a World War I widow, who leaves England in 1919 with her young daughter and her adopted daughter and moves to Western Canada to be the new superintendent of the Lethbridge Hospital. At Lethbridge Hospital she must deal with all manner of patients and their ailments, including: children, new mothers, and traumatized and wounded soldiers coming home from the front. At the same time, Lily, a young widowed schoolteacher from Nova Scotia, ends up in the same city where she manages a brothel. Although the two women do not realize it, they share a common bond.
Johnston paints a picture of a community which is in the process of change. The novel is set in a time when the licentious Wild West, where saloons, brothels, gamblers and bachelors flourish, is in the midst of transition to a conservative city with families, schools, churches and city government. Clara and Lily work together to establish the first venereal disease clinic in the recently established province of Alberta despite opposition from this new group of settlers.
While Matrons and Madams is fiction, the author based Clara’s story on her grandmother. Johnston found a handful of letters extolling her grandmother’s many virtues, which left her to wonder why these were needed. Based off of her intrigue, she crafted her story. Johnston will continue this story; a trilogy is in the works.
I enjoyed this book; although I felt signs of being a first attempt at novel writing. At times the dialogue seemed rather stilted. Despite this, the author definitely did her research. I found the description of the early days in Lethbridge to be illuminating. I will never look at the Galt Museum (the original Lethbridge Hospital) the same way again.
Reviewed by Hilary Munro