Veterans, nurses and prostitutes: A reading with Sharon Johnston

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Sharon Johnston debuted her new book, <em>Matrons and Madams</em>,the first in a trilogy, Oct. 30. Fed Hall was elegantly decorated, and the atmosphere was vibrant as guests anticipated the reading.&nbsp;</p>

The host, Sandra Banks, vice-president of university relations, gave a warm welcome to Johnston.  She also recognized guest Wendy Fletcher, principal and vice-chancellor of Renison University College, as well as Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who accompanied his wife to the reading. 

Johnston read excerpts from her book, but before she began, she showed the audience a tangible visual of what one of the settings in the book would have looked like. It was a picture of a brothel: a simple one storey home, framed in brown wood and painted cream. She then went on to describe her book and some major themes that she wrote about. Johnston considered her book as a soup, which contained veterans, nurses, and surprisingly, prostitutes. The book is set in the post-First World War era, where many social and health issues were prevalent such as the pandemic flu, the Great Depression, and prohibition. 

Johnston passionately read two excerpts from her book: one of them surrounding the first protagonist Clara Durling, and the second surrounding the other protagonist Lily Parsons. Durling is a British widow who migrates to Canada after the First World War to direct Galt Hospital as wounded soldiers flood in. The book is based on 60 per cent fact, and in reality Durling is a reflection of Johnston’s grandmother who did work at Galt Hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta as a superintendent. Johnston conducted secondary research where she discovered 10 years of archives of hospital board notes during the time that her grandmother was the superintendent. All of the pages were in the board notes except for two; Johnston decided to take an emotional but fulfilling journey to find out the story behind the missing two pages. 

The second protagonist, Lily, is a young school teacher from Nova Scotia who struggled to find a job. This led her to move to Lethbridge where she ends up managing a brothel. These two protagonists work together to fund a venereal disease clinic during an outbreak. Their journey also reflects workplace discrimination towards women, and what it’s like to live in a man’s world, issues that still occur today. 

Johnston’s reading about her two determined characters transitioned smoothly into a Q-and-A, led by Shelley Hulan, an associate professor in English language and literature at UW. The audience got a chance to ask Johnston questions as well. 

An audience member inquired why Johnston chose to write a fictional novel when the book is based on real-life events. Johnston responded by saying that it gave her more latitude to write, and she also doesn’t consider herself to be a historian. 

One of the major morals in this book as described by Johnston is to “Do what life has given you and to treat it as an opportunity.” 

Banks ended the event with closing remarks mentioning that Johnston will be participating in the upcoming Toronto International Festival of Authors.  The royalties collected from her book will be donated to the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Foundation. 

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