by Edith Cody-Rice
The Millstone interviewed Sharon Johnston about her latest novel, Patchwork Society. Mrs. Johnston has written two novels, Matrons and Madams, published in 2015, and Patchwork Society, published in 2020. Both novels are derived from the life of the author’s grandmother. Matrons and Madams spans the years 1912 to 1931. It begins in London, England in 1918 with Clara Durling, a British nurse-mother whose husband dies from complications related to injuries sustained in WWI. Patchwork Society begins in 1932 and continues the life of Clara who has lost her job in Lethbridge and has obtained a post as nursing matron of the Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste Marie. It follows Clara and her daughter Ivy to 1952. The books are part of a trilogy which will be completed when the third book, The Boy in the Orange Pyjamas, is published.
The characters in these novels are closely based on Mrs. Johnston’s family and friends: Ivy, Clara’s daughter, is based on her mother and other characters closely resemble real people she knew or knew about.
When I asked Mrs Johnston what inspired her to write her books she explained that she had some undefined idea that war had adversely affected her family. She began her research and it was thorough for each novel. She settled on a theme important to her and to society: intergenerational trauma. As she explained to me, this is real and can have a devastating effect on lives. Clara loses her husband as a result of the war and has to emigrate from England to earn a living for herself and her children. Through a doctor friend, she becomes the supervisor of a hospital in Lethbridge Alberta. As a result, her daughter Ivy, who grows up in the Lethbridge hospital feels she has never had a home and leaves her nurses’ training before completion to marry because her fiancé has built a home for her. Then she too suffers loss. As Mrs. Johnston illustrates, the loss of a man in a household, particularly at that time, results in fatherlessness, economic stress and homelessness; consequences which affect not only the immediate generation, but the children of that generation.
In writing about residential schools in Patchwork Society, Mrs. Johnston closely followed facts uncovered in her research. Her grandmother was the nursing matron at Shingwauk and she has extensive notes from her grandmother’s time at the school. In the episodes in the book, she reveals the reality of the times: the fact that catholic hospitals did not want to admit unbaptized children: that treaty Indians with tuberculosis, which was rampant in the schools, were refused admittance to sanitoria; that children who escaped from the schools were severely punished because the schools received funding on the basis of the number of students attending.
It is a tale of which we may not be proud but it is important to face it. Mrs. Johnston said that a legacy of the schools is individuals who do not respect authority and do not respect women. Siblings were separated. Respect for girls comes from mothers and sisters or girl cousins when you are living at home. There was no capacity for that in a residential school, she said. Similarly, authority in a home comes with love. There was no love with the discipline in a residential school. The trauma inflicted by these schools has been well documented.
The novel has two stories: the residential school experience and the story of Ivy, Clara’s daughter (a son died early in Matrons and Madams). It also delves into the wider society of Sault Ste. Marie: the relationships between the white Anglo Saxons and the Italians, the colourful life of the cottage country at Batchawana, the Hiawatha performances of the Garden River tribe who managed to keep their culture as their annual performances in costume brought much needed revenue to the tribe, and the Group of Seven painters who lived in a box car while painting the spectacular Algoma scenery.
Mrs. Johnston wants her readers to understand that her sources are real and thoroughly researched. Nothing is made up. She had access to extensive documentation and interviews. Although fiction, her books bring to life an era not long distant in Canadian history. Mrs. Johnston is a passionate advocate of mental health and the need to bring it out of the shadows into a “healthy sunlight”. The royalties for her book will go to support mental health research and anti-stigma programs at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.
Sharon and David Johnston live in Ashton, Ontario