by Edith Cody-Rice
In March 2020, local novelist Sharon Johnston released her second novel into the void that was Covid 19. No book launches, no bookstore visits, it sat quietly in the quiet space that was the arts in that challenging year. But now we are coming out of Covid and her book Patchwork Society is coming into its own. And how very timely it is. The title Patchwork Society is reflective of the diverse society of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, the setting for the novel and the childhood home of the author. Composed of white Anglo Saxons (frequently the upper crust), a large community of Italians and aboriginal tribes, it encapsulates the reality of many Ontario communities. One of the striking features of The Soo, as its citizens call it, is the centuries old depth of aboriginal society there.
The book is timely because of its focus on the Shingwauk Residential school that operated in the city. The principle protagonist of the story is Clara, a British trained nursing matron who had emigrated to Canada some years before. We have met Clara before. She was the principal character in Mrs. Johnston’s first novel, Matrons and Madams, which set Clara, newly arrived in Canada, in a hospital in Lethbridge Alberta. In this book, Clara has arrived in the Soo as the school nursing matron at Shingwauk.
All of the characters in the book are based on real people and all of the incidents are based in fact. This is historical fiction: nothing is made up and the story it tells is compelling. This is a both universal and local story in the mid twentieth century tradition. It is a straight forward well told tale of the life of Clara, her family and friends who are living out seemingly unremarkable lives in small town Canada. There will be no heroics or Orders of Canada for these people. But they are the solid Canadian characters who form and strengthen community, with all their outstanding qualities and their faults.
Happy endings are not guaranteed, just as in real life, and Clara’s life and that of her daughter Ivy and their friends is presented in episodes. These episodes bring forward the atmosphere of mid 20th century Canada with issues that still haunt us today. The residential school is presented, not in excruciating detail, but in enough so that the description and the incidents that occur there outline the cruelty and carelessness of these government run schools. Reading this novel brings the reality of these run down schools to life in their many aspects, including rather heartless handling of children, the rampant disease, and the financial constraints which forced administrators to make callous choices.
Clara is a positive, pragmatic and sensible character and of her generation, with some, but not all, of its mores and prejudices. Her forthright character causes her to be outspoken to a fault at times, and to interfere where she is not appreciated. She is a battler while her daughter Ivy, will purchase peace at any cost.
The book has many of the qualities of a screen play: it seems camera ready. There are few interior monologues that are not expressed in speech or in action. And for those of us of a certain generation, it evokes memories of how things were back in the 1940’s and 50’s. Don’t we recall wedding showers, white showers (where the gifts were sheets and linens), teas and the wedding gift displays so you could compare your gift to others which sometimes resulted in a lively competitions; the experiences of our youth, residences and curfews and girls who had to truncate their educations because of unwanted pregnancies in this pre pill era; neighbours who felt free to discipline local children.
It is satisfying to read a story so firmly rooted in our own lives: Characters go to the University of Toronto, Havergal, or to nurses’ training at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. They stay at the King Edward or Royal York hotels in Toronto and shop at Eaton’s and go to church at Christ’s Church on the Hill in Toronto. Those from Sault Ste. Marie will recognize other locales and won’t need (as I did) to ask Mrs. Johnston if Batchawana actually exists (it does).
Mrs. Johnston’s novel is a solid, well told story. A good choice for summer reading.
Publisher: Dunburn 260 pages