A sweeping tale of life in Sault Ste. Marie from the 1930s through the Second World War.
Clara Durling and her teenage daughter, Ivy, move to Sault Ste. Marie in 1932, where Clara is starting a job as head nurse at the local residential school. As Clara adjusts to life in the Soo, she discovers the town is a many-layered society.
Clara works with Indigenous children who have been ripped from their communities and now live frightening, lonely lives in a crumbling building. While Clara struggles to deal with the despair at the school, Ivy makes a friend from the working-class Italian community and has a brush with the bootlegging underworld.
After high school, Ivy heads to nursing school in Montreal but finds society’s expectations for young women do not foster their self-reliance. As Ivy struggles with sexism and societal norms, she and Clara seek to bring humanity to those living at the margins of society.
About the author
Sharon Johnston grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and graduated with a degree in physical and occupational therapy from the University of Toronto. She completed a doctorate in rehabilitation science from McGill University and ran a horse-training business called Chatterbox Farm. Among her many duties as the wife of Governor General David Johnston, Her Excellency finds time to recount the struggles of veterans adjusting to life in Canada after the Great War. Presently, she resides in Ottawa at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Excerpt: Patchwork Society (by (author) Sharon Johnston)
Sass quit nursing school and returned to Senneville long before her condition showed. Ivy’s own indecision contrasted with her friend’s gumption.
“Why did you enroll in the RVH nursing school?” Ivy asked while Sass was packing her suitcase.
“I wanted to be a writer of romance novels, and RVH has a cosmopolitan clientele. I nursed a man wounded in the robbery of a downtown bank and talked to the cops guarding his room. A diseased prostitute working on St. Laurent Street and an unmarried pregnant girl who attempted to hang herself are all great fodder for a romance novelist. My mother can take the stories I don’t use for her crime books.”
“I wish I had your confidence,” Ivy lamented, giving Sass a farewell embrace. From her dormer window, she watched the Mitchells’ car pull away. The large trunk left in Sass’s room was the only evidence she had occupied it. The trunk would be on the train to Senneville the next day. Ivy sat on the stripped bed and cried. Sass’s parents and her fiancé, Robert, had left Sass’s free spirit intact. “I’m a pawn,” Ivy whispered, as though her friend was still in the room. She curled up on Sass’s bed and slept.
In March 1935, Red booked himself into the Windsor Arms Hotel in Montreal for a three-day seminar on the use of ferrocement in domestic construction. Ivy, forewarned of his trip, had saved her monthly late-night pass to have dinner with Red. He greeted her in the hotel’s large wood-panelled foyer, looking more like a businessman than the outdoorsman she knew him to be. Red ordered cocktails for them, and they sat in the foyer with other diners waiting to be called by the waiter. Ivy was keen to impress Red.
“Is ferrocement a new product?” she asked, recalling Red’s letters.
“Ferrocement has been around for a hundred years. It was used to build small ships in the war.”
“Wouldn’t a cement ship sink?”
Red laughed and patted Ivy’s hand. “No!”
“Don’t patronize me, Red Donnelly,” she said playfully, pulling away.
The waiter indicated that their table was ready, and they followed him into a corner of the dining room about twenty feet from an upright piano. The black jazz pianist glanced in their direction with his finger on his ear. “Got a song?” he asked.
“Later,” Red said, matching his white-tooth smile with the black man’s friendly grin. Turning to Ivy, he asked, “What have you been up to?”
“My friend, Sass Mitchell, got pregnant over the holidays and has quit nursing school.”
“Hmm, that doesn’t seem wise. There are better reasons to quit. Like marriage.”
The waiter interrupted to get their order. Red chose venison tenderloin, while Ivy selected chicken in a white wine sauce.
“Do you have wine by the glass?” Red asked.
“Only bottles,” the waiter replied.
Red chose a rosé from the wine menu, something suitable for white or dark meat. Then he leaned forward. “My mother informed me that Clara’s no longer renting at Batchawana.”
“She’ll run interference until I graduate,” Ivy offered. “Mum will make sure I’m not swept off my feet by you beforehand by keeping us apart. She was single and seventeen when she entered St. George’s Hospital in London to train as a nurse. Mum wanted to be Florence Nightingale, dedicated and self-sacrificing. She didn’t spend her childhood in a hospital.”
“Did you have other plans?”
“I wanted to go to New York and take Columbia University’s writing course. There just wasn’t enough money to do that.”
Reaching across the table, Red bumped the bottle of wine that the adept waiter, with a swift catch, stopped from toppling.
“Lovers,” he crooned as he returned the bottle to the table.
“If Sass can kick over the traces, so should I,” Ivy said. “But I’m not Sass.”
“You’re what I want,” Red said, tapping Ivy’s foot. They lingered over coffee and then Red asked reluctantly for the bill, adding a good tip.
A young businessman arm in arm with a girl in a fur coat weren’t remarkable on Sherbrooke Street. Passing the Carsley mansion, Ivy told Red about Hugh lugging her blanket-loaded toboggan up the hill.
“Are you dating him?” Red asked, twirling Ivy to face him and backing her up the hill.
“Are you jealous?”
Red frowned. “Just a straight answer will do.”
“We went out for coffee before he left for Europe. He’s backpacking with his girlfriend for a year before entering McGill.”
“I don’t want to wait until you finish nursing school,” Red said with an intensity that thrilled and pained Ivy.
“Let’s not give my mother a heart attack. I shouldn’t have brought up Hugh Carsley.”
At the front entrance of Royal Victoria, Red handed Ivy a package. “These are the architect’s drawings for the house I want to build on Hilltop. Our house.” He embraced Ivy and then pulled away. “Look at them and let me know if you want changes. I hope we don’t have to delay getting married.” He chuckled. “I should threaten to live in sin with you if Clara objects to us getting married.”
Ivy watched as he stepped into a waiting taxi, twisting his torso so he could wave goodbye.
When Ivy entered the hospital, she told the curious receptionist, “I had a lovely evening.” As soon as she reached her room, she tore open the envelope of plans and spread them on the bed. The dressing closet, French doors, and fireplace are just what I had asked for.
A thrilling and thought-provoking examination of systematic racism, gender-based bias, and small-town culture, Patchwork Society is page-turning historical fiction that will both illuminate and entertain.
In her matter-of-fact style, Sharon Johnston creates an engaging narrative of life in and around Sault Ste. Marie as witnessed by her grandmother, recounting her reports of the daily experiences of First Nations children in residential schools — housed in condemned buildings, forbidden to speak their language, lacking proper healthcare, stripped of their identity. Patchwork Society is a must read for those who want to know about the damaging legacy of the past which underlies the situations we all face today.
Roberta Jamieson, President and CEO, Indspire
A brilliant novel of life, politics, treatment of Indigenous children, and systemic racism... Highly recommended.
Historical Novel Society
Sharon Johnston portrays her true-to-life characters through good times and bad, during the 30s and 40s in the Soo. Most importantly, she writes with honesty, respect, and a good measure of love.
Frances Itani, author of Tell
Set in the expanding city of Sault Ste Marie, Patchwork Society portrays the myriad peoples, immigrant, Native, and White, who are banding together to try to create a new society. Gripping and heartbreaking!
David Staines, literary critic and professor at University of Ottawa
Patchwork Society is an authentic and rather jarring account of ‘the Soo’ — it describes a community bound together by the beauty and isolation of the north; yet reveals a complex (patchwork) society, defined by the social, cultural and economic diversity of a unique and resilient town.
Karen Jurjevich, Principal, Branksome Hall