Matrons and Madams by Sharon Johnston
I came across this book years ago while I was researching the history of the sex trade in Lethbridge. The book is historical fiction, set in Lethbridge following the First World War. Then, brothels were semi-legal and visible downtown. The Galt Manor and the Tudor Manor apartment buildings along 7th Street S once housed such activities. Besides the sex trade, the book details the controversy and difficulty surrounding the installation of the ‘venereal disease’ clinic, which once stood beside the Galt Hospital (now the Galt Museum). Collaboration between doctors, police, patrons of the brothels and the brothel staff was difficult and mistrust flourished on all sides. In many ways, nothing has changed. The two main characters, both women from largely different backgrounds end up working together in a world dominated by men. No longer being able to work as a school teacher, Lily goes on to run a successful brothel in the city center. Clara, who successfully runs the Galt hospital is eventually forced out by male doctors who disagree with her changes. Both navigate a professional world dominated by oppressive and sexist policies, while fighting to what is best for their community. The book also details the struggles of a WWI veteran and the complexity of municipal politics. Sharon Johnston, the author, has a doctorate in rehabilitation sciences, a skill that comes out in the novel, much of which is set in the Galt Hospital. Johnson weaves a wonderful story that emphasizes ordinary human lives and human compassion. If you are reading it for this history, I recommend picking up a copy of Belinda Crowson’s, “We Don’t Talk About Those Women,” a history of Lethbridge’s sex trade.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Detransition, Baby is an extraordinary novel. The premise: three women caught in a messy tangle of romantic relationships with each other decide to raise a child together. It seems almost soapy at first glance. Especially when you add in the point that one of these women recently “detransitioned” from living as a trans woman. And it was this woman who knocked up her boss! Oh my! But what you get with Detransition, Baby is a heart-felt examination of what it means to be a woman, a mother, to love and be loved and to have your life changed profoundly. I picked up this novel because everyone and their dog seemed to be reading it and loving it, and I am not one to be behind on trends! If you, like me, are a queer who has heard your friends sing its praises, take it from me—the hype is real. If you are blissfully unaware about Detransition, Baby, then 1) you need better friends and 2) buy this book! Torrey Peters examines the complexities of ‘doing’ gender and queer relationships with such understanding and compassion, even taking on the hot-button topic of ‘detransitioning’ in a way that feels grounded. There’s also an extended Werner Herzog joke that must have been put in there just for me. In any case, this novel reminded me of the power of the medium to make one feel different perspectives and lives in a way that seems visceral and immediate. – Liam Devitt
Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon
To be honest, the reasons I enjoyed this book so much may be a result of my narrow personal tastes. I’m a sucker for gay coming-of-age stories and stories of working class life. When there’s a book that is a story of both and it’s written by Michel Foucault’s biographer, it almost seems like something cooked up in a lab to please me. Returning to Reims blends autobiography, social theory and history in a way that only sometimes feels stilted. Stilted in a very “translated from French” way, that is, so at least you feel sophisticated. Didier Eribon writes of his youth growing up in Reims, an industrial town in the north of France, and his distancing from his family as he moved to Paris and came out. He relates this simultaneously to the shift in his family and hometown’s political allegiance from the Communist Party to the far-right National Front. This work is a must read for anyone interested in how gay and lesbian politics ascended while socialist politics declined in the neoliberal era. – Liam Devitt