Patchwork Society (Bread and Roses)

Written by Sharon Johnston
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1932, leaving her problems behind in Lethbridge, Alberta, Carla Durling and her teenage daughter Ivy relocate to the Northern Ontario town of Sault Ste. Marie (called “the Soo”). Having few options, Carla becomes the head nurse at the poorly managed and dilapidated Shingwauk Residential School for Indigenous children torn from their families in nearby and distant reserves. Carla manages to perform her duties efficiently, despite the crumbling buildings, water leakages, blocked toilets, and frightened and demoralized children. She also deals with the older children’s sexual dalliances. Carla settles in a respectable neighborhood, but with the Depression taking its toll, there is considerable unemployment and discord among the multiethnic residents. However, Carla does provide social opportunities for Ivy to mingle with other teenagers by renting a cottage during the summers at a picturesque nearby lake. Although Ivy has a brush with the law, on account of a bootlegging girlfriend, she is befriended by the son of a wealthy family. It seems Carla’s wishes for a serene life are materializing, but WWII and other events splinter her dreams.

This book is the second of a series by Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, wife of Canada’s former Governor General. The novel’s intimately detailed settings, in and around the Soo, and the description of the Residential School and the students feels very realistic. Indeed Ms. Johnston grew up in that part of Northern Ontario, and her grandmother was the head nurse of the same school. This personal knowledge, coupled with extensive research, enabled her to pen a brilliant novel of life, politics, treatment of Indigenous children, and systemic racism of that era, some of which is still prevalent today. Apart from exquisite descriptions of the region, the novel has some lighthearted moments – such as the prank played on the former Prime Minister Lester Pearson during a dinner party, which didn’t dupe the PM. Highly recommended.