Yes, The Madam does refer to the world’s oldest profession, and yes, Alma, the titular madam, does arrive at it in one of the usual ways (poverty), but there is little of the stereotypical or salacious. Living in West Virginia in the 1920s, Alma, her husband, and their three children have a hardscrabble, Depression-era life. Henry and Alma take off to Florida to chase a dream of riches, leaving their oldest in their house and the two youngest in the orphanage. Only Alma returns, Henry preferring to continue chasing the dream. Joining forces with the discarded, junkie mistress of the local rumrunner and the giantess who falls in love with her, Alma decides that her only option is to open a whorehouse.
Baggott’s great-grandmother was a madam, and her grandmother (Lettie in the novel) was raised among her prostitutes. The author reveals, with honesty and sympathy, the day-to-day life of a madam: the fending off and buying off of the local sheriff, Alma’s efforts to keep Lettie’s life normal. It is this latter concern that drives the end of the novel, and Alma’s solution, while drastic, is as understandable as her decision to become a madam. Baggott has written a beautiful tribute to the women in her family.