The Madam by Julianna Baggott is such an interesting book and, while it is fiction, it is based upon the life of Baggott’s grandmother, who must have been a brave and strong woman. The main character in The Madam is Alma and the setting in West Virginia in the year 1924. Alma and her husband have three children: Irving, Willard and Lettie.
Alma and her husband barely make enough money to feed their family, despite the long hours both of them work and the fact that they have boarders in their home (which is a traveling circus or “show” complete with a bear residing in their house – very interesting reading!). Most days, the family goes hungry and Alma and her husband are clearly exhausted and there is no reprieve in sight. Alma despises her work in the dusty hosiery factory, and she secretly is hoarding small amounts of money away from her husband. While Alma does not have a concrete plan, she often wishes she had another life altogether, and then she feels guilty for feeling that way as she has three children to look after.
The plot of the book takes off when Alma’s husband strikes a deal with a rather sinister man named “Sir Lee.” Alma’s husband arranges to buy a trunk purported to be “full of treasure” that he believes will make him rich and effectively solve the financial problems and strain that the family is experiencing. On the way to pick up the trunk, Alma and her husband drop off their two youngest children at a convent to be cared for by nuns, and the eldest son, Irving, is left to fend for himself at the house. Alma and her husband proceed to Miami, Florida, to pick up the trunk that is supposed to change their lives.
Not surprisingly, Alma knows better, but for some reason she does not want to tromp on her husband’s unrealistic dreams of becoming rich. Shortly after obtaining the mysterious trunk, Alma’s husband abandons her in Miami and Alma is forced to strike out on her own – hence the title The Madam, wherein Alma returns to West Virginia, reclaims her children, and forges ahead by running a house of prostitution in order to survive and provide for her children.
The Madam is a unique story, and Baggott does an excellent job of portraying family dysfunction and the depressing lifestyle of the poor and downtrodden in West Virginia in the 1920s, where modern conveniences, medicine and assorted things that we readily take for granted today either do not exist or are unaffordable. Alma is an interesting character and while some of her actions are odd, if not downright questionable, she is a survivor and she is a strong woman. The entire novel is well-paced and the book turned out to be quite a page-turner. I highly recommend this unique work of historical fiction, and I look forward to reading Baggott’s other books.