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The Madam    by Julianna Baggott order for
by Julianna Baggott
Order:  USA  Can
Washington Square, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Though The Madam is fictional, it was affected by the lives of Julianna Baggott's great grandmother and grandmother. Baggott weaves her characters' struggles from research into living conditions in 1920's West Virginia - including the sweat factories, the hosiery mills, the coal mines, and family secrets. Stifling hot air reeks of foul smells. 'Black dust' settles on streets, clothing, and anatomy, seeping into every nook and cranny of businesses and housing.

The book's leading lady Alma has been emotionally battered by unhappy parents, her mother Narcissus lamenting the loss of a walk-out husband, and her fondness for a black man named Prophet. Unhappiness creeps into Alma's married life as well. She continues to mourn a stillborn baby conceived at seventeen, even though she subsequently had three other children. Alma agrees to her husband's proposal to move to Florida for 'a better life'. She leaves behind her boarding house, job at the hosiery mill, an ailing mother, and children (Irving, Lettie, and Willard) who are temporarily placed in an orphanage. After Henry abandons Alma on a Miami dock, she heads back to West Virginia. En route, her car breaks down. Hitchhiker Roxy, a 'strapping' female, comes to her rescue, repairs the vehicle, and joins Alma on the homeward trek.

Approaching Marrowtown, 'Alma looks down on the city collected in the dark pit, the domed church, its spindly steeple, factories belching smoke, the outlines of buildings, homes; ... tawdry hummels, dimpled with light, ugly, shoddy'. She removes her children from the orphanage except for simple-minded Willard, who is thriving under the structure and the nuns' patient teaching. Offering shelter in her boarding house to Roxy, and opium-addicted, boyfriend-abused Delphine, Alma copes with the sudden death of her mother. With survival at stake, Roxy and Delphine encourage Alma to open a bordello. Roxy and Delphine form a loving relationship, while working with enlisted recruits at the 'house'. At fifteen, Lettie is raped by police officer Smitty, yet runs away to marry him, with dire consequences. And Irving sets out on his own, after rescuing a blind woman.

The novel is light on dialog, but a heavyweight in description, which is taken to the minutest detail. Underneath the words, runs a powerful current of emotions. Baggott speaks intensely of the vulnerability of the human condition. In her acknowledgments, she states, 'I would like to thank my ancestors--hustlers, yes, but poets, too. I know it was in you; how else can I explain its presence in me?' Not having read any of Baggott's previous works, I had pre-conceived notions of how the story would flow. At first glance I thought, 'what is the author telling me? and where is the plot?' I answered my own question as I continued to read, 'this is a story without a plot, as in writing a letter -- no plot, just purpose.' The ending is merciless, fateful, and shocking. Baggott has created a mesmerizing, stick-to-your-mind read in The Madam.

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