(Reviewed by JD Jung)
“Everything I have, everything I am, I owe to them–to her. …Her family tree was but a stump. And yet, the riches she bestowed upon me: my education, my inheritance…This house, in all its faded elegance, is all I have left. How I hated that it once lived as a bordello—hot jazz, Voodoo magic, and unspeakable sin oozing from every crevice.”
Anna Deubler didn’t learn the truth about her aunt until Mary was on her deathbed. Aunt Mary, who had given her everything that she ever needed or wanted, had made her money as Josie Arlington, an infamous madam at 225 Basin Street.
It took her years of maturity to accept this part of her family history. However, Madam isn’t about Anna; it is about Mary and of course, Josie—and how this money and power came at a very steep price.
New Orleans 1897 – Mary Deubler tirelessly worked Venus Alley as her mother did years ago in an area known as the Swamp. One major difference was that now no one looked out for each other; it was every girl for herself. Mary was young and alone, except for her family, who depended on her. After a long day’s work, she would wearily drag her bedding on her back (to wash and rid it of fleas) and return home where she lived with her brother and pregnant sister-in-law.
When alderman Sidney Story convinced the city council to contain prostitution in a limited area, Venus Alley was to be closed. This not only satisfied the citizens who didn’t want vice next to families, but also entrepreneurs who saw this as great for commerce and tourism. Only some of the girls would be asked to join the higher-prices houses in the new District or Storyville, as it was known as . This would leave most of the poor women destitute, and this is what Mary feared most.
Madam is a riveting novel that takes us back to the end of the nineteenth century, to a period in New Orleans history that many citizens, like Anna, wanted to forget. The book is based on a true story, with real characters and events, organized crime and yes, voodoo. Since most of the records of Storyville were destroyed, the authors had to take artistic license in order to bring this page of history back to life.
As I was reading, I felt that I was put right in the center of Venus Alley. I could feel Mary’s desperation with brief interludes of hope and trust. It’s not just Mary that we feel for, we experience the vulnerability and motivation of other characters. On the flip side, we also see the ambivalence and outright evil nature of others.
This emphasis on character in addition to a complete plot makes Madam a difficult book to put down. In fact, I just couldn’t stop reading until the very end.