At this point in history, most of us know about the Native residential schools. Some of us might be aware that there were, in fact, slaves in Canada. Let’s not forget the boatloads of Jews who were sent back to Europe during the Holocaust to meet their fate in the concentration camps. There was also the appropriation of the Dionne Quintuplets who were taken from their parents and made into tourist attractions. I would, however, be willing to bet that few Canadians are aware of the travesty orphans in Quebec orphanages suffered in the 1940s and 50s, something The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman strives to bring to the fore.
In The Home for Unwanted Girls, fifteen-year-old half-English/half-French Maggie gets pregnant by her French boyfriend. When the girl, named Elodie, is born, her parents whisk the baby off to be adopted by a Jewish couple who cannot adopt through the system, but Elodie is sickly at birth, and the couple backs out. The only thing left to do is to give the baby to an orphanage. When Elodie is 11, she meets with a doctor who declares her mentally insane so she can be admitted to the insane asylum to which the facility is about to be converted. Told the other is dead, Elodie and Maggie stumble through life, unable to rise above the circumstance of Elodie’s birth which, in Catholic rural Quebec, is a horrific sin.
Search for the “Duplessis Orphans” to learn the whole story. In a nutshell, the Catholic-run institution found it could make more money housing the mentally ill than orphans, so they had the residents in their orphanages declared mentally insane so they could keep living in their institutions and collecting money for their incarceration. The Duplessis orphans were treated no differently than the other inmates, receiving the same, harsh punishments and no education. The orphans were not removed from the institutions until after 1962. They were eventually issued an apology in 1999 and paid damages in 2006, but the damage for “an estimated two to four thousand children [who] were physically, mentally, and sexually abused” had already been done.” As would be imagined, the orphans found it difficult to integrate back into society after their experiences. The character of Maggie is inspired by Goodman’s mother, who was the daughter of a French Catholic married to an English “seed” man (one who makes a living selling seeds like Maggie’s father in the novel), but the rest of the book is based on Goodman’s research into the Duplessis orphans while giving a “deeper historical context into some of the long-running tensions that still exist between the province’s French and English communities.”
The Home for Unwanted Girls was an incredible read which I was unable to put down and finished in less than a week. Some of the attraction is akin to slowing down to catch a glimpse of the aftermath of an accident—we are so enticed by the devastation that we can’t look away. Elodie’s story while incarcerated, based on an actual, first-person exposition by a Duplessis orphan, propels the story forward, as do Maggie and Gabriel’s will-they-won’t-they relationship. Will Maggie and Gabriel get back together? Will Gabriel ever find out about Elodie’s existence? Will Maggie and Elodie ever be reunited? Read Joanna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls to find out.