When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.
I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)
Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.
As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.
Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.
Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.
My rating: 4/5
Happy reading everyone!