BrooklynFans Of Books: “The Home For Unwanted Girls”

The Home For Unwanted Girls

By Joanna Goodman

Harper; on sale Tuesday, April 17, $16.99

Maggie Hughes is a young unwed mother forced to abandon her baby to a merciless public welfare system, and the lengths to which the two will go to find one another in a society that seems desperate to keep them apart.

Set in 1950s Quebec, when the French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility, Joanna Goodman has created a provocative tale of secrets and lies, love and longing, and the unbreakable bond of motherhood in The Home For Unwanted Girls.

Maggie idolizes her Anglo father, who has lofty ambitions for his daughter that don’t include marriage to the poor, orphaned French boy who lives on the neighboring farm.

Garbril Phenix has caught Maggie’s eye and she refuses to break it off with him even after she is sent away to live with her aunt and uncle. Then the fifteen-year-old girl becomes pregnant, and her ashamed parents make arrangements behind her back.

As soon as Maggie gives birth, her baby daughter Elodie is taken from her, but not before she vows to find her way back to the little girl someday.

Elodie is put into Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system to be raised by a child born in sin until she is adopted. Her life takes a tragic turn when a new law is passed that grants psychiatric hospitals more federal funding than orphanages.

Overnight, Elodie and thousands of other orphans are declared mentally ill, and ruining any hope they had of living a normal life outside the home.

Elodie is a bright and perceptive child who knows that something is not right, that she is not insane. While trapped behind bars, she has no choice but to endure the abuses and maltreatment of the nuns who see her as less than human.

After enduring years of harsh labor and brutal punishments, the laws are overturned and Elodie is released from prison, but at seventeen years old, with no education, no resources, and no experience living in the real world, her new life is every bit as difficult as the one she left behind.

As Elodie is continuing to battle, Maggie’s life has moved on exactly as her parents hoped it would. She is married to a successful businessman and eager to start a family, but she is unable to forget the daughter that she had taken away from her at such a young age.

Maggie has a fateful reunion that brings old wounds and old loves back to the surface, and with that, she realizes that to take hold of her future, she must reclaim her past, including her daughter.

After her search, marked by doors being slammed in her face, leads to a dead end, she finally understands that it must end where it all began, with her father, who worshipped her as a child, gave her everything, and then took it all away when he was the one to take her daughter from her arms.

Goodman, the author of four previous novels including The Finishing School, does an exceptional job in The Home For Unwanted Girls of confronting a terrible past marked by history that is almost too shocking to comprehend, and in the process gives Maggie and Elodie something women at that time did not have, a chance for truth, happiness, and a chance at redemption.

All of this makes The Home For Unwanted Girls an emotionally raw and a compelling page-turner that you can’t put down.

Behind The Book: The Home For Unwanted Girls

By Joanna Goodman

In the early 1950s, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis falsely classified thousands of orphans as mentally ill in order to get more funding. At the time, the federal government paid higher subsidies to mental hospitals than it did to orphanages. Overnight, these orphans – considered “children of sin” born to unwed mothers in a time when abortion and contraceptives were illegal – were declared “mentally insane.” Orphanages were converted to mental hospitals, schooling stopped and many of the children were shipped off to proper psychiatric institutions run by the Catholic Church, where they suffered heartbreaking sexual and physical abuse. Some were lobotomized and others died there. Without a basic education, the survivors often faced a life of poverty and discrimination that followed them long after they left the hospitals.

This is the setting for my new novel, The Home For Unwanted Girls. In 1950, Maggie, an unwed mother, is coerced into giving up her infant daughter, Elodie. As one of the “Duplessis Orphans,” Elodie is eventually declared mentally insane and institutionalized, even though she knows in her heart she is not crazy. Her mother, Maggie, embarks on a decades-long quest to find her daughter in a system invested in keeping them apart.

I’ve always been fascinated with Quebec politics, particularly with the long volatile history between French and English. I was first inspired to write about my mother’s childhood growing up in Quebec with a French-Canadian mother and an Anglophone father, and the confusion she felt at being neither fully one nor the other in a province that demanded a side be picked. It was during my research that I stumbled upon the shocking history of the Duplessis orphans, and I knew I had to tell their story.

 

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