Tensions are at an all-time high in 1950s Québec where this story takes place and narrates the ill-fated paths of a mother and daughter who live tragic and complicated lives.
This book made me realize just how crucial Canadian literature is to my understanding of Canada and its history. I’d learned about the Quiet Revolution in Quebec in class but never with this kind of context.
The Quiet Revolution (la Révolution tranquille) took place primarily in the 1960s but the political party in power during the time of this novel was the Union Nationale, led by Maurice Duplessis in the 50s. Their policies and views were met with opposition as being conservative, especially in their close relationship with the Catholic Church. Alongside Québec’s tensions with the federal government regarding its autonomy, the province’s tie to the Catholic Church gradually diminished during this era as well.
Political and cultural context is SO key when it comes to understanding the foundation for the plot of this book. I definitely feel that not only my being a Canadian but my awareness of the Québécois history that shapes the timeframe of this novel definitely helped me appreciate it more as a whole.
The novel switches back and forth between the perspectives of mother and daughter, Maggie and Elodie, respectively. I’ll admit, alternating points of view made me a little wary because I prefer to really connect with a single narrative voice but it’s in third-person, which gives the whole book a sense of uniformity, and it reveals just enough about each character to leave you curious at the end of their chapter.
Though we are told, time and time again, not to judge books by their cover – I definitely do it. After determining I like the cover, I read the blurb. And once that gets the green light, I settle on the first line of text. If the first line (or two) of the book captivates me, I’m sold.
The Home for Unwanted Girls opens with a delightful yet sombre excerpt from a poem by John Clare called “To an Insignificant Flower Obscurely Blooming in a Lonely Wild”. It’s three alternately-rhyming stanzas that perfectly encapsulate the way both Maggie and Elodie move through the world.
“. . .And though thou seem’st a weedling wild, / Wild and neglected like to me, / Thou still art dear to Nature’s child, / And I will stop to notice thee.”
It resonates with both Maggie’s wonderfully stubborn nature and Elodie’s life of displacement. From weedlings to wildflowers, they live their lives separate and hopelessly separated and though there’s room for hope in the ending, it’s still rather heavy.
The characters in this book, especially Maggie, were given the license to make both good and bad decisions and I feel fortunate to have gotten the honour to follow their stories right up until the end. Gabriel, Maggie’s primary love interest, is nowhere near perfect but even as Maggie’s English father disapproves of her love of this French boy, I’m still convinced I should root for him, because after all what has he done except love and adore her?
And Elodie, oh my gosh. The sorrow in her story, her existence, her eyes – it was the heaviest part of the novel and she was the character my heart hurt for the most. To imagine that there were children who had to endure that experience makes my heart break in a way that I can’t explain.
To explain further, she was among the Duplessis Orphans who were approximately 20,000 children, orphans under the government’s care, who were falsely registered as psychiatric patients in a province-wide conversion of all orphanages to psychiatric hospital. The latter institutions were compensated a higher wage ($2.75 a day for psychiatric patients versus $1.25 for orphans) for those under their care. The Premier of Québec, Maurice Duplessis, was a devout Catholic and entrusted the administration of schools, orphanages, and hospitals to the Catholic Church – who facilitated this change in order to claim higher government subsidies for orphanages registered in psychiatric hospitals as patients.
The Catholic Church has not accepted blame for these charges and allegations and refuses to provide financial recompense to victims of this harmful scheme.
Goodman’s narrative includes this very important aspect of Canadian history that is both shocking and required knowledge. After all, they say history repeats itself, and how can that be anticipated in the future without proper recollection of the past?
I can only hope that this brilliant novel finds its way into the Canadian literature canon, because it should definitely be there.