The Home for Unwanted Girls is the compelling story of Maggie (based on the author’s mother) and her family set in 1950s Canada. At that time orphanages were being converted to hospitals for financial benefit. The Quebec government saved money changing the educational facilities to mental institutions, and the Roman Catholic Church received subsidies. Thousands of parentless children were falsely deemed mentally ill and many of the teaching nuns changed from black uniforms to white and called themselves nurses… they were complicit under the new law set in place by Canadian politician, Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis. This true to history cruel reality is the backdrop for this emotional, fast paced historical fiction novel that had me hooked.
Young Maggie loves working at her family’s seed store and hopes to take it over some day when she grows up. She and her English father, French mother and siblings live in Canada where Premier Duplessis has just been re-elected in Quebec. The distinction between the English and French has caused quiet discourse within her parents’ culturally “mixed” marriage and influenced their self worth and parental guidance. Teenage Maggie is falling in love with her French next door neighbor, Gabriel, and after several illicit rendezvous, her parents forbid her to see him. Even though her father married her mother, the French are looked down upon by the English and Maggie’s father is anticipating a brighter future for her. They send her away to her aunt and uncle’s house to keep the young love from growing, and soon after, Maggie finds herself pregnant. Her parents are ashamed and disappointed in her and she remains hidden there until the baby girl is born. She tells her father she wants to name the baby Elodie, but at the hospital the baby is taken from Maggie, as her parents had arranged to send the baby away, keeping the secret of the illegitimate girl. Maggie is young and confused but obeys her parents.
We follow Maggie as she moves on with her life, starts working, marries and Englishman, and tries to start a family. She is privately burdened with the loss of her baby girl and Gabriel, her true love.
At the same time we get to know Elodie. She has been taken to an orphanage, The Home for Unwanted Girls. Life is fine for her. It is all that she knows and what she is used to, not much love or nurturing, but she has food and shelter…until the government rule changes orphanages into mental institutions. Elodie and her orphan friends are strictly and unfairly disciplined, medicated, abused and deprived of education by the nuns. Elodie is transferred to a different facility and there are bars on the windows and she is not allowed to go outside. After hearing about the death of her friend, spending time in a straight jacket, and being drugged to sleep every night, Elodie musters up the courage to tell the doctor in the mental institution the truth – that the girls are not disabled but they are orphans. Will he believe her and who’s side is he on? Can he help her, or will she be punished for speaking out?
In the meantime, Maggie comes to the realization that her marriage will not work out and she desperately wants to find Elodie and Gabriel.
No spoilers here, you have to read it to see if mother and daughter are reunited, if a teenage love is rekindled, if there is forgiveness…but suffice it to say, this one was a tear jerker.
With historical reference regarding Canada’s leader that was google worthy for me, a forbidden Romeo and Juliet style love story that kept me engaged, mixed marriage and family values that created discourse, and a government policy that profited those who enforced it but was detrimental to a population that was already in jeopardy (which made me reflect on today), The Home for Unwanted Girls was a winner!
About the author:
Joanna is the author of four previous novels, including The Finishing School, You Made Me Love You and Harmony. Her stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Ottawa Citizen, B & A Fiction, Event, The New Quarterly, and White Wall Review.
Originally from Montreal, Joanna now lives in Toronto with her husband and two children, and is at work on her sixth novel. She is also the owner of a well-known Toronto linen store, Au Lit Fine Linens.