The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman

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My Review:

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!

Goodreads Summary

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About the author:

Joanna Goodman’s #1 Bestselling Historical Fiction novel, The Home for Unwanted Girlswas released April 17, 2018 to wide critical acclaim.

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.

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The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

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As stated on Goodreads:

A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan’s Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .

Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.

Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

My Comments:

This is a story of two lost souls attempting to survive the War. At sixteen, Noa has already lived a lifetime. She got pregnant by a Nazi soldier, got kicked out of her home, had a baby that was taken from her and was trying to make a living by working in the train station. After coming across a boxcar piled high with Jewish babies she is compelled to rescue one and run away. She calls him Theo and now must find a way to protect him from the Germans.  She seeks refuge in the traveling circus where they offer her a job in exchange for room and board.

Astrid, a Jew who grew up performing in the circus, had been married to a German soldier who was ordered by his superiors to get rid of her as the war progressed. Feeling rejected and distraught she returned to her home town but her family was gone. She approached Herr Neuroff the head of the competing circus and he hired her to work, silently agreeing to protect her.

At first, Astrid was not warm and welcoming, but ultimately both girls needed each other.   Noa finds love with the son of a Nazi, and Astrid with Peter the political clown in the circus as together they protect and nourish baby Theo and each other while trying to make a life during wartime.

Author, Pam Jenoff, paints the realistic picture of desperation as she shows us how so many people were orphaned, separated from family and committed to making an acceptable life be developing connections, setting goals and being open to falling in love during such desolate and dangerous times.   The Orphan’s Tale takes us on a heartbreaking, hopeful, touching and emotional journey; one that is not to be missed.

Published in the recent past, here are a few other great novels with a circus/side show backdrop.

9361589-1.jpgThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

As stated in Goodreads:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.

Both playful and seductive, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s spell-casting debut, is a mesmerizing love story for the ages.

43641.jpgWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen

As stated in Goodreads:
Orphaned, penniless, Jacob Jankowski jumps a freight train in the dark, and in that instant, transforms his future.

By morning, he’s landed a job with the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By nightfall, he’s in love.

In an America made colourless by prohibition and the Depression, the circus is a refuge of sequins and sensuality. But behind the glamour lies a darker world, where both animals and men are dispensable. Where falling in love is the most dangerous act of all…

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The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

As stated in Goodreads:
Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.