The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman

I’ve been reading a lot of Canadian literature of late and most of it has been chosen as a happy accident: some of the ARCs that I have selected from Reedsy Discovery like The Concrete Vineyard and Tone Dead as well as The Underpainter have been set in Canada and written by Canadians. It has not been planned at all but I tell you what, they have all been enjoyable reads. There is way more to Canadian literature than Margaret Atwood.

The Home for Unwanted Girls also falls into the enjoyable Canadian read category as it was an excellent book dealing with the quite traumatic subject matter of the placing of illegitimately born girls (and boys) into orphanages at the time that Duplessis was premier of Quebec in the 1940s and 50s. I discovered on completion of the book that they are actually known as Deplessis’ orphans and if half of what you read in Goodman’s book is true, then it was a very dark time in Quebec’s history. Basically, federal money was provided more readily for mental institutions than for orphanages and so, the people who ran the orphanages (who in Goodman’s book are nuns and therefore, you would conclude that this would be the Catholic Church, by association) changed the denomination of their orphanages to that of mental institutions to gain the subsidy. This meant that children were classified as mentally deficient or retarded and were living alongside individuals who were genuinely in need of mental care and supervision. It beggars belief really, doesn’t it? And Goodman is not shy of bringing the full trauma of this existence to life in her depiction of Elodie.

Elodie is separated from her mother, Maggie at birth. Maggie is only fifteen when she has her daughter and whilst she wants to keep Elodie, the decision is taken out of her hands by her parents who have arranged an alternative destiny for their granddaughter, the details of her placement forming part of the plot of the book.

The book is divided into two narratives where we follow Maggie’s life from the time when she is a teenager throughout her married life and in parallel, that of the baby who she is forced to give up who is placed into the orphanage system at the time of Duplessis and we see through her first hand experience the life that these children had.

Goodman evolves the stories of the two characters very well. I loved the depiction of Maggie’s attraction to Gabriel, the French farmer next door and the intensity of young love. This is all the more forbidden for the fact that Maggie’s father does not want his daughter with a Frenchman, him being English himself and their union occurring at a time in Quebec’s history where the relationship between English and French Canadians was at its most fractious, often resulting in violence between the two.

The irony of this decree by Maggie’s father is that he is married to a staunch French Canadian woman which makes his insistence that Maggie leave Gabriel alone somewhat hypocritical.

Maggie’s father owns a seed store and provides an important agricultural service to the area. This is something that Maggie hopes to inherit some day, the store and its sentimental attachment to her father being important to her but when she becomes pregnant, the obvious sign of her supposed betrayal of her father’s wishes causes an emotional rift between father and daughter that may never again be bridged.

Maggie’s life continues beyond the pregnancy and the surrendering of her baby and she marries and moves to Montreal, becoming successful in her own right. She is never told about the fate of her baby but never lets it go although the thought of where her little girl is now is never far from her thoughts.

Elodie’s life is similar to Maggie’s in that it is controlled very much by others and like Maggie, her fate is destined to be charted by the social ideas and restricted thinking of the time. Elodie is a child born from sin and so will never be treated with anything more than barely disguised contempt by the nuns and certainly not with anything that would amount to maternal affection. There is one sister, Tata, at the start of the book who seems softer than most and shows kindness to Elodie but none of the nuns really railed against the dictations of the institution they represented in Goodman’s novel. In fact, the opposite is actually true.

It is not a pleasant world. There are some comforts to Elodie’s life in the form of friends that she makes and a small doll that she has but her existence is stark especially when the orphanage suddenly has to accommodate older people as well as those with mental difficulties. Some of the description of Elodie’s life when this change takes place created a strong emotive response in me – children should never be treated this way.

And so, the two stories weave in and out of each other, as mother and daughter continue to live their lives separately, the thought of each other never far from their minds.

Do they find each other? Well, that would be telling but what I will tell you is that this is a great book about the dynamics of family; how these are influenced by the social expectations of the community around them; love and its enduring passion; ties that may fray but are never actually torn; the guile that can be found sometimes in institutionalised religion; the power of money to override the ability to do what is truly right.

I loved this book and Joanna Goodman’s other novels will definitely be on my list of books to seek out and enjoy.

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