Joanna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls is an engaging exploration of character, culture, and a shocking act in Canadian history.
Maggie Hughes is a likable 15-year old with typical aspirations of love who dreams of career success in taking over her father’s business. We see her as a relatively mature if sheltered, a teenager who navigates the household tensions between her French mother and English-speaking father and explores the boundaries of love with Gabriel, her poor French boyfriend. Maggie’s pregnancy by Gabriel is the catalyst that changes everything.
Despite Maggie’s love for Gabriel, her father refuses to entertain any possibility of their relationship. In what perhaps many parents of the time would consider an appropriate decision, Maggie is separated from Gabriel who is kept ignorant of the pregnancy. When baby Elodie is born, she is placed in an orphanage.
In Elodie’s story are two truths: the deplorable and horrific treatment of the “Duplessis orphans” and the resiliency of the human spirit.
In Quebec at that time, federal funding for hospitals was more generous than for orphanages, so the Catholic Church devised a scheme to reclassify orphanages as psychiatric institutions. Orphaned children were falsely diagnosed as being mentally unfit to justify the reclassification. When this happened, the nuns in charge stopped educating the children, forced them to labor, and abused them both physically and mentally. This was the life of Elodie. How she survives and what she makes of her life as an adult is a testament to her character. Goodman might have explored this development in more detail to more credibly create a sense of Elodie’s growth from childhood, but the narrative is nevertheless compelling.
While Elodie suffers, Maggie grows up and looks for love after Gabriel. And, while she hopes Elodie was adopted and loved she is haunted by fear and guilt over forsaking her daughter. Without a confidante or guide, Maggie’s own mental health is in danger.
Goodman weaves the story of Maggie and Elodie by alternating between their lives as time goes by. This technique gives readers a knowledge of characters that they do not have of each other, making for both a riveting and emotional experience. As the stories are not necessarily parallel in time, we learn a lot about each of the women as they try to make the most of lives that are incomplete.
Maggie and Elodie’s experiences reflect a reality of Canadian living at the time. The political backdrop against which the story is set is instrumental in shaping the characters and their experiences. Goodman explores family and community dynamics, politics, and simple human emotion to tell a story for our time. She has created realistic characters who we love and despise in turn, because we know them. They are not perfect, but they are real in their emotion and their motivation. Their stories are compelling and satisfying. There were instances of events being slightly contrived, but that can be excused when the characters are so much like people we know. So much like ourselves…
A wonderful read! Highly recommend!