Skip to main content

The Home for the Unwanted Girls

He who plants a seed plants life.
Family relationships are complicated. And novelists have long used this premise to weave a tale of intrigue and suspense. Joanna Goodman's new novel, The Home For Unwanted Girls, is based on this idea. 

Set in 1950s Quebec, right in the centre of the French and English political turmoil, the novel is filled with secrets, deceit, family and love. As the title suggests, the story centres around the abandonment of a child. 

Maggie Hughes' parents represent both sides of the French and English resistance. Maggie's English-speaking father is pro-Anglo and has ambitious plans for his daughter, including going to an elite English school and definitely not interacting with French-speaking boys. The irony is that, his wife, Maggie's mother is francophone. Maggie has always been daddy's little girl and when it comes to taking sides, she's going to lean on the side of her father. She's always at odds with her mother, who constantly complains of her turning into another version of him. There's a lot of bickering in their household, and Maggie can't for the life of her understand why her father married her mother in the first place. They always seem to be at each others throats. 

But the heart wants what the heart wants, and despite all the warning Maggie falls in love with the French boy next door.  Gabriel Ph√©nix is everything her father has warned her about. Poor, uneducated, unsophisticated -- a troublemaker. 

At fifteen, Maggie becomes pregnant and she is forced to give up her daughter Elodie for adoption. 

As she tries to move on with her life, settling in with the choice of husband her father approves, she just can't shake the feeling of wanting to know what had become of her daughter. If she was safe and well cared for. 

It's not just so simple a story of family dynamics and regret. All this is happening at a time in Quebec when a government interference imposes a new law that provides more funding for psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages. (For an historical view of what happened in Quebec during this period, look up Duplessis Orphans). 

Greed is the ugly underbelly which society cannot toss aside, and with the choice placed before them, the impoverished orphanages in Quebec see their opportunity for getting a slice of that pie. This of course comes at a cost. Young orphans (including Elodie) who are already in these homes, find themselves placed in the crossfire. As the orphanages begin the transformation to psychiatric institutions, the existing "unwanted" children must go somewhere. There are heartbreaking consequences to most of them, including Elodie. 

Your heart breaks with the injustices, with the compassionate nature of Elodie's and Maggie's characters, and with the horrific realization that this all feels real. And it is. Joanna Goodman's The Home For Unwanted Girls is actually based on a true story. 

The story is beautifully told from different perspectives. We know of Maggie's desperation to live her life the way she wants, to love who she wants, and the sacrifice she must make for her family. We follow Elodie and she makes her way through the system of Quebec's forgotten children...those abandoned by their mothers at birth and who face the stigma in the orphanage world as not worthy because of their's birth parent's choice. 

There is a lot of anger you feel as a reader, taking in the deplorable treatment young children face at the hands of nuns who ran the orphanages. A not so distant history is laden with thousands of examples of inhuman treatment of those they don't deem to be in the same class as themselves. Whether it's the natives, or minorities, or children, the world seems to continue to remind us of the unethical and unjust nature of a class that wants to stay in power and will wield it with no compunction, at the expense of those they don't deem fit to be in their presence. 

Blog post by @ShilpaRaikar 

Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.