By Julie Kish
The Home for Unwanted Girls
A Novel by Joanna Goodman
Harper Paperbacks, 2018
The Home for Unwanted Girls is a historical fiction novel based on a true “black mark” in Canada’s Human Rights History. Between 1935 and 1960, thousands of children were placed in Quebec orphanages. Many were given up because of the negative stigma of being an unwed mother, but others were placed in orphanages when their parents were too poor to care for them.
They were comforted by the promise that the Catholic Church would provide the children with a good Christian education. Unfortunately, the orphanage system changed under the leadership of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis. Author Joanna Goodman calls it “one of Canada’s darkest scandals,” although little is known about it by people outside of Quebec.
In 1948, the federal government began providing the provinces with funding to assist with health services. The provinces would receive 70 cents per day for each child in an orphanage and $2.25 per day for each psychiatric patient. In an act of blatant inhumanity, Premier Duplessis turned orphanages into psychiatric facilities and ordered the children to be deliberately misdiagnosed as “mentally ill” or “mentally deficient.” This allowed him to receive a larger payment from the federal government.
As a result, the children would no longer receive an education, and they would be treated like psychiatric patients. Later, the survivors of these institutions, known as”Duplessis Orphans,” would recount horrendous living conditions and savage abuse at the hands of the nuns who cared for them.
The author brings the horrific details of this situation to life by creating fictional characters and inserting them into a riveting story set during this dark period.
The story spans over 25 years and is told from alternating points of view. The main protagonist is Maggie Hughes, a girl who becomes pregnant at 15 and is forced to give up her baby. The second narrator is Elodie, Maggie’s daughter who grows up in various institutions.
The novel’s beginning focuses on the forbidden teenage romance between the English girl, Maggie, and the poor French farm boy, Gabriel. There’s a little too much teenage angst for my taste, but the story soon becomes more emotionally complex as Maggie tries to move on with her life while still yearning for her child.
Meanwhile, we follow Elodie as she tries to survive institutional life. Both characters are strong females who rise above tremendous adversity.
The Home for Unwanted Girls is a beautifully written and suspenseful read with well-developed characters. It’s a winner because it kept me engaged and taught me about a previously unknown piece of Canadian history. When I finished the novel, I began researching this period in Quebec’s past to discover what happened to the “Duplessis Orphans.”
Thousands of them sought damages from the Quebec government and the Catholic Church. When the class-action suit was settled, each claimant received $10,000 plus $1,000 for each year of “wrongful confinement.”
The story of Elodie is continued in Goodman’s subsequent novel, published in 2020, The Forgotten Daughter. This novel follows Elodie’s life during the Quebec separatist movement in the 1990s.
The author, Joanna Goodman, is originally from Montreal and now lives in Toronto. She is the author of six critically acclaimed novels.