Elodie is an orphan, which, Tata has explained, means she does not have a mother or a father. When Elodie once asked her why not, she was told quite plainly, “You live in a home for unwanted girls because you were born in sin and your mother could not keep you.”
The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman is a historical novel based on true events in Quebec during the 1950s and ’60s, at a time where the province is governed under Premier Maurice Duplessis dictatorship, and there is a divide between the French Canadians and the English Canadians.
Living in this era is 15 year-old Maggie Hughes, an innocent girl who dotes on her English-speaking father and dreams of one day taking over his seed shop. However, Maggie finds herself torn between abiding by her father’s rule, and allowing her feelings to bloom for her neighbour, Gabriel Phénix, a poor, rough around the edges French Canadian, the type of guy Maggie’s father has ruled her to avoid.
Conflicted between love and honour, Maggie chooses love, and shortly after becomes pregnant with his child and is forced to give up her baby, Elodie. Elodie is sent to an orphanage, while Maggie is forced to continue living a life that never bore a daughter. Meanwhile, Elodie becomes a Duplessis orphan, and is falsely certified as mentally ill.
Following the birth of her daughter, Maggie’s narrative is interwoven with Elodie’s, where the reader has a glimpse into Maggie’s heartache and longing for her unknown daughter, and insight into the horrific treatment Quebec orphans in the ‘50s were subjected to, and what Elodie goes through.
I could not put this book, I was engrossed in the story of Maggie and her daughter Elodie, and did not want it to end. It is a heartbreaking, beautiful and powerful story about love and family.This dark part of Canada’s history was unknown to me prior to reading this novel, and I feel guilty for not knowing, but The Home for Unwanted Girls (and Google) made me aware of this ugly part of Quebec’s past.
History of Duplessis Orphans
During the 1940s and ’50s, several thousand orphans and children born out of wedlock were “reclassified” by authorities as mentally ill and placed in psychiatric hospitals. Premier Maurice Duplessis’s government was receiving a federal subsidy of $1.25 per orphan, but psychiatric patients were more lucrative at $2.75 each. Overnight, Catholic-run orphanages were converted to hospitals, and the young residents were treated like unpaid servants, forced to clean and provide basic care for other patients. Only later did the stories of physical, psychological and sexual abuse by nuns and other workers come out. (The Quebec government has offered financial retribution to the survivors, but the church has never formally apologized.) (Source)