The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman is a story about a young, unwed mother forced to give up her child. Loosely based on real life events, the book is set in Quebec during the 1950’s under the leadership of Maurice Duplessis.
The Home for Unwanted Girls is this year’s One Book, One Community selection. Bloggers Nancy, Lesley and Penny M. sat down to discuss the book:
What was your initial reaction to the book?
Nancy: I finished the book with a sense of despair and anger. Here is another example of the abuse of power that was and continues to be rampant in our world.
Lesley: I had feelings of outrage and at the same time optimism. The book covers a lot of unpleasant truths about the treatment of women and orphans in Canada, but overall it gave me hope. As a society we have come a long way from the days of asylums and terms like ‘unwed mothers’ and still continue strive for empowerment.
Penny M: I wouldn’t have chosen to read Joanna Goodman’s book if it hadn’t been this year’s OBOC pick (which is exactly what the program is meant to do – push us to read books outside what we would normally be drawn to) so I was thrilled to find that it was book that kept me interested to the end.
How would you describe the overall theme of the book?
Nancy: The underlying theme of this book was the reflection at all levels of how power corrupts and how insidiously entrenched in our societal mores the imbalance of power is. The chasms that exist between the rich and poor, the governed and the governors and the patriarchal church leadership and the masses, reflect the struggles for those who are forced to live their lives under that arbitrary inequality.
Lesley: I would say that there are many themes in the book – motherhood, women’s rights, abuse and corruption. But to me the main theme is resilience. Both characters (Maggie and Elodie) experience abuse but ultimately have the strength to form their own lives.
Penny M: It’s hard not to see this book as one that explores the abuse of power and the way that children and women were not given a voice but overall I think the author is talking about family. Joanna Goodman writes in the author’s notes that she based some of the novel on her own family’s story so it feels like she wants to celebrate the way that family can triumph over a system designed to keep them apart.
What was your initial impression of the main character Maggie? Did your perception of her change during the story?
Nancy: I liked her strength and her spirit. She was caught between wanting to live a life different than her mother’s but also her fierce loyalty and love for her father. As the story unfolded, I saw her as a woman who was trying to break free from the societal chains that have always attempted to keep women from recognizing their power. Ironically, she was able to start coming into her own when she was finally able to reignite and solidify her relationship with Gabriel.
Lesley: I also saw her as a young woman who wanted more than the average life of a woman in that time period. She didn’t want to be defined by society’s rules, which was a very difficult thing to do. As the story went on Maggie definitely formed her own unique identity.
Penny M: As the scaffolding of Maggie’s story is known to the reader it seemed a little harder to feel invested in her. I wasn’t as interested in her until she became an adult and began her life as a married woman because there was a little more to wonder about. When she left the town where she grew up and started to think for herself she became more interesting and I enjoyed her character more.
What do you think draws Maggie to her first love Gabriel? Do you think they have a healthy relationship?
Nancy: Maggie was attracted to Gabriel for the same reasons that most teenagers fall in love… sexual attraction. But their worlds were so different and infused with the prejudices that were rampant during that time. So while they had a strong physicalconnection, their emotional bond was bound to be fraught with dissonance. As they matured, they were able to overcome the chains that had previously bound them and found solace and safety in each other’s lived experience.
Lesley: I saw their relationship very differently. I saw her seeking out Gabriel as part of a negative pattern. She witnessed her father treat her mother poorly, so on some level she also picked a man who didn’t treat her well.
Penny M: Maggie and Gabriel fall in love when they are both young and she could be making some of her romantic decisions based more on rebelling against her parents than anything else. Their early conversations about their future are filled with optimism and it’s hard to be sure what might have happened in their relationship if her family hadn’t made the decisions for her. Their differences in personality could have given them balance and guided them through the hardships they would have faced with a child so early in their lives.
In the book Maggie’s daughter Elodie is sent to an orphanage and later declared mentally ill. During the 1950‘s, orphanages in Quebec were reclassified as mental institutions in order to receive more funding from the government. Where you previously aware of this scheme? What was your response?
Nancy: I wasn’t aware of this act in particular but it is reflective of the historic and on-going abuse of power perpetrated on the masses. Whether we are talking about the residential schools, the Japanese internment camps, the destitution of the working poor or the muzzling of women’s voices, the end result is the same… power and greed win out over fairness and acceptance.
Lesley: I was completely unaware of this event. I never learned about it at school or heard it mentioned on the news. I was completely outraged when I read about it and even more outraged at the fact that it seems to have been quietly buried from Canadian history.
Penny M: I don’t have a memory of reading anything about the Quebec government making these decisions but the idea that a government institution would make conscious decisions that harm the people they are meant to care for while benefitting themselves isn’t surprising to me at all. And, it is horrible to realize. I recently read Shelley Wood’s The Quintland Sisters and this novel also explores the role of government in caring for (and possibly exploiting) children and the parallels between the two books are so very interesting.
What role did the nuns who ran the institution play in shaping Elodie’s character?
Nancy: I can’t fathom how the nuns, who were supposedly agents of a loving God, could treat other human beings, especially children, in such a horrific manner. They broke Elodie for the most part but a glimmer of her strength flickered and was able to come to life with the support of those who surrounded her with unconditional love.
Lesley: Some of the nuns were kind to Elodie and some were hideously abusive. Interestingly enough, the nuns that were kind to orphans were punished for it. The abuse is certainly something Elodie carries with her throughout her story and does affect her own view of motherhood.
Penny M: When Elodie was a young orphan she was educated and cared for by the nuns. Some were benevolent and affectionate and she remembered this nurturing presence throughout her life. Unfortunately, after the decision was made to transfer orphans to the mental institutions, she was no longer cared for by nuns with the same level of concern for her health and on more than occasion they were deliberately cruel. Fortunately she was able to maintain some hold on the core good nature she formed in her early years during that horrifying period.
Which part of the book made the largest impression on you?
Nancy: The impact that religious tenets have had in shaping the belief systems that guide society. The belief that unmarried pregnant girls were sinners and deserved to be punished was/is absurd. No girl ever got pregnant alone but they were the ones to bear the onus and the shame. The church has had a devastating impact on women and there is still huge resistance to breaking those chains.
Lesley: For me, the largest impression was the extent of the abuse of the orphans that was province-wide that went on for so long. It only ended after Premier Duplessis died. No one seemed to speak out against it and there really was never any ownership of that abuse.
Penny M: The part of the book that dealt with Elodie’s adult life will always resonate for me – she is further trapped by being a young woman alone in the world just as she finds herself free of the asylum – it seemed heartbreaking after all she had suffered but she doesn’t give up. I most enjoyed the moments in her first workplace outside of the asylum, made friends and share her personality with customers. It seemed like the spark that we first saw in the little girl was returning again in a small way there.
To whom would you recommend this book?
Nancy: This would be a great book club choice. It’s not that riveting as far as the writing goes, but the story and the message would encourage much discussion.
Lesley: I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys character driven novels. It is definitely a ‘thinking’ book that has a lot of emotional subject matter. I would encourage anyone who reads it to go and learn more about “Duplessis Orphans.”
Penny M: The book has a storyline that compels you to keep reading so it would appeal to every reader. I think that it would be enjoyed by readers of any gender as there are multiple characters to identify with (or dislike so, so much). The romance between Maggie and Gabriel isn’t so overwhelming that it would scare anyone away and I loved the way that the author wove in elements like the seed store, Maggie’s married life and Gabriel’s struggling farm to make the novel complete. You come away from this it feeling as if you have enjoyed a solidly researched historical novel. It is a very satisfying read.