In 1950s Quebec, French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility—much like Maggie Hughes’ parents. Maggie’s English-speaking father has ambitions for his daughter that don’t include marriage to the poor French boy on the next farm over. But Maggie’s heart is captured by Gabriel Phénix. When she becomes pregnant at fifteen, her parents force her to give baby Elodie up for adoption and get her life ‘back on track’.
Little Elodie is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system. It’s a precarious enough existence that takes a tragic turn when Elodie, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, is arbitrarily declared “mentally ill” as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than it does to orphanages.
Bright and determined, Elodie withstands abysmal treatment at the nuns’ hands, finally earning her freedom at seventeen, when she is thrust into an alien, often unnerving world.
Meanwhile, Maggie, married to a businessman eager to start a family, cannot forget the daughter she was forced to abandon, and a chance reconnection with Gabriel spurs a wrenching choice. As time passes, the stories of Maggie and Elodie intertwine but never touch, until Maggie realizes she must take what she wants from life and go in search of her long-lost daughter, finally reclaiming the truth that has been denied them both.
(synopsis from the author’s official website)
The Story Behind the Story
The Home for Unwanted Girls is inspired by the story of Joanna’s mother, who was the daughter of an Anglo “Seed Man” and a French-Canadian mother. Joanna is married to a French-Canadian man, and Joanna is bi-lingual and multi-cultural.
The book also features an historical angle: Maggie’s search to find out what happened to her daughter, and Joanna’s portrayal of Elodie’s travails in various mental institutions, is a tragedy of operatic dimensions, all the more so because it is based on fact. In the province of Quebec in the early fifties, there was a dark period when the orphans were declared mentally ill because the government paid the Church more money for wards of hospitals than they paid for orphans. Overnight, on Change of Vocation Day, the children’s educations stopped abruptly and they were told they were “mentally deficient.” Many of them were shipped off to actual psychiatric hospitals, where they lived with the mentally insane well into adulthood.