"The novel centers around the definition, the challenges, the triumph of family, but it also acknowledges that Elodie and Maggie's story is one of many. The ending hits a perfect emotional note: bittersweet and honest, comforting and regretful." - Kirkus Reviews
Philomena meets The Orphan Train in this suspenseful, provocative novel — the story of a young unwed mother who is forcibly separated from her daughter at birth and the lengths to which they go to find each other.
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.
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.
Duplessis Orphans Have an Advocate in Novelist Joanna Goodman - The Montreal Gazette
With The Home for Unwanted Girls, the Montreal-raised author set out to keep a shameful chapter of Quebec history in the collective mind... [She] isn’t taking anything for granted.
“That was a special day for me,” said the Montreal-raised Toronto resident a few days after our initial interview in a café at Mont-Royal and St-Urbain. “I was sitting in a coffee shop, in my old neighbourhood, looking out at my old streets, being interviewed by the Montreal Gazette. The whole thing was so full-circle.”
With deep roots in Quebec, the effusive author comes by her pride and nostalgia honestly. But as her new novel attests, no one can accuse her of rose-tinting.
What was conceived as a story inspired by her mother’s Montreal youth in a mixed French-English, Catholic-Protestant household evolved organically into a bigger canvas that takes in one of the darkest chapters in Quebec’s history: the Duplessis government’s 1950s conversion of church-run orphanages in the province into mental institutions in order to qualify for more funding from the federal government, a move that effectively reclassified thousands of healthy children as patients. The Home for Unwanted Girls represents one of literary fiction’s first head-on encounters with that shameful episode; as such, it is a crucial contributor to a conversation that this province and this country needs to have.
Goodman doesn’t have to look far back in her family tree to find all the quintessential Quebec drama a writer should need. Her Welsh grandfather ran a popular seed store in east-end Montreal; her French-Canadian grandmother grew up poor in Hochelaga, was forced to leave school in the second grade and was excommunicated for marrying a Protestant.
“That union was challenging,” Goodman said of her grandparents’ marriage, her tone implying extreme understatement. “They were polar opposites in culture, background, language, like this symbolic little capsule of what was happening, and has always been happening, in the province: a simmering tension not just between French and English, but between the classes.”
An only child, Goodman grew up at a time of political and social ferment — “The two referendums bookend my childhood” — and experienced an epiphany on the night of the second one, in 1995. Studying journalism at the time, she was in the No campaign headquarters at Metropolis as an intern for Reuters.
“Once the results had come in and the No side had scraped by, we went out onto the street to leave, and a huge procession was coming up from the Yes headquarters,” Goodman recalled. “They had just lost, and by such a slim margin; there was a lot of angry energy. Bricks and bottles were being thrown.
“At one point I saw a young guy, maybe 18 or 19, on his knees being handcuffed, yelling ‘C’est pas fini! C’est pas fini!’ Certain things in your life really impact you, and this was one of those moments. To see this guy who was about my age — his passion, his anger about separation and language. I thought, ‘I have to tell this story, from both sides.’ ”
The seeds were thus planted for a Quebec novel centred on a woman much like her mother, ostracized by both the French and English (though it should be pointed out that, unlike her fictional counterpart, she never had to give up a child for adoption). The orphans, of whom Goodman’s first consciousness had come a few years earlier, while visiting her grandmother in a home, were not yet in her writing plans.
“A copy of Le Journal de Montréal was on a coffee table,” she recalled. “The headline was ‘I was sodomized at the orphanage,’ and of course I did a double take. This was in the early ’90s. The now-grown orphans were starting to come forward and were telling their stories for the first time ever.”
In those days before the growth of the internet, the opportunity to dig further into the orphans’ story was limited; Goodman’s research came over the subsequent two decades. In the meantime, she moved to Toronto, got married, had two kids, started a successful linen business and published four novels, including last year’s mystery The Finishing School.
Learning of the long gestation of The Home for Unwanted Girls adds to the sense that Goodman waited until she was good and ready. The book strikes a fine balance between even-handed storytelling and righteous indignation. When polemic does enter the frame, it’s all the more effective for being integrated into a narrative populated by believable and sympathetic characters. One of the most powerful passages in the novel depicts “change of vocation” day at an orphanage, when a conversion was effected with stunning rapidity.
“The nuns brought in the kids and said, ‘You are now mentally deficient and this is how we will proceed. There will be no more schooling,’ ” Goodman said. “Bars were put on the windows, actual mental patients were brought in (to mix with the orphans). Orphanages were converted to hospitals, but also a lot of these kids were sent to real mental institutions and asylums.
At one point in the novel, the mother of unwed protagonist Maggie, explaining that she has to choose between giving up her child and being disowned by her family, says simply: “This is Quebec.” While Goodman points out that it could as easily have been “This is Ireland” or “We’re Catholic,” a wrong-place, wrong-time feeling hangs heavy.
“In a Catholic province in the ’50s, an unwed mother and an illegitimate baby were simply not tolerated,” said Goodman. “The baby was regarded as worthless to society, almost subhuman, and consequently treated like an animal. I think there was a general acceptance that nobody wanted these children, so if the church was going to take them, or if they were put into asylums, well, they were lucky they had a roof over their head.”
Goodman’s two-decade doggedness in bringing The Home for Unwanted Girls to fruition speaks to her belief that an enormous injustice has yet to be properly addressed, let alone redressed.
“If you speak to the grown orphans, I don’t think any of them would tell you that they’ve had any kind of justice — even the ones who got money,” she said. “About 1,000 of them in 2006 came away with about $25,000. Others got $10,000. They took that basically because they needed money and were old. But they never got an apology (from the church). To this day, the church has not publicly acknowledged or taken responsibility for the abuse. And this is absolutely ongoing. A lawsuit was just filed in January of 2018 on behalf of more than 100 (orphans) in Montreal.”
Though a lot of first-rate reporting has been done, the basic facts of the Duplessis orphans’ story remain nowhere near as widely known as they should be. It’s as if the enormity of what was done triggers a kind of collective avoidance/denial mechanism.
“Since I have come out with this book and travelled around with it a bit, very few people I have spoken to have even heard of this,” said Goodman. “That is quite astonishing, especially in this day and age. I don’t think this has ever had its proper due.”
What has it been like for the mother of a 14-year-old and an eight-year-old to be immersed in a subject that has to be a mother’s worst nightmare?
“Hard,” Goodman said. “Not so much in the writing as in the research. Sometimes I just have to turn off the computer and walk away. My next book, the one I’m working on now, is a continuation of the story, so I’m back in it, and there’s so much more (information) out there even compared to three years ago. I went to bed the other night with a headache and woke up with a migraine, and I almost never get migraines.
“But it’s like when a journalist is passionate and covering a really tough story. You’re driven. It’s not like I don’t want to tell the story. Nothing’s going to stop me.” - Ian McGillis, The Montreal Gazette
Historical Fiction That Will Absorb You...
"Joanna Goodman, the Toronto author of The Finishing School, based this new novel in part on her own mother’s story — and you can feel that current of emotion running throughout it. The novel opens in 1950 in a small town southeast of Montreal, during the brutal Duplessis years, or “The Great Darkness,” a time of great tension between the English and French. Maggie Hughes, daughter of an English store owner and a feisty French woman, feels torn between these two worlds — until her love for a French farm boy neighbour forces her hand. Fifteen and pregnant, Maggie is shipped away to live with family, who ultimately take the baby to a convent, not knowing what will be in store for little Elodie in the coming years, as the orphanages are converted to mental institutions. A heart-wrenching saga of love and loss that’s not to be missed."
- The Toronto Star
"Family members force a teenager to give up her daughter for adoption in 1950s Quebec. At a time when Quebec is not only divided, but violently polarized by the tension between French and English cultures, Maggie cannot understand what keeps her polished English father, owner of a prosperous seed store, married to her working-class, rough-spun French mother. When she falls passionately in love with Gabriel, a poor French farm boy, at 15 and ends up pregnant, her parents forbid her to keep the baby. Maggie goes on to marry a wealthy man, but she never forgets her daughter, Elodie, and finally begins to make inquiries to find her. The narrative becomes split between Elodie's life and Maggie's life. Raised by nuns at a local orphanage, Elodie is an energetic child, but when the little girl is 7, the Canadian government carries out a ruthless plan to rebrand all Catholic orphanages as homes for the mentally ill. Practically overnight, thousands of orphans are designated mentally unfit, lost in a system of abuse and neglect. Maggie's attempts to locate her daughter are stonewalled and met with lies; it's not until more than 20 years later that she learns the truth with Gabriel's help. This is a strongly political novel about the little-known injustices that mark a particular time and place, but it's also a very personal story. Goodman's biographical blurb acknowledges that it's based on the story of her own mother. Perhaps because of this, the characters who could have easily come across as types or clichés take on a great emotional depth. The novel centers around the definition, the challenges, the triumph of family, but it also acknowledges that Elodie and Maggie's story is one of many. The ending hits a perfect emotional note: bittersweet and honest, comforting and regretful."
- Kirkus Reviews
"Goodman, the author of four previous novels including The Finishing School, does an exceptional job in The Home For Unwanted Girls of confronting a terrible past marked by history that is almost too shocking to comprehend, and in the process gives Maggie and Elodie something women at that time did not have, a chance for truth, happiness, and a chance at redemption.
All of this makes The Home For Unwanted Girls an emotionally raw and a compelling page-turner that you can't put down."
- The Brooklyn Digest
"Told against the tumultuous political backdrop of 1950s Quebec is the story of Maggie, the daughter of a proper English family, becomes pregnant with the child of her first love, French neighbor Gabriel. Forced to leave Gabriel and the lower-class lifestyle he can offer her, Maggie is sent away to have the baby, who is given up for adoption so that Maggie can return to the respectable life that her parents envision. While Maggie makes an ill-fated attempt to live up to her parents’ wishes, her daughter, bright and inquisitive Elodie, grows up in a nearby orphanage until the law changes and all orphans are declared mental patients. Elodie endures life under the nuns’ cruel regime until her release into a foreign world at 17 years old. Only after Maggie and Elodie escape from the confines of their respective institutions can the family be reunited. While emotional at times, Goodman’s latest (after The Finishing School, 2017) is a study of how love persists through the most trying of circumstances. Deep and meaningful, this novel captures the reader’s attention..."
— Nicole Foti
"Joanna Goodman has written a beautiful novel containing the entire range of emotions experienced by the human heart... This book is the story of Maggie and Elodie, but also the chilling story of so many Quebec children who were abused at the hands of nuns and priests when they had no one to advocate for them. Goodman handles this heartbreaking topic with grace and skill. The heartbreaking exists alongside the heartwarming here, and rather than seek to “solve” this dark moment in Canadian history or gloss over it, Goodman unpacks it and sits with it, looking for hope amidst the ruins. The result is beautiful and at times breathtaking.... This is the story of a girl, of love, and of family... If you are a fan of historical fiction, sweeping family epics, or a beautifully written page turner that will rip your heart in two and then melt it back together; this one is for you. The heart wrenching beauty of this novel is not one that is easily done justice in a review: I suggest you go see for yourself."
- The Required Reading List
Quebec's Past Sets a Personal Story...
"Growing up in Montreal as the daughter of a French-Canadian mother and an English-speaking father, political tension was a constant in Joanna Goodman’s youth. “I had a wonderful upbringing, but it was always coloured by the politics,” she says.
Goodman was a young girl in 1980 when the Parti Québécois first lost the vote for Quebec sovereignty. Years later in 1995, she returned to Montreal from university in Ottawa with her French-Canadian boyfriend (now husband) in tow, as 100,000 people took to the city’s streets waving Canadian flags in hopes of convincing Quebec voters to say no to separation. “We were scared and we were sad,” Goodman says. “As passionate as I was about not separating, the separatists were as passionate about separating, with their own beliefs of why they felt they should. It was really was heated and emotional, and it always has been.”
Soon after, while working for Reuters, Goodman witnessed a small riot break out at the No headquarters, which inspired her to start writing about the issue from a different perspective. She wanted to tell a story drawn from her own mother’s life in 1950s Quebec as the child of a poor French-Canadian woman and a “very Anglo” seed merchant. But something in the narrative wasn’t working, and so she put the manuscript aside. “I had a great setting but it didn’t have a motor,” says Goodman, who is also the Toronto-based CEO of the linen company Au Lit Fine Linens.
More than 20 years later, Goodman is finally releasing her deeply personal fourth novel, The Home for Unwanted Girls, about 15-year-old Maggie, who dotes on her English-speaking father and ambitiously dreams of one day taking over his seed shop. The only distraction is Gabriel, the rough-around-the-edges French teen who lives on the neighbouring farm. When Maggie becomes pregnant with Gabriel’s child, she is sent away and forced to give away the baby. Maggie’s narrative is interwoven with that of her daughter, Elodie, who grows up as one of Quebec’s “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.)
While researching the era, Goodman read horrific, detailed accounts of the abuse endured by the children. But she felt she was missing a first-person perspective, until she discovered a decades-old French memoir in which a survivor recounted their life story. “It was less about what had happened to her, but what she thought of herself, and what was going through her mind,” Goodman says. “Details like when she was released into the world, she had never boiled a potato before or had never seen children play without being terrified. That book was my everything.”
Beyond its tales of romantic and familial love and heartache, The Home for Unwanted Girls gives deeper historical context into some of the long-running tensions that still exist between the province’s French and English communities. “It wasn’t just about language, but class and religion,” says Goodman. “It was everything, and it was very heated, and still can be very contentious. I miss Montreal, but I will always have a bittersweet memory of that experience.”
- Sue Carter is the editor of Quill and Quire
READING GROUP GUIDES
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QUESTIONS FOR BOOK CLUBS
BEHIND THE BOOK
In the early 1950’s, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis falsely classified thousands of orphans as mentally ill in order to get more funding. At the time, the federal government paid higher subsidies to mental hospitals than it did to orphanages. Overnight, these orphans—considered “children of sin” born to unwed mothers in a time when abortion and contraceptives were illegal—were declared “mentally insane.” Orphanages were converted to mental hospitals, schooling stopped and many of the children were shipped off to proper psychiatric institutions run by the Catholic Church, where they suffered heartbreaking sexual and physical abuse. Some were lobotomized and others died there. Without a basic education, the survivors often faced a life of poverty and discrimination that followed them long after they left the hospitals.
This is the setting for my new novel, The Home for Unwanted Girls. In 1950, Maggie, an unwed mother, is coerced into giving up her infant daughter, Elodie. As one of the “Duplessis Orphans,” Elodie is eventually declared mentally insane and institutionalized, even though she knows in her heart she is not crazy. Her mother, Maggie, embarks on a decades-long quest to find her daughter in a system invested in keeping them apart.
I’ve always been fascinated with Quebec politics, particularly with the long volatile history between French and English. I was first inspired to write about my mother’s childhood growing up in Quebec with a French-Canadian mother and an Anglophone father, and the confusion she felt at being neither fully one nor the other in a province that demanded a side be picked. It was during my research that I stumbled upon the shocking history of the Duplessis orphans, and I knew I had to tell their story. If you want to learn more about this dark period in Canadian history, you may find the following links very insightful.
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/duplessis-orphans- meet-irish- mother-baby- homes-1.4142930
A richly nuanced and compelling tale about secrets, redemption and one woman's effort to live fully as a wife, mother and herself.
“Goodman's second (after Belle of the Bayou ) offers a generously imagined panorama of life crises.” – Publisher’s Weekly
Generous-hearted and wickedly funny, You Made Me Love You is the story of three appealing sisters who each face life-altering decisions about love, work, ambition, and family. “Make it in Hollywood” is Estelle Zarr's mantra. She's made it to Hollywood, but she's still far from her dream of becoming a celebrated film editor. Her sister Erica is in New York, where she has flailed from one enthusiasm to another. She's currently writing and living with a major New York novelist, but Erica is finding little comfort in the literary salon. Meanwhile in Toronto, Jessie's perfect life, set in stone at age twenty-one when she married a doctor and then had two children, is beginning to crumble. As hilarious as it is poignant, You Made Me Love You brings a fresh eye to modern women's lives.
"You Made Me Love You is full of humour, wisdom, and hope. Joanna Goodman has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for the nuances of life."—Joy Fielding
“This book held me from its beginning to its end. It is funny, superbly written, and never fails the reader with its realistic outlook on love and relationships. A truly enjoyable read.”—Donna Morrissey
How far would you go to uncover the truth? In this suspenseful, provocative novel of friendship, secrets, and deceit, a successful writer returns to her elite Swiss boarding school to get to the bottom of a tragic accident that took place while she was a student twenty years earlier.
One spring night in 1998 the beautiful Cressida Strauss plunges from a fourth-floor balcony at the Lycée Internationale Suisse with catastrophic consequences. Loath to draw negative publicity to the establishment, a bastion of European wealth and glamour, officials quickly dismiss the incident as an accident, but questions remain: Was it a suicide attempt? Or was Cressida pushed? It was no secret that she had a selfish streak and had earned as many enemies as allies in her tenure at the school. For her best friend, scholarship student Kersti Kuusk, the lingering questions surrounding Cressida's fall continue to nag long after she leaves the Lycée.
Kersti marries and becomes a bestselling writer, but never stops wondering about Cressida's obsession with the Helvetian Society-a secret club banned years before their arrival at the school-and a pair of its members who were expelled. When Kersti is invited as a guest to the Lycée's 100th Anniversary, she begins probing the cover-up, unearthing a frightening underbelly of lies and abuse at the prestigious establishment. And in one portentous moment, Kersti makes a decision that will connect her to Cressida forever and raise the stakes dangerously high in her own desire to solve the mystery and redeem her past.
An unputdownable read as clever as it is compelling, The Finishing School offers a riveting glimpse into a privileged, rarefied world in which nothing is as it appears.
"Toronto-based author Joanna Goodman draws upon memories from a year spent at a Swiss boarding school in her youth to create the vibrant and believable world in The Finishing School, her fourth novel. This book is addictive because of the mystery it explores: the tragic death of beautiful student Cressida Strauss in 1998, which resurfaces in the present day in the form of a cryptic letter that Kersti Kuusk – Cressida's best friend and roommate at the time of her death – receives from a former classmate. But what's also notable is the deftness with which Goodman presents the complicated, passionate nature of friendships during formative years, as well as the fascinating and formidable depths people will go to in order to get what they want. Also enthralling (and at times painfully accurate) is Goodman's portrayal of Kersti as a bestselling writer who struggles with self-doubt and the dichotomy between what she wants to write and what she thinks she should write. In the midst of personal turmoil, Kersti finds a strange sort of refuge in throwing herself back into the world she inhabited with Cressida. While in Switzerland for an alumni event, she begins to delve into the unsolved aspects of her friend's death and ultimately makes a decision involving her own life that has far-reaching implications. The Finishing School offers both a compelling look into an exclusive world and a wise and heartbreaking story of a friendship and misplaced passion.”
— The Globe and Mail
"As a successful novelist, Kersti Kuusk appears to have it all, but feelings of inadequacy have haunted her entire life. Back when she was reluctantly enrolled at a prestigious boarding school, Kersti’s working-class upbringing contrasted starkly with the lives of her privileged classmates. Destined to be an outsider, she instead is taken under the wing of popular, beautiful, worldly Cressida, who’s hiding a devastating secret. Twenty years after leaving school, Kersti receives a mysterious letter from a classmate, stirring memories of Cressida’s suspicious fall from her balcony. Kersti decides to escape her current shortcomings and search for answers. Spanning between her childhood memories and Kersti’s present day, Goodman’s fourth novel craftily depicts a mystery hidden for decades under the veil of boarding-school tradition and secret societies. Through the lens of Kersti’s research, Goodman unravels a web of lies intertwining the well-developed characters that cross Kersti’s path. Each discovery draws Kersti and the reader in a different direction until she finally learns the truth about the school, Cressida, and, ultimately, herself."
— Melissa Norstedt, BOOKLIST
"The Finishing School pulls back the curtain to expose a fascinating world of desire, betrayal, and dangerous secrets."
— Lou Berney, Edgar Award-winning author of THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE
"The Finishing School is a compelling story by a writer who clearly knows her way around the thin oxygen world of the rich and famous. Every page resonates with authenticity."
— Roberta Rich
"If your guilty-pleasure reads include elite boarding schools, secret societies, murder, and scandal, this one's for you."
— Kirkus Reviews
"The Finishing School plunges the reader headfirst into a fast-paced, nail-biting mystery that also manages to explore friendship, love, adolescence, family and motherhood. By the time you reach the unexpected ending, you’ll practically be gasping for air.”
— Jessica Anya Blau, author of The Trouble with Lexie
"A compelling tale of horrific teenage secrets inside the walls of an elite school in Switzerland, unearthed with verve and sly irony. The truth is cold and slippery as ice as Goodman draws us into the darkness beneath the glittering surface of lakes and snowcapped mountains, and of privilege itself."
— Deborah Lawrenson, author of 300 Days of Sun
JOANNA GOODMAN is the author of four previous novels, including Canadian bestseller, The Finishing School. Her stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Ottawa Citizen, B & A Fiction, Event, The New Quarterly, and White Wall Review, as well as excerpted in Elisabeth Harvor’s fiction anthology A Room at the Heart of Things.
Originally from Montreal, Joanna now lives in Toronto with her husband and two kids, and is the owner of the Canadian linen company Au Lit Fine Linens.
131 Bloor St. W. #711
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