The Home for Unwanted Girls (published 2018, 384 pages) is a family drama, inspired by true events, that takes place in Quebec, Canada, between the years 1948 to 1974.
Maggie Hughes, the 15 year old daughter of an English father and a French mother, plans to follow her father into the family business, a seed and gardening store. Maggie adores her father, who, despite being prejudiced against the French population, had married a French woman. Her mother was once beautiful, but now is bitter and resentful, verbally abusing Maggie and her three sisters, but always making sure they’re well fed and the house is clean. Maggie can endure her mother’s behavior, as long as she has her father’s love and approval. But when she falls for the French farm boy next door, Gabriel Phenix, everything changes. When she finds herself pregnant, her family forces her to give up the baby girl to an orphanage called St. Sulpice.
The girl, Elodie, lives in the orphanage until she’s seven, and is tolerably happy there. Then, through a despicable new law passed that forced orphanages to turn into mental hospitals (it was all about money), Elodie and the other orphans are officially considered mentally ill, and are forced to care for the actual mental patients that are transferred there. Elodie herself is transferred to St. Nazarius Mental Hospital, where a new level of suffering is waiting in the form of Sister Ignatia, a cruel, sadistic woman who terrorizes all the “children of sin” in the hospital. Elodie must endure years of verbal and physical abuse, as well as psychological torment. She has a strong spirit, however, and tells herself and anyone who will listen (who turns out to be precious few) that she’s not crazy and doesn’t belong there.
In the intervening years, Maggie must come to terms with what happened to her, and tries to live a normal life. She marries a man her father approves of, a kind man named Roland, a man she has affection for but not the passion she had with Gabriel. Roland wants and expects her to have children, but she suffers several miscarriages; these, in turn, cause her to think more and more about the child she gave up years ago. A chance meeting with Gabriel causes her life to change again, and she becomes determined to find her daughter, in a world that doesn’t want her found.
Admittedly, I hadn’t known much about Canada, its history and politics, but I learned a little bit about life in Quebec in the 1950’s under Duplessis, a man called “the Dictator”, someone who makes Trump seem like a kindly old uncle. I learned about the importance of agriculture in this province, the animosity between the English and the French, and the willingness of almost everyone to protect the Church and its members. There’s hypocrisy here, and unimaginable cruelty, but also love and hope.
I found this story to be emotionally gripping, a page-turner, although it was difficult to read through Elodie’s chapters of abuse and torment. I rarely am moved to tears while reading a book (movies are another thing), but I cried at several scenes in this novel. It made the need to get to the end and to see mother and daughter reunited all the more imperative.