The Home For Unwanted Girls: A Conversation

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.

 

 

The Rule of Stephens

I heard a radio interview recently with a fascinating Canadian author named Timothy Taylor and wondered why I hadn’t read his books before. Then, when I checked on his previous books in the WPL catalogue, I saw that he had been shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2002 and I sussed out the reason for this gap in my knowledge. Kids.

My kids were the problem. Timothy Taylor wrote his first two books when our children were very small and I was too busy taking them to the library or reading them the book Maisy Goes to the Library over and over. There is a whole pocket of things every parent misses when their children are young and then, when they reach their teen years, that time slowly comes back in bits and bobs. Often my time comes to me when I am waiting for them outside of practices and rehearsals so recently I enjoyed reading The Rule of Stephens.

Oh, how I enjoyed reading this book. And yet, I feel horrible writing that I enjoyed reading this book because it is partially about a terrifying airplane crash with only a handful of the passengers surviving. The novel begins with the author describing the life of one of the survivors, named Catherine. She is a doctor who has left her practice behind to begin a groovy medical start-up (her office is in a warehouse filled with computer geniuses and analysts who bring their dogs to work, leave their bikes next to their desks, experiment with any type of food and have a teepee in the middle of their workspace) and carries a print out of the airplane seats with a notation of the people who survived the crash.

The author’s incredible attention to detail – outstanding and unusual details – is part of what makes this novel one that will stay in my memory for a long time and become one that I suggest to friends and customers who like an unusual story but also one that has wonderful moments of humanity.

Catherine is struggling with the kind of emotion that you would expect from someone who survives a plane crash over the ocean and she relives those horrifying moments when the plane starts to split apart, sharing them with her co-workers and others who are close to her. As she explores huge questions about how she lives her life she is managing her start up, possibly beginning a romantic relationship for the first time since the crash, negotiating with the horrible man who loaned her the capital for her company, and getting to know one of the other survivors from the flight. Really, this doesn’t sound like a book that would take on a page-turning pace but it does because of the unexpected turn that Timothy Taylor takes in the second half of the book. It almost makes you second-guess reality and that’s where the title comes into play.

Catherine has a wonderful sister and, when they were younger, they would reference the rule of the two ‘Stephens’ – one is Stephen King and the other is Stephen Hawking. Being a physician, she much prefers the scientific world of Hawking but there are moments in the book where it seems like the events Catherine is experiencing might be more at home in a plot written by the man from Bangor, Maine. I was just thrilled to see the book unfold and can’t imagine how Timothy Taylor didn’t constantly pat himself on the back and say “good job” after he finished a chapter. It was such an incredibly interesting read – different from anything I had read before.

So, as I do with many of the books I love, I stayed up far too late reading this one. When I was finished I looked at the clock, berated myself for being so foolish (in staying up late) and then turned back to the beginning so that I could ‘meet’ Catherine again for the first time. She was just as fascinating the second time. When common sense finally took hold I was able to console myself with two things – we have several of Timothy Taylor’s other books here at WPL for my reading enjoyment and he is a prolific writer in other forms so his website is a treasure trove of wonderful material to explore. Now I just have to wait for those pesky kids to move out so I have time to read everything.

— Penny M.

Glory Over Everything

I am a huge fan of historical fiction. Give me a great story set in long ago eras with captivating characters and I’m in heaven.

Some of the eras I’m especially drawn to are WWII and slavery – two very emotional, brutal and turbulent times where the worst of humanity is offset by the bravery and resilience of people struggling to survive.

63275410_hrFans of Historical Fiction set in the southern United States during the 19th century will be eager to get their hands on the upcoming, Glory Over Everything from Canadian-born author Kathleen Grissom. It is the sequel to her very popular historical fiction novel, The Kitchen House, which introduced readers to a host of memorable characters and due to its focus on slavery and indentured labour, touching and often emotional story lines. While you could read Glory Over Everything as a stand-alone I think readers will have a better understanding of where Jamie and some other characters are coming from if they read The Kitchen House first. Personally, I loved reconnecting with some of my favourite characters from the first book.

The Kitchen House – With Glory Over Everything hitting shelves on April 5, 2016 readers still have time to read the first book to get acquainted with Belle, Jamie, Mama Mae, Lavinia and the rest of the characters. For those who haven’t read The Kitchen House it’s a story told via two different points of view – Belle, a black slave and Lavinia, a young Irish indentured servant. Witnessing situations from these two very different viewpoints gives readers a better understanding of just how different life was back for white servants and black slaves.

The Kitchen House focuses more on Lavinia’s story as she tries to straddle two worlds – the white world and the world of the slaves in the kitchen house. Grissom doesn’t hold back as she describes sometimes brutal descriptions of what slaves endured at the hands of their masters and also deals with different kinds of oppression – the powerlessness of women of all colours and the differences between families who seem to have it all (money, power, freedom) and slave families who appear to have nothing except each other. Grissom’s writing is vivid in its description of what life was like back in the late 18th century and evoked many different emotions in me from – shock, sadness, unconditional love, anger and joy. This book had it all. Some scenes were so emotional that they were hard to read but the characters were varied and quite multidimensional and you quickly begin to care about them.

glory-over-everything-9781476748443_hrGlory Over Everything – I was recently given an advanced reading copy of Glory Over Everything and once again Grissom captivated me from beginning to end. This sequel is definitely a page-turner and has Grissom’s signature captivating writing style and includes several characters from The Kitchen House. It follows the life of Jamie Pyke as he tries to make a life in Philadelphia while hiding a secret that could destroy the life that he has built. When someone to whom he owes a debt comes for his help Jamie realizes he must return to the south and face a very uncertain future with potentially dire consequences. The story is told once again via multiple narrators and is a fast-paced read that not only focuses on race, slavery and the Underground Railroad but on family ties and how one’s upbringing can influence us throughout our lives. With complex characters, a gripping plot and emotional scenes have made Glory Over Everything one of my favourite books of 2016.

Both of these books are filled with human endurance, strength, love, violence, betrayal, family loyalty, courage, trust and the power of hope. That’s a whole lot of emotion all wrapped up into two books but Grissom is a master at writing gripping novels that leave her readers thinking of the characters long after the last page is turned.

– – Laurie P.