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.

To Buy or Not to Buy

I very rarely buy books.  Why ever would I? Every book I want to read is here in the library so I just check it out or put it on hold and then check it out.  When my loan period is up I bring it back to the library for safekeeping and I know I can come and get it again when I need it.  It’s just the best system ever.

I am occasionally tempted to buy a book though if it is particularly beautiful to hold in my hands.  For example, just a few weeks ago there was a fantastic book about the history of card catalogues, called The Card Catalog : books, cards and literary treasures, published with a foreword by Carla Hayden (you should really check out her Twitter account – she is @LibnofCongress – it will make your day), and I so enjoyed reading that book and then flipping through the gorgeous pages again that it seemed like it might be worth having to keep.  But, I didn’t buy it.

Once in a while I find a book so charming that I check it out of the library more than once and then I think that it might just be worth it to buy a copy to save myself the trouble of coming in to check it out over and over again.  Then I remember that it isn’t really that much trouble.  It’s fun to come and find it on the shelves again and really, since I am reading it for the second or third time, is it really a rush job anyway?  No.  So I don’t buy that book even though it meant so much to me. This has happened a few times, especially with novels written about books or booksellers.  Like with Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry or Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  Really sensational books.

Well, in this summer’s list of Featured Titles I have found a book that is making me think I might change my ways.  This might be the beginning of a whole new me.  Feast: recipes & stories from a Canadian road trip is an outrageously beautiful cookbook that extends beyond that genre into coffee table book-style with photography that will knock your socks off.  Maybe you will put it in your kitchen or maybe you will leave it artfully displayed in your living room to impress visitors?  It is that stunning.  The authors, Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller, decided that they would spend the summer of 2015 traveling across our country to write about Canada’s food, culture and the wonderful people they would meet.  They have done this in a way that includes recipes, of course, but also has a warmth and sense of spirit that you don’t expect in a cookbook.  The idea of ‘road trip’ comes across just as strongly as the food does.  They are in love with our country and they write about it with such passion.

downloadThe recipes in Feast are wonderful, of course, and are broken down into regions and also into sections like “grazing” and “cheers”, and the instructions included with each one are very clear.  I like clear directions with my recipes and they have done so every time.  It’s comforting and encouraging, it’s absolute perfection.  They photograph each recipe and also include images from the places that they visited to source those foods and that is where the true beauty of our country shines.  This is one of the rare cookbooks where you won’t skip a single page.  Say you find that an individual recipe doesn’t suit your family, maybe you are vegetarians and you won’t be interested in the Slow Cooker Moose Stroganoff, but you will want to read all about how they came to meet chef Roary MacPherson, who gave them that recipe.  It’s 304 pages of great reading and it just happens to have beautiful photographs and incredible recipes.

I brought the book home, slowly turned the pages and called out to my family about the things that caught my eye like “bannock!”, “sausage rolls!”, “come look at these chickens!”, “holy cow, they went to Churchill and had apple fritters!”  Generally my kids don’t love it when I do this but I did wear them down and they had to come to see what these two cookbook authors were up to.  It’s beautiful from the first page, from the cover.  You can, by the way, read the whole story of how they got to the final decision on the cover of their book on the website that they maintained as they traveled across the country.  Check it out at edibleroadtrip.com

Their adventure began on their blog and they continue to update it with lovely posts about food and travel.  It’s inspiring, vibrant writing and a wonderful way to get to know more about the two women who created this incredible book.  I’ve seen many Canadian-themed cookbooks before, as I am sure so many WPL customers have, but this one stands out because they aren’t just talking about food, they are talking about our country with humour and cheer.  They cover many of the foods that you think that someone might in a typically Canadian cookbook and introduce you to people in bakeries, restaurants and communities across the nation while they do it.  I’m going to buy my copy and return this one for the shelves now.  I hope that this doesn’t start a new personal trend and I just keep buying more books for my home.  Perhaps I should start looking at bookshelf designs? I know that we have some great books on that topic (one nice choice that I’ve found on the shelves is called Bookshelves & Cabinets) if I do.

— Penny M.

 

Let’s Hear It For Tartan!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1990 you have probably heard of Diana Gabaldon’s hugely popular “Outlander” series of time-travelling books featuring strong-willed, ex-Army nurse Clare Randall and Highland warrior, Jamie Fraser.  If somehow those 8 large novels (and the series isn’t wrapped up yet!) escaped your attention, maybe the current “Outlander” TV show has caught your eye.

Between the incredible historical detail (thanks to Gabaldon’s exhaustive amount of research), a cast of intriguing characters and the stunning backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, these books have gripped the imaginations of millions of men and women around the world.

Confession time.  I have never read these books. Over the years, many WPL customers have raved about them to me, encouraging me to give the series a try. Colleagues too have recommended them as the “perfect book for you”.  Yes, with my Irish family plus Scottish and English roots, my reading tastes are decidedly slanted to contemporary British authors and books set in the UK and Ireland. So, I have tried on 3 separate occasions to read “Outlander” and each time didn’t make it past the first couple of chapters. I don’t know why but the books don’t hold my attention.

They did catch Canadian author KC Dyer’s attention, though, and she has written a very cute, funny, charming book called “Finding Fraser”.  This book I read over a weekend.  Actually, I read most of it sitting in the sun on the deck of my favourite coffee shop in Stratford, Balzac’s, but I digress.

“Finding Fraser” is the story of 29-year old Emma Sheridan, a HUGE fan of Diana Gabaldon’s books and great admirer of the fictional character, Jamie Fraser. Emma’s life in Chicago isn’t going so well.  The only job she has done well at and managed to hold onto is coffee shop waitress. Her love life, well, it (like Jamie Fraser) doesn’t exist.

Frustrated and perhaps a bit desperate, Emma decides to sell all of her worldly possession, which are few, quit her job and travel to Scotland. Perhaps in Scotland life will make more sense, will come together, and maybe she’ll even find a real-life Jamie Fraser of her own. In an attempt to make the trip seem more focused than frivolous, she decides to blog about her highland adventure.

“Finding Fraser” is a light, fun, fast read which actually made me quite literally LOL in a few places. Emma’s adventures in Scotland are fairly comedic and I felt in turn sorry for her and, yes, even a little envious at moments.  Fans of the “Outlander” series will enjoy it (and the book does have Gabaldon’s blessing) but, as I have proven, it’s not a prerequisite.

Now, deciding what recipe to share this time round was easy.  It must be shortbread!  I usually make a very traditional shortbread with white sugar, butter and flour. However, one of my favourite shortbread recipes is one shared by a former WPL colleague and is a little different. Warning. It is soooo delicious (especially warm from the oven) and you will not be able to stop at eating just one piece.

Brown Sugar Shortbread

½ lb. butter, softened
½ c. brown sugar, packed
2 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
White sugar (for sprinkling)

Preheat oven to 300F.

Lightly grease a cookie sheet and set aside.  Lightly flour a baking board and rolling pin. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add half the flour. Combine. Add the remaining flour. Stir to combine. Using your hands, gather the dough into a bowl.  Transfer dough to floured baking board.

Knead gently for 3 minutes or until the dough forms a smooth ball.  Pat down, then roll out til the dough is in a rectangular shape measuring 11” x 8” (approx. 1/3” thick).

Using a sharp knife, slice into fingers, approximately 1” x 3”.  Place on baking sheet.  Prick each shortbread finger 3 times with a fork.  Sprinkle each cookie with a tiny amount of white (granulated) sugar.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, depending on the power of your oven. The bottom of the cookies should be slightly golden.

Cool 5 minutes on baking sheet before transferring to cooling racks. Store in an air tight container.

100 Nature Hot Spots

100  nature hot spots

Summer’s coming! (Or at least it’s supposed to be, but frankly I’m starting to wonder.)

So time to dream about and plan for summer vacations and outings. I’ve just checked out the book 100 Nature Hot Spots in Ontario by Chris Earley and Tracy C. Read and it’s jam packed with lots of cool places to visit.

I’m a nature fan, I think we should all be nature fans. It’s so beneficial—and healing, too — to take time out of our busy, stressful lives to immerse ourselves in nature. And we do our kids a huge favour when we introduce them to nature.

Some of the places listed in the book are favourites of mine. For instance, I love the Guelph arboretum. And there is something magical about Point Pelee, that long, long spit of land that narrows to a point. I’ve always wanted to visit Pelee Island as well, but haven’t made it yet (I’ll put in on a bucket list). Or a visit to the waterfalls in the Hamilton area (Felker’s Falls and Devil’s Punchbowl are listed in the book) makes for a great day’s outing. BTW, did you know there are about 100 waterfalls in the Hamilton area–amazing! I’ve also got a soft spot for the beaches of Prince Edward County (Sandbanks and Presqu’ile) as I grew up nearby.

But a couple of personal favourites didn’t make the cut. Like the Thousand Islands, a place that I absolutely love. And also Petroglyphs Provincial Park (near Peterborough) which has over 900 petroglyphs (First Nations rock carvings)–turtles, snakes, birds, humans and more. It is truly wondrous. (There is another Ontario site for petroglyphs that is listed in the book, though it has a much smaller number of them. That’s Bon Echo Provincial Park in eastern Ontario. I have seen those as well, they are well worth a look.)

So go ahead and have a look at this book. Then start planning some fun outings.

— Penny D.