I have had The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman for a while now – it has been buried underneath the books I had piled on top of it. I decided to liberate the novel as my first read for December.
Genre: Historical Fiction
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’.
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 declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than 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.
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 first half of the novel was heartbreaking as it deals with the experience of an orphan in Quebec in the 1950s. Goodman highlights an unknown part of history and does it with emotional sensitivity. Her words encouraged me to feel anger at what had been done to the young children as well as empathy for her characters Elodie and Maggie. The subject matter does make the first half of the book difficult to read and it meant that there were times when I set it aside for a little while. I could not stop reading, however, as Goodman’s words had helped me feel a connection to both the child Elodie and her mother Maggie.
Not only did I feel empathy for Elodie and her experience in the system as an orphan, I also felt a connection to Maggie – a teenage girl who falls pregnant and who is forced to give up her baby. The Home for Unwanted Girls is told from the perspective of both characters and it is interesting to see how both of them never give up on reuniting. There are many moments in the novel which are emotional to read despite the thread of hope; moments which had me wishing desperately for a positive end to the story.
If you enjoy historical fiction, The Home for Unwanted Girls is a must-read. Not only does the novel highlight a little-known piece of history, but it is done with sensitivity and thought-provoking skill. The novel pulls at your heartstrings and satisfies a reader who enjoys reading stories of hope.
I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 4 stars
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019
(This novel was the 110th in my book pledge for 2019)