Joanna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls is a Canadian story based on the true and shocking reality of the Duplessis Orphans. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec in the early 1950s, the novel opens with Maggie, the daughter of a French-Canadian mother and an Anglophone father. Their often-times tumultuous marriage cleverly mirrors the province’s volatile ‘divide’ between French and English.
Maggie’s father has high aspirations for his fifteen year old daughter but Maggie disobeys and disappoints him by falling for the poor French farm boy from the neighbouring farm. Her plight is worsened when she finds herself pregnant. Coerced into giving up her baby, Elodie, for adoption, Maggie and her family have no idea what tragic circumstances lie in store for this innocent child.
As one of the Duplessis Orphans, the novel follows Elodie’s childhood through a dark period of Canadian history when Premier Maurice Duplessis has begun to convert orphanages into mental hospitals. This is undertaken for no other reason than the federal government pays higher subsidies to psychiatric institutions. Elodie becomes one of the thousands of orphans now falsely reclassified as ‘mentally insane’ in order to get the extra funding.
Alternating between the narratives of Maggie and Elodie, the novel takes readers inside the institutions where Elodie is both victim and witness to the abuses at the hands of the nuns who run the hospitals. Meanwhile, Maggie, now married to a successful businessman, remains haunted by the desperate need to find out what happened to her daughter. Maggie’s decades-long search for her daughter makes The Home for Unwanted Girls, a gut-wrenching, suspenseful read that has it dubbed as a Philomena meets Orphan Train.