Audiobook, Historical Fiction

The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman ★★★★1/2

Maggie Hughes is the 15-year old daughter of an English speaking Canadian father and a French mother living in Quebec. Despite her father’s admonishments to not cavort with French boys, Maggie’s young heart is captured by Gabriel Phénix, the young and impoverished boy living at the adjacent farm. When she ends up pregnant, her parents force her to give up her baby but before she’s taken away, Maggie implores them to name her Elodie. That fortuitous moment provides the only means by which she can later embark on a journey to perhaps find the daughter she reluctantly gave up for adoption. Unfortunately, Elodie is never adopted from the Home for Unwanted Girls, an orphanage run by nuns, which later changes to a mental hospital to receive more government funding. All the orphans are accordingly declared mentally ill.

Maggie and Elodie are the narrators and the story shifts between the two, often in parallel time frames. I found it an interesting contrast as Maggie moves on with her life but never forgetting the child she lost and Elodie never giving up hope that her mother would attempt to find her. Both of their lives were troubled but none more than Elodie who suffered terribly at the hands of the nuns, one in particular.

The story also exposed the ethnic divide between the English speaking citizens and the French. It was particularly awful to witness Maggie’s father’s hypocrisy against the French given his own wife’s and children’s heritage. Also, it was a political decision that forced the orphanages to become psychiatric hospitals without any real consideration of the fates of those children who were then declared mentally ill. These are true events in Canadian history that I found educational.

This was also a Traveling Friends group read and the discussion was so rich. Thanks to that insightful group of women for making this an even more remarkable reading experience.

I really enjoyed this story for the fictional aspects as well as the historical context, beginning in the 1950s. Maggie’s quest to find her daughter was frustrating and heartbreaking and Elodie’s never ending hope that she would find her family was what almost brought me to tears. Both women’s triumph in the midst of adversity was so admirable. Saskia Maarleveld was extraordinary in her narration, handling accents with perfection (as least to my ear) and making the characters come to life. I highly recommend the audio version and this story. It wasn’t always light but it was always honest.


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