When I went to Colorado in June, the book I brought with me (because no one travels without a book, yes?) was The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman. It was an impulse purchase when I saw it at Costco the day before I left (I usually put more thought into my travel reading, but at that time all I could think about was if I could finish my half marathon as I'd only had about two weeks of running after the active phase of my whooping cough ended); I remembered I'd wanted to read it so I grabbed it and then started reading it in the airport the next day (hoping my traveling companion, Lynne, who I'd met in person just that morning, would know enough about me from my Instagram and Facebook posts to not be offended that I sometimes read instead of talking).
It tells the story of a family living on a farm in Canada, beginning in the 1950s. The family owns a seed store; the father is Canadian and his wife is French-Canadian. I didn't know about the tension between these two groups during that time (and I discovered as I read the book that I didn't know quite a bit about Canada during that time); their marriage is perhaps a little bit like what Romeo and Juliet's might've been if, you know, death hadn't intervened.
The main character's name is Maggie. She and her mother are always butting heads, fighting about almost everything, but Maggie and her father get along well. She works in his seed store with him, counting seeds into packets on Saturdays, but as she grows they also start to develop some tension. But it's nothing to compare to Maggie falling in love with Gabriel Phenix, a French-Canadian whose family's farm is near Maggie's home. And when she turns up pregnant? Well, neither parent is happy with their daughter.
When she has her baby, Maggie's father decides that she will, of course, place her for adoption. But adoption in Canada in the 1950s didn't look much like it does now. Babies who weren’t perfectly healthy were often overlooked for those who were, and Maggie’s daughter Elodie, born just a little bit too early, has newborn jaundice. So instead of being adopted, she is put into an orphanage.
I loved the beginning of this novel, watching Maggie grow up and fall in love. I loved the parts about Elodie, even though they grow more and more difficult. In Canada in those years, the Prime Minster defunded most of the orphanages. These institutions could not get much money raising orphans or relinquished babies, but they could receive funding if they were classified as mental institutions. So many of the children were “tested” and, surprise! diagnosed as mentally deficient. Rather than being educated, they were treated as inmates of mental hospitals. Elodie is trapped in this system, and she suffers.
For me, the best historical fiction includes a part of history that I didn’t know about, and The Home for Unwanted Girls includes that. I had no idea any of this happened. Reading it when trump’s “children in cages” policy was in full effect in America made it even more horrific, because now it’s not just other countries that do horrible things to families, but my own. (Of course…this isn’t the first time. It’s just the first time I’ve experienced in my lifetime.) In that sense, I am glad I read this novel. I think Elodie’s experiences will stay with me.
But I didn’t love the writing style. Or maybe it is the genre…historical fiction, but not literary historical fiction. I felt like once Maggie had Elodie, the depth of character just…stopped, somehow. The story continues, and there are resolutions (maybe the happy endings also didn’t work for me?), but I didn’t feel connected to Maggie anymore. Instead, her story just unwinds.
So I finished this novel with mixed feelings. I’m glad I read it, but I felt a little bit shortchanged by the second half. Not, I think, because of the author’s efforts, but because of what I demand from a book to fully love it.