The Home for Unwanted Girls

The Home for Unwanted Girls

Philomena meets Orphan Train in this suspenseful, provocative novel filled with love, secrets, and deceit—the story of a young unwed mother who is forcibly separated from her daughter at birth and the lengths to which they go to find each other.In 1950s Quebec, French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility—much like Maggie Hughes’ parents. Maggie’s Englis...

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Title:The Home for Unwanted Girls
Author:Joanna Goodman
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Edition Language:English

The Home for Unwanted Girls Reviews

  • Eden Church

    Joanna Goodman has written a beautiful novel containing the entire range of emotions experienced by the human heart.

    The Home for Unwanted Girls tells the story of Quebec in the 1950s-1970s, but more specifically of Maggie, a young girl living in the Townships with an English-speaking father and French-speaking mother. At fifteen Maggie falls in love with the poor French boy from the next fair over. Under questionable circumstances, Maggie is forced to give up the child she becomes pregnant with

    Joanna Goodman has written a beautiful novel containing the entire range of emotions experienced by the human heart.

    The Home for Unwanted Girls tells the story of Quebec in the 1950s-1970s, but more specifically of Maggie, a young girl living in the Townships with an English-speaking father and French-speaking mother. At fifteen Maggie falls in love with the poor French boy from the next fair over. Under questionable circumstances, Maggie is forced to give up the child she becomes pregnant with. The story also follows Elodie, Maggie's daughter, who is raised in Quebec's highly fraught orphanage system. Under Duplessis, Quebec orphanages are turned into mental hospitals in order to receive more government funding and Elodie finds herself in a mental hospital, told she is insane, and abused by the nuns. Years later, Maggie is haunted by the baby she gave up, haunted by the man she left behind, and hungry to reconnect with both.

    This book is the story of Maggie and Elodie, but also the chilling story of so many Quebec children who were abused at the hands of nuns and priests when they had no one to advocate for them. Goodman handles this heartbreaking topic with grace and skill. The heartbreaking exists alongside the heartwarming here, and rather than seek to "solve" this dark moment in Canadian history or gloss over it, Goodman unpacks it and sits with it, looking for hope amidst the ruins. The result is beautiful and at times breathtaking.

    This is the story of a girl, of love, and of family. If you are a Canadian reader trying to read more Canadian books; this one is for you. If you want to learn more about one of the darker periods about Canadian history, but still leave the novel feeling hopeful; this one is for you. If you are a fan of historical fiction, sweeping family epics, or a beautifully written page turner that will rip your heart in two and then melt it back together; this one is for you. The heart wrenching beauty of this novel is not one that is easily done justice in a review: I suggest you go see for yourself.

    My father's mother was raised in a convent by the Grey Nuns in 1940s and 1950s Montreal, first because her mother came to Montreal as a single mother with two young children in the '30s, and then because her mother remarried and my grandma was to get an education. She used to tell us stories about summers spent at the farm (the children were not allowed to go home over summer break) and that the nuns were "not nice sometimes." Now, when I have the knowledge to read between the lines of some of those statements, and even guess at what she went through, my grandmother suffers from Alzheimers and I am not able to get the real story from her. It is highly possible that my grandmother was one of the lucky ones and that the nuns were simply unkind sometimes and not abusive, but I will never really know the whole story. For many others, the story did not have nearly as happy an ending as my grandmother's did. My thanks to Joanna Goodman for returning a piece of my family puzzle to me, even if the edges are a bit frayed and murky.

    *Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review*

  • Pat

    This is a very well-written novel, made all the more riveting since it is based on true events. It takes place in the Canadian province of Quebec in the mid-20th century where there is a long-standing rift between English and French residents. It is also a time when an unwed mother is shamed, as is her family and, most unforgivably, the child.

    Maggie Hughes, the oldest daughter of an educated English father and a French mother from an impoverished family, falls in love with Gabriel Phenix, and is

    This is a very well-written novel, made all the more riveting since it is based on true events. It takes place in the Canadian province of Quebec in the mid-20th century where there is a long-standing rift between English and French residents. It is also a time when an unwed mother is shamed, as is her family and, most unforgivably, the child.

    Maggie Hughes, the oldest daughter of an educated English father and a French mother from an impoverished family, falls in love with Gabriel Phenix, and is sent to live with an aunt and uncle to discourage the relationship. There she is raped by the pedophilic uncle at the same time she has sex with Gabriel who has visited her. At the age of 16, Maggie gives birth to a daughter whom Maggie names Elodie after her favorite flower. The paternity of the child is uncertain, and Maggie's mother refuses to believe that she was raped. The baby is immediately put up for adoption.

    Elodie is not adopted, but placed in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns with the miserable name of The Home for Unwanted Girls. When Elodie is 7 years old, the government decrees that all orphanages become psychiatric hospitals because it is advantageous for government funding. Education for the orphans stops, and they become unpaid care takers for the mentally ill and "retarded" patients. Years go by and Elodie, along with other orphans, is transferred to psychiatric institution where the physical abuse and neglect by the nuns accelerate. What follows is heart breaking; when Elodie attempts to assimilate into a "normal" life at the age of 20 even a refrigerator is a foreign object to her.

    During these years, Maggie is attempting to find her daughter, but she is thwarted at every turn by sealed documents. When Maggie and Gabriel reconnect as adults, they are united in their resolve to find their daughter. Joanna Goodman has used this fictional situation to cast a light on this very real dark period in Canadian history and the Catholic church, which mirrors the same horrible events in Ireland that led to the unforgettable movie, Philomena. This is an extraordinarily well-written documentation of events that should never be forgotten.

    My thanks to LibraryThing and HarperCollins for the opportunity to review this noteworthy book.

  • Maureen Timerman

    This story takes place in rural Canada, near Montreal, and during a different period, the 1950’s. We are shown a family where there isn’t really a lot of love shown, the parents don’t seem to like one another, he is English and she is French, and like the Province they are like oil and water.

    A young couple get caught up and the result is an unwanted pregnancy, and at that time it was an embarrassment, and the child was put up for adoption, or so they thought.

    The author shows us a blight on histo

    This story takes place in rural Canada, near Montreal, and during a different period, the 1950’s. We are shown a family where there isn’t really a lot of love shown, the parents don’t seem to like one another, he is English and she is French, and like the Province they are like oil and water.

    A young couple get caught up and the result is an unwanted pregnancy, and at that time it was an embarrassment, and the child was put up for adoption, or so they thought.

    The author shows us a blight on history, the story is historical in nature as this horrible event really did happen. Oh, so very sad, and when you realize it is true it makes it even worse, and we put faces to this tragedy, and the reason this happened? Greed!

    Heartbreaking page turner, and then the lies, yes, you will wish harm to the people who claim to be people of the church, they are wolves in sheep clothing for sure.

    Be careful this one will rip you heart, and have the tissues handy.

    I received this book through Library Thing and the Publisher Harper Paperbacks, and was not required to give a positive review.

  • Angela M

    3.5 stars rounded up.

    Joanna Goodman does not shy away from focusing on some controversial things that happened in Canada’s history in this moving novel. She presents the divide between English and French in Quebec in the 1950’s both from a family perspective as well as a societal one.

    “Much like the province in which she lives, where the French and English are perpetually vying for the upper hand, her family also has two very distinct sides.”

    “The Eastern Townships is mostly farm country, contain

    3.5 stars rounded up.

    Joanna Goodman does not shy away from focusing on some controversial things that happened in Canada’s history in this moving novel. She presents the divide between English and French in Quebec in the 1950’s both from a family perspective as well as a societal one.

    “Much like the province in which she lives, where the French and English are perpetually vying for the upper hand, her family also has two very distinct sides.”

    “The Eastern Townships is mostly farm country, containing pockets of both French and English who live in relative harmony — that is, relative to Quebec, where the French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility but don’t mingle the way other more homogeneous communities do.”

    But of course, they do mingle. Maggie ‘s father is English and her mother is French. Although her father forbids her to see the French boy from the neighboring farm, she does and finds herself pregnant at fifteen. I had mixed feelings while reading the first part of the novel as it felt too YA with this forbidden teen age romance. But then I was captivated when the narrative alternates with an orphan named Elodie, the child that Maggie was forced to give up at birth. Elodie’s story unfolds and we learn of the awful things that happened to thousands of orphans. The Catholic Church who ran many orphanages, in collaboration with the Catholic premier Maurice Duplessis, designate the orphanages as psychiatric institutions in order to obtain increased government funding. The orphans were declared mentally ill or mentally deficient, were denied any education, and endured horrible treatment in many cases. (

    ) It reminded me in some ways of orphan trains in the US and how some children under the guise of being adopted became free labor or how women could be committed to mental asylums just because a husband or father claimed them to insane.

    In addition to the divides between the English and the French, there are family rifts. There are rifts between husband and wives, father and daughter, but there are also enduring bonds. I found the story to be heartbreaking as a mother and daughter hope for a reunion over the years. That this is based in part on the author’s mother’s story and that true events are portrayed made this an even more meaningful read for me.

    I received an advanced copy of this book from Harper Perennial through Edelweiss.

  • Anna

    Maggie Harper lives in a rural community in Quebec during the 1950s. Her father is English and her mother is French. Their marriage is complicated and not particularly happy. Her father runs a Seed Store, and Maggie dreams of one day running it herself. But when she falls in love with the poor French farm boy next door, her parents do not approve. When Maggie becomes pregnant at fifteen, she is forced to give the baby up for adoption. Her daughter, Elodie, is sent to an orphanage and was well ta

    Maggie Harper lives in a rural community in Quebec during the 1950s. Her father is English and her mother is French. Their marriage is complicated and not particularly happy. Her father runs a Seed Store, and Maggie dreams of one day running it herself. But when she falls in love with the poor French farm boy next door, her parents do not approve. When Maggie becomes pregnant at fifteen, she is forced to give the baby up for adoption. Her daughter, Elodie, is sent to an orphanage and was well taken care of and educated for the first seven years of her life. Things change dramatically when the Quebec government and the Catholic Church determine there is more funding available for psychiatric hospitals, and Elodie along with thousands of other orphans are declared to be mentally ill. Elodie is then transferred to a hospital in Montreal, where she is abused and terrified by the nun in charge of her Ward.

    Told through alternating voices of Maggie and Elodie, their yearning to find one another is heart wrenching. What Elodie experienced was horrifying and tragic, and brought to life a piece of history I was unfamiliar with.

    My favorite quote: "The feelings inside her are too good, unfamiliar. There's sadness, too, of course. This she accepts as the most natural, inevitable aspect of her life. Sadness lives in her cells, alongside her sense of injustice and outrage toward Sister Ignatia and God. These things cannot be transcended. They are as much a part of her being as her limbs and her organs and Nancy. But tonight there's something else: hope."

  • Shilpa

    Greed is the ugly underbelly which society cannot toss aside, and with the choice placed before them, the impoverished orphanages in Quebec see their opportunity for getting a slice of that pie. This of course comes at a cost. Young orphans who are already in these homes, find themselves placed in the crossfire. As the orphanages begin the transformation to psychiatric institutions, the existing "unwanted" children must go somewhere. There are heartbreaking consequences to most of them, includin

    Greed is the ugly underbelly which society cannot toss aside, and with the choice placed before them, the impoverished orphanages in Quebec see their opportunity for getting a slice of that pie. This of course comes at a cost. Young orphans who are already in these homes, find themselves placed in the crossfire. As the orphanages begin the transformation to psychiatric institutions, the existing "unwanted" children must go somewhere. There are heartbreaking consequences to most of them, including Elodie.

    Your heart breaks with the injustices, with the compassionate nature of Elodie's and Maggie's characters, and with the horrific realization that this all feels real. And it is. Joanna Goodman's The Home For Unwanted Girls is actually based on a true story.

    The story is beautifully told from different perspectives. We know of Maggie's desperation to live her life the way she wants, to love who she wants, and the sacrifice she must make for her family. We follow Elodie and she makes her way through the system of Quebec's forgotten children...those abandoned by their mothers at birth and who face the stigma in the orphanage world as not worthy because of their's birth parent's choice.

    There is a lot of anger you feel as a reader, taking in the deplorable treatment young children face at the hands of nuns who ran the orphanages. A not so distant history is laden with thousands of examples of inhuman treatment of those they don't deem to be in the same class as themselves. Whether it's the natives, or minorities, or children, the world seems to continue to remind us of the unethical and unjust nature of a class that wants to stay in power and will wield it with no compunction, at the expense of those they don't deem fit to be in their presence.

    Full review:

  • joyce g

    Choices made, good or bad. This story flew by.

  • Libby Chester

    3.5 stars ‘The Home for Unwanted Girls’ by Joanna Goodman is based upon a tragic occurrence in Canada’s history. Duplessis orphans were sent to mental institutions as their reclassification would provide higher subsidies. They were called Duplessis orphans because this occurred when Maurice Duplessis was premier of Quebec. A Catholic, “he put the schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the hands of religious orders, noting he "trusted them completely" (1). Doctors interviewed orphans and falsely d

    3.5 stars ‘The Home for Unwanted Girls’ by Joanna Goodman is based upon a tragic occurrence in Canada’s history. Duplessis orphans were sent to mental institutions as their reclassification would provide higher subsidies. They were called Duplessis orphans because this occurred when Maurice Duplessis was premier of Quebec. A Catholic, “he put the schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the hands of religious orders, noting he "trusted them completely" (1). Doctors interviewed orphans and falsely documented mental illness. During the course of their stay in these institutions, drugs, especially Thorazine, which is widely used in the treatment of mental patients, was trialed on these children. Seven religious orders participated. Around 20,000 children were affected.

    In our story, Maggie Hughes, who lives "55 miles southeast of Montreal" becomes pregnant. The father is next door neighbor, Gabriel Plenix, a French boy. Even though Maggie is half French herself (her mother is French, her father English), her father, Wellington Hughes deplores the French, thinking them of low ambition. At Maggie’s home, they speak French, but Wellington has made sure they attend English school. Wellington runs the seed store in town and is known as ‘The Seed Man.’ Maggie loves working in the store with her father. One of her driving ambitions in life is to one day run the store.

    When Maggie becomes too involved with Gabriel, she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. Her father tells her “you can do better than a French Canadian.” Maggie reminds him that he married a French Canadian. He tells her she must learn from his mistake. Even while at her Uncle’s house, she manages to sneak off and meet Gabriel. When it becomes known that she’s pregnant, her parents arrange for the baby’s adoption. At 16 years of age, Maggie does not resist them. Maggie insists upon naming her Elodie; her father acquiesces to her name choice. It is the name of a lily. Because Elodie is premature and has jaundice, the adoption falls through and she ends up in an orphanage.

    The novel continues in alternating voices, Maggie’s and Elodie’s. This is a good story and well worth reading. It puts a face on the historical events and brings to life the value of the human lives that went through this ordeal. Even people in these religious orders become cogs in wheels, fulfilling the directives that have been passed on to them. At one point in the book, Goodman writes that one nun might have to take care of as many as fifty children. That’s an impossibility, as anyone who has ever taken care of children will easily recognize. Their actions however cannot be condoned. Elodie’s conditions were harsh. If rape and abuse are triggers for you, don’t read this book.

    For me, it was the plot that carried this story. Maggie and Elodie’s characters are pretty well fleshed out and I can appreciate different facets of their personalities. Maggie’s father was the best described secondary character. Other secondary characters come across without depth. Gabriel has some depth at the beginning, much less during the second half of the book.

    Goodman’s writing is good, but lacks depth. There are some emotional moments in the story; moments I’m brought almost to tears, but Goodman doesn’t crack them open. It’s the events that occur that bring the emotion, not the exquisite rendering of language that will sometimes fill me as an author brings forth nuggets of perception or nuances of feeling. I would definitely read Goodman again, as I really did like her story and believe her powers as an author will only grow.

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  • Kristen Beverly

    The first part of this book is pretty tough to read- because of the content. An important story to be told, for sure. It’s just a tough one to finish and say “I loved it!”, again because of the content. Would be great for bookclubs though, as there is plenty to discuss.

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