Desert Isle Keeper
The Home for Unwanted Girls
The Home for Unwanted Girls is the second novel by author Joanna Goodman. It’s the story of a mother and daughter separated by circumstance and their journey to be reunited.
It’s 1950s Quebec and sixteen-year-old Maggie Hughes is tired of straddling the line between the French and English. Her father is an English-speaker who has lofty ambitions for his daughter, and most of them include avoiding everyone and everything that is even the slightest bit French. This proves tricky for Maggie, especially since her mother is French, and things get even tougher when Maggie begins to have feelings for a local French boy named Gabriel. Her father is furious with her, and does his best to keep them apart, but Maggie and Gabriel are determined to be together. When Maggie discovers she’s pregnant, her father takes drastic measures to ensure that what he perceives as his daughter’s big mistake won’t tarnish her reputation.
Maggie is forced to give her infant daughter up for adoption, a decision that will haunt her for years to come. Although she does her best to move on with her life, she is unable to forget the daughter she was never even able to hold. Plus, her feelings for Gabriel have only gotten stronger as the years have gone by, and she yearns to find a way to be reunited with him and their child.
The daughter Maggie named Elodie was never adopted and instead spends her early years in Quebec’s orphanage system. When she is seven years old, a law is passed and all of the provincial orphanages are turned into mental hospitals. Elodie is suddenly deemed mentally defective, and she is shuttled between various hospitals, where she endures all manner of abuse and neglect. Throughout all of this, Elodie holds tight to the dream that she will one day discover the identity of the mother who gave her up.
The story spans two decades and is told from both Maggie’s and Elodie’s points of view. Both women lead difficult lives, and many readers may find certain sections of the novel hard to read. There are some troubling ideas about people with disabilities that were particularly hard for me to swallow, but I know such ideas were common during the time the novel is set.
Both Maggie and Elodie are strong heroines who do their best to overcome the rough hands life has dealt them. Personally, I felt more of a connection with Elodie. It’s not that I disliked Maggie, but I sometimes had trouble with the way she chose to handle certain aspects of her life. Some of this can be chalked up to youth and immaturity, but that excuse stops holding water once she’s in her twenties. I loved that Elodie never just sits back and plays the victim. Although she doesn’t always do the right things, she works hard to come out on top of all manner of difficult situations and I admired her strength and fortitude, as well as her keen intelligence.
The plot is much more complex than this review makes it out to be, but part of this novel’s power lies in allowing the reader to learn certain truths along with the characters. It’s not super twisty the way a thriller might be, but there are some deep secrets that are likely to surprise you. I saw one of them coming, but the rest came as a complete shock to me.
Joanna Goodman has crafted a story that explores some deep subjects with sensitivity and grace. The Home for Unwanted Girls is a story that is sure to touch the hearts of its readers, and really make them think. This is a novel I’m not likely to forget any time soon, and I strongly urge those of you who enjoy heart-wrenching historical fiction to give it a try.