By Leslie Lindsay
More than the title suggests, THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS is a multigenerational family saga focusing on historical events in the Canadian Province of Quebec.
Inspired by real-life events, the author draws on her mother’s childhood and spins a tale that is oh-so-good, but also heartbreaking. In the 1950s, the French and English Canadians tolerate each other at best, but there’s hatred brewing under the surface. Maggie Hughes’s father has ambitions for his daughter, and they don’t include anything to do with the French boy, Gabriel Phenix.
But Maggie has other plans. When she gets pregnant at 15 gives birth to Elodie, her parents force her to give up the baby and come back home. Maggie’s heart will forever be with Gabriel.
Told in alternating POVs between Maggie and her daughter, Elodie, we get glimpse into both of their harsh lives. Maggie is married to a businessman but the marriage lacks passion. Elodie is being raised in an orphanage at the cruel hands of the nuns until one day, it’s decided the orphanage will no longer operate as a school, but a mental institution. Elodie is not mentally ill, she’s not ‘slow,’ and not emotionally disturbed, but she will be if she keeps living this way.
Eventually, at seventeen, Elodie is thrust out into the ‘real world,’ lacking any real skills, experience, or confidence. Meanwhile, Maggie won’t rest till she finds the daughter she was forced to give up.
THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS is such a terrifically multi-layered tale about tolerance, religion, women’s place in society, historical elements, mental health, and so much more. It hit every emotion and will make excellent reading for book groups as there is plenty to discuss.
Please join me in welcoming Joanna Goodman to the blog couch.
Leslie Lindsay: Welcome! I understand THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS was inspired, in part, by the story of your mother. Can you share a bit more about which character was modeled after your mother and what prompted your interest in this story?
Joanna Goodman: The main character, Maggie, was inspired by my mother, Peggy. Like Maggie, my mother grew up in Montreal. Her father was an educated Anglo who owned a seed store (he was known as the Seed Man in real life!) and her mother was a poor, unhappy French Canadian. My mother struggled with her identity – French/English- in her family and in the province her whole life. Language in Quebec represents so much more; it represents class and religion as well. The French were working class, Catholic; the Anglos were protestant and represented the more affluent white collar segment of the province. Being “half-half” had a real impact on my mom growing up. That was the story I wanted to tell, that was my inspiration.
L.L.: Family can be a great source of material for writers. In fact, I recently came across an old photo of grandparents on their wedding day. I didn’t know when they were married, but could match the church in the image to one on the internet. I emailed the church. I got a date. Little things like this are fuel for a writer’s soul. But what happens when true family tales are fictionalized? And maybe not in the best light. Is there any fall-back?
Joanna Goodman: I’ll let you know!! My mother’s siblings – my aunts and uncles, as well as all my cousins – are all reading it now. So far so good! My grandparents have both passed away and I might not have been able to tell their story as I did if they had been alive.
L.L.: So how much of THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS is true? Circle one. Or many.
- English and French Canadians tolerating each other with precarious civility? TRUE!!
- Maggie being in love with a French boy? FICTION.
- Maggie’s father owning a seed store? TRUE!!
- Maggie getting pregnant at 15? FICTION.
- Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system? TRUE!!
- Greater government funds being allocated for mental patients than orphans? SADLY, TRUE.
- Maggie’s search for Elodie? FICTION.
- The newspaper ad? FICTION.
L.L.: I was struck by Wellington Hughes’s seed store. I could smell the fertilizer and the seeds! But it also has a bit of a metaphorical meaning. Can you talk about that, please?
Joanna Goodman: The book opens with the line about seeds spawning life. Of course, Maggie being pregnant is the not so subtle metaphor! Elodie is her seed. In a sense, Maggie then abandons that seed and it grows in her absence. It struggles to blossom without being properly nurtured.
When my mother first told me her father was known as the Seed Man, the writer in me instantly fell in love with the symbolism of that. A seed being life. I still love it.
“The novel centers around the definition, the challenges, the triumph of family, but it also acknowledges that Elodie and Maggie’s story is one of many. The ending hits a perfect emotional note: bittersweet and honest, comforting and regretful.”
– Kirkus Reviews
L.L.: Likewise, the title, THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS is so multifaceted. It not only refers to the orphanage where Elodie spent her childhood, but also, perhaps the home where Maggie grew up. She was no longer welcome after she got pregnant. And then she’s at her aunt and uncle’s farm…and we know how that went. Once Elodie is no longer institutionalized, she feels displaced in Montreal. Why is home, which is supposed to be loving and welcoming, sometimes not?
Joanna Goodman: The title does work beautifully because it refers to the orphanage, the homes where pregnant girls were sent in that era to have their babies, Maggie’s own home, where it often felt like her mother didn’t want her or her sisters, and most of all, the mental institution where Elodie was raised. But beyond that, and more symbolically perhaps, it refers to anywhere we feel displaced and unloved.
Unfortunately for many people, the family of origin, the home and even the world at large are neither safe, nor welcoming. And given everything that’s been going on in the media with the “Me too” movement, I would go as far as to say that the world can feel like a place where girls (and women) are unwanted.
L.L.: There’s a piece in the narrative that touches on repeating history. This is something many families see—and my own is no stranger to the phenomenon. Why do you think that is?
Joanna Goodman: I wish I knew! In many ways I’ve recreated my mother’s life. I run her business, I’ve married a French Canadian who was educated in English and has the same identity issues as she did; I seem to share so many of her passions, it’s uncanny. And I see my teenage daughter becoming more and more like me in her choices, habits and interests – unwittingly and against her will!! I guess something gets imprinted on our psyches, and we often grow up living out what’s been imprinted by our parents.
L.L.: What’s inspiring you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Joanna Goodman: I am easily inspired! I’m an incredibly creative person and I really get excited and inspired quite easily, which I think is an absolute blessing. Here’s a list:
- Travel. Everywhere I go, there’s inspiration.
- Business, marketing, merchandising. I truly love my business and seeing a beautiful new line of linens really gets me going. I love brainstorming sessions around marketing and merchandising. All of it inspires me. A great business book, a beautiful store. I’m inspired by entrepreneurs.
- A fantastic Netflix series. I get super inspired by a beautifully written series. (Handmaid’s Tale, anyone?) So much so that I have a writing partner in LA at this very moment and we are currently in the process of writing the treatment and pilot for THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS.
- Reading. GREAT BOOKS. Nothing like a great book to inspire me and fire me up to become a better writer.
L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Q: What’s my middle name?
A: I don’t have one. I really resented my mom for that all my life.
ON a more serious note, maybe:
Q: Did your mom get to read the book before she passed away?
A: Sadly the answer is no. She passed away shortly before I finished. She’d read so many versions, but never the final that’s now published. It has made this experience incredibly bittersweet.
L.L.: Joanna, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us about this moving story.
Joanna Goodman: Leslie, thank you! Your questions were fantastic and so, so insightful.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS, please visit:
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of J. Goodman and used with permission]