Thursday, March 14, 2019

Review: The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood

When I was little, I met a lifelong friend. My mom drove the two of us back and forth to Safety Town every day the summer before kindergarten. Her mom didn't drive us because she had infant triplets at home, two identical girls and a boy. The triplets' birth had caused rather a lot of excitement and it reached the point that they had to unlist their phone number so perfect strangers wouldn't call and wake the babies during their nap. I also remember that when the triplets were old enough, they would scoot their cribs across the nursery floor and climb in together, thus foiling the idea of having them sleep separately. Obviously, given the fact that I was only five and I still remember this, it was quite memorable. I can't even begin to imagine the circus that ensued when the Dionne quintuplets were born decades before the triplets I knew. But I don't have to envision it because Shelley Wood has done the research and fictionalized this miraculous and disturbing story in her new novel, The Quintland Sisters.

Emma Trimpany, a bilingual seventeen year old girl with a port wine stain on half of her face, is volunteered by her mother to attend to a birth with the local midwife with the hope of finding Emma a profession. It is 1934 and much of the world is in the grip of the Great Depression so Emma's parents want her to have a secure future, even if she isn't at all certain she wants to be a midwife. The birth she is called out to attend will change the trajectory of her entire life though. It's the unexpected birth of the five, tiny, and identical Dionne quints. The Dionnes, he a poor farmer and she a housewife, were already parents to five other children when the severely premature babies arrived. Keeping the five babies alive is touch and go for quite some time but their remarkable birth immediately captures the imagination of Canada, the US, and the world.

Told through Emma's journal entries, letters to her from those she meets in the course of her years as nurse to the Dionne girls, and newspaper articles celebrating the special little girls, the story, based on the real life Dionne quintuplets, is an infuriating and amazing one of celebrity, greed, exploitation, the bounds of medical ethics, and government overstep. The daily life of the infants, then babies, then toddlers and that of the fictional Emma are woven together easily. Emma remarks that her birthmark makes her invisible, which perfectly places her to see and hear things about the Dionne parents, Dr. Dafoe, the girls' doctor, and the staff at the government built Dafoe Hospital and Nursery that show the reader the tragedy of the strange upbringing of the quintuplets. Emma is quite young and impossibly naive when she witnesses the birth and begins to devote her life to the babies. She shows no concern that the Dionne parents are not allowed access to their own children except on the doctor's carefully charted schedule or that the children were quickly made wards of the Ontario government, seeing these outsiders as appropriate surrogate parents for the children, especially after witnessing the horrible behavior of Maman and Papa Dionne. As the quintuplets grow, Emma's duties change and circumstances force her to start to consider a life not lived in the service of her five precious girls.

Although the book spends a fair bit of time with the quintuplets, it is really Emma's story that is being told, from her first naive reluctance to a doting maternal feeling, to full maturity and control over her own future. As the story and Emma's understanding evolve, it is clear that there is a very seedy underside to the quints' situation. The outside world is not permitted to see any of the stress and strife roiling; they only see the carefully orchestrated marketing that allows them to believe that the girls live an idyllic life in their nursery home. Just as Emma becomes more attuned to the undercurrents, she also comes to see that there are no good guys in the equation either. Exploiting the children for money, even if it is just to keep them financially secure for life (and it's not just that), is no less odious when it is the father, the doctor, or the government doing it. The readers' sympathies swing from character to character, although the girls remain pitiable throughout. The treatment of the girls, being displayed as curiosities to the eager public, and the medical regimentation and testing, although not terribly detailed, were completely repugnant and the reader swings from interest in the story to distaste and back again. Wood has clearly done a lot of research and tried to address the abhorrent bits of the story with delicacy, using Emma's journalistic sensibilities to draw off some of the horribleness. But she has not flinched from portraying the sadness and uncertainty in these little girls' lives, the good impulses and bad, problematic or well meaning, and the impossible position the girls' celebrity and the world's fascination and well wishes cause. Historical fiction fans will enjoy the story, even it is Emma's story first, throughout, and last, rather than Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Marie, and Emilie's.

For more information about Shelley Wood and the book, check our her author website, like her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram or Twitter, look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for making me pull this off my shelf sooner rather than later.

1 comment:

  1. This book sounds so interesting, I really want to read this one soon. You're right, if this happened today it would take over the news and these poor kids wouldn't have any kind of "normal" life. Thanks for being on the tour!


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