BY KIRA VERMOND
IF THE SAYING “Good
things come to those
who wait” is true, then
Joanna Goodman’s most
recent novel, The Home
for Unwanted Girls, is
very good indeed. After
all, the Toronto-based
author and Costco member picked away at it for nearly ;; years.
“I’m not Stephen King,” Goodman
quips, sitting in her “office,” a palatial,
light-filled workroom at the back of her
business, Au Lit Fine Linens, located in a
tony Toronto neighbourhood. “I don’t
think I have it in me to do a book a year.”
At least, not a book like this one, which
hits close to home. Set in ;;;;s Quebec,
the story swings back and forth between
;;-year-old Maggie Hughes and her young
daughter, Elodie. The daughter is raised
in the province’s impoverished orphanage
system after being given up for adoption.
The story takes a tragic turn when
Elodie, along with thousands of other
orphans in Quebec, is arbitrarily and
falsely declared mentally ill, a horrifying
but true byproduct of a newly instated law
that offered more funding to psychiatric
hospitals than to orphanages. Literally
overnight, the girls’ education ends and
true hardship and abuse begin.
The program ended in the early ;;;;s,
around the same time a commission found
that more than one-third of the patients
didn’t belong in a psychiatric institution.
Creating fiction from fact
Goodman, who grew up in Montreal, is
the first to admit the novel is loosely based
on her own family—her poor yet beautiful
(and desperately unhappy) French Canadian grandmother was married to a snobbish (but ultimately humane) English
Canadian. But no, her own mother never
had a baby out of wedlock. And no, the
family never put one up for adoption
or tried to sell an infant to parents in
New York, although her research revealed
that thousands of French Canadian babies
actually made that one-way trip about ;;
Years after graduating from journalism school in Ottawa in ;;;; and after
many false starts, Goodman stumbled
across an obscure French history book
written in a young orphan’s own words,
and The Home for Unwanted Girls finally
“It blew my mind,” she says. “I thought
if fiction could be even remotely as compelling, page-turning and as gripping, I
have to tell this story.” (Spoiler alert: It is.
And have a tissue handy.)
A writer’s life
Telling any kind of story is a balancing
act for Goodman. She took over her moth-
er’s successful linen retail company in
;;;;, and now runs the family business
with her husband, Miguel. They have two
children. It’s a hectic life.
Even so, Goodman insists she has time
to write—saying that once she starts a new
book, she slips away from work in the
afternoons to get words down for two or
three hours. Writing comes most easily in
a coffee shop. “It’s like the coffee turns on
the writing switch,” she explains.
Goodman has written other books,
including The Finishing School, which
drew upon memories from a year spent at
a Swiss boarding school. But she has long
thought of The Home for Unwanted Girls
as her first love. Her baby. Her key to being
a published author.
It was, after all, the manuscript—only
a snippet at the time—that helped her land
an agent and earn arts funding decades
ago. It’s also the first of her books to be
published in both English and French,
allowing her French Canadian mother-in-
law, “who does not speak a word of English,”
to finally devour one of Goodman’s books
along with the rest of English Canada.
Ultimately, it’s the novel that brought
Goodman and her entrepreneur mother,
Peggy Byron, closer together. Byron spent
hours being interviewed, looking at manuscripts over the years and acting as one of
her daughter’s first readers. She even
attended an initial meeting with the agent
in the early days. But, sadly, Byron passed
away in ;;;;, shortly before the book was
finally accepted for publication.
“It’s very bittersweet. Everything that
happens with this book now, I want to say
to her, ‘Can you believe this, Mom? Can
you believe our book?’ ” Goodman admits.
“I can’t believe she’s not here, but she must
be somewhere. She must know.”C
Kira Vermond is an Ontario-based writer.
shines a light on
The Home for Unwanted Girls is available in
most Costco warehouses.