It’s a lovely morning, with the sun shining, the birds singing and the squirrels frolicking. It’s supposed to rain later this afternoon, so once again, I’m going to try to get out for a long walk before it begins. Right now I have a delicious Date Bar and some orange slices to accompany my steaming cup of chai, a wonderful way to ease into my Sunday.
Yesterday my Volunteer book club met virtually to discuss Canadian author Shelley Wood’s debut novel, The Quintland Sisters, and it was a real hit. Here is my post from May, 2019, when I read this fabulous book for the first time:
“Canadian author Shelley Wood’s novel, The Quintland Sisters, focuses on the first five years in the lives of Canada’s famous five, the Dionne Quintuplets, and is told from the point of view of seventeen-year-old nurse Emma Trimpany who helped care for them. On May 28, 1934, with the country gripped in the harsh realities of the Great Depression, five tiny babies were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne two months prematurely at their farmhouse near Callander, Ontario. They were not expected to live for more than a few hours, but they all miraculously survived. After four months living with their family, they were made wards of the state for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets’ Guardianship Act of 1935 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionne_quintuplets). During a time of poverty, war and strife, these five children brought considerable profit to the area and were treated as tourist attractions. This book takes the first five years of their lives and presents a detailed fictional account of their existence as described by Emma in her journal and letters, with newspaper articles and documents interspersed. Wood describes the Dafoe Nursery, which was built across from the Dionne family farmhouse, the strict schedules of waking, bathing, feeding, play, and family visits for the sisters, and the legal wranglings surrounding the promotion of such items as Karo Corn Syrup and Quaker Oats. Emma, who wanted to be an artist but became a nurse so she could stay with the quintuplets, having started out as just a housemaid who happened to be on the scene at the time of the birth, offers an insider’s view of the activities surrounding the children and their upbringing during their early years, and also her thoughts and insights into how this might be affecting them and whether it was all in their best interest. I don’t usually enjoy historical fiction, especially epistolary novels (novels told through diary entries or through a series of documents), but this book hooked me from the very first page. Emma’s narrative did not seem like diary entries, simply storytelling from her point of view. It reminded me of Eva Stachniak’s novel The Winter Palace, which was told from the point of view of Barbara, Imperial handmaid to Catherine the Great, a novel that managed to truly transport me to the time and place of the action. So, too, did The Quintland Sisters, although Wood left out much detail about the Depression and the imminent war. It was also a love story, one that the author resolves in a very interesting and unique way. All in all, this was a fabulous book, one that I will definitely put on my book club list for next year, and one that has piqued my interest in the Dionnes and has encouraged me to pick up that paperback I've had sitting on my shelf upstairs for years by Ellie Tesher to find out what happened to them after Emma’s account ends. This kind of fits into the “motherhood” theme, as the novel addresses family and children, and the rights of parents to have access to, and to exploit, their children.”
I did indeed put it on my book club list, and it was the best book club meeting ever, not just because everyone loved the book, but because Shelley Wood joined our meeting from her home in Kelowna, BC! This was not planned, but I sent her an email last weekend asking if she would be able to join us, although I admitted that it was short notice, and surprisingly, she said yes, she would love to join our discussion. She came across as very warm and welcoming, and didn’t just present her information and answer questions, but expressed interest in our group, too. She told us that a photo of these five girls in a library book inspired her to use them as the subject of her novel, and that part of the purpose of her novel was to keep their story alive so no one forgets this controversial period in Canadian history. She said that she chose to use the epistolary format so readers had to fill in the blanks, and she included real articles from newspapers to demonstrate how they, whom the public generally relies on to “ask the tough questions” and present the whole story objectively, failed in their duty. She admitted that she felt a bit like she was also exploiting them by profiting from their story (she’s donating some of the proceeds to a Child Protection charity). As she did her research, she wondered if there wasn’t just one adult who loved these children for who they were, and deciding that surely there was indeed someone like that in their real lives, chose to create Emma’s character, the one character in the novel who did just that. Shelley showed us a precious scrapbook she received as a gift, a scrapbook kept by a young woman who visited the Dionne sisters in the 1930s and whose life was brightened by news updates of their lives. This scrapbook, she said, made her revisit her cynical attitude towards the tourists who viewed these girls as exhibits and realize that people during those days needed some light in the darkness that was all around them every day. In answer to my question about whether there were any “right answers” in their early years, she said that the purpose of her novel was to make people feel uncomfortable with the decisions that were made and to wonder what, if anything, could have been done differently to make things better. She told us that she chose to end the book the way she did because of the way things ended up for the quintuplets, and that not all readers were happy with this (I can’t say any more because I don’t want to give anything away). She’s working on her next book, and I’m sure I speak for all of my book club members when I say that we can’t wait until it’s published! After she left our meeting, we went on to discuss other aspects of the novel and our own experiences and knowledge of the Dionne story. We thought of other questions we wanted to ask or things we wanted to tell Shelley, but I think we were all a bit awestruck in her presence. It was certainly one of the best meetings we’ve had, and the best virtual meeting for sure. One good thing about COVID is that, with all of our virtual meetings, anyone can join a meeting from anywhere, and like a visit to the Dionne sisters in the dark days of the 1930s, her visit was a shining light during our own challenging times.
That’s all for today. Get outside before it starts raining!Bye for now…
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