On 28 May 1934 the Dionne Quintuplets were born near Callendar, Ontario.
I grew up knowing this. These five little girls were part of the world I grew up in – certainly my mother, who remembers little about the present, clearly remembers the Dionne Quintuplets. The author of The Quintland Sisters, Shelly Wood, knew nothing about this story until she came across a photograph of the Quintuplets in 100 photographs That Changed Canada - published in 2009.
As my curmudgeonly husband often says, “It’s all new to the young people”. And, I expect there are a lot of young people who have never heard of the Dionne Quintuplets and know nothing of their story. So, good on Shelley Wood for writing this novel of historical fiction, with what seems to be a solid base in the truth of the time and situation.
I almost reluctantly picked up The Quintland Sisters and was surprised at how quickly I found myself involved in the story. I knew a bit about the childhood of these children but this novel fills in the blanks with very real people who are well characterized and, I believe, based on solid research. The majority of the “characters” are real people – I recognized the name of the photographer, Fred Davis, but my recollection was of seeing him on Front Page Challenge. My parents watched it every week, and yes it is the same Fred Davis, who long before his stint on Front Page Challenge was a photographer for the Toronto Star, and the only official photographer of these famous children.
It might seem hard, now, to believe that these children, and their family, lived they way they did. It was a different time, and it seems, at least in the beginning, that the efforts of Dr. Allan Dafoe were genuinely in the interests of keeping the babies alive. Theirs was the first known birth of quintuplets who lived. Born to a mother who already had five older children, into a family already living in poverty. The babies did live, all grew to adulthood and, in fact, two are still alive.
It is also hard to imagine that the children were so completely isolated, together, and became a sort of side show, with spectators coming from all over the world to see them. By 1937 there were sometimes 15,000 people on a weekend to see the Quints. Hollywood films were made about them. They were constant monitored by nurses and doctors. And, there was controversy about their father and his demands. Something I knew nothing about until I read this novel.
Shelley Wood has done an excellent job of portraying the world of the Dionne Quintuplets and has created a compelling fictional character who is dropped into the reality of those who were there, to provide another eye, another voice, another witness to what took place, and to what may, or may not, have taken place.