The Dionne quintuplets. (Photo: National Archives of Canada)


Revisiting the lives of Canada’s most famous sisters

During the Depression, the Dionne quintuplets were so famous that Hollywood celebrities travelled to Ontario to see them. Their controversial childhood is the focus of The Quintland Sisters, a bestselling novel by Shelley Wood, BA'94.

Story by Jennifer Nault

July 2019

What are the chances of a woman giving birth to five identical babies that survive? In the early 1930s, the odds were one in 57 million. Shelley Wood’s The Quintland Sisters, currently one of the bestselling novels in Canada, wastes no time in transporting readers straight into the ramshackle kitchen of a small northern Ontario home, the setting for that stunning multiple birth scene.

The book is inspired by the real life experiences of the Dionne quintuplets. Their “miraculous” birth symbolized hope during the Great Depression. To the public, “these charming little girls seemed to be living a fairy-tale life, and their existence must have transported people out of their sorrows and given them something to root for,” says Wood, BA’94.

At the height of their popularity, the quints were more than household names in Canada; they were internationally famous, garnering visits from British royalty and such American celebrities as Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Stewart.

Wood, a journalist and editor whose work has appeared in the New Quarterly and The Globe and Mail, wasn’t familiar with the story of the Dionne sisters when she initially started thinking about trying her hand at a novel. She was a budding author in search of a subject when she stumbled across a picture of five identical toddlers at her local library. Compelled to dig deeper, she found she couldn’t stop thinking about the Dionne sisters.

“These girls? I’d never heard of them. The more I looked into it, the crazier it seemed that I had never known their story,” she says.

Her curiosity drew her in closer to the source material, some of which is also a sort of fiction. “I liked the idea of writing about a period that can’t be pinned down by facts – even the newspaper accounts of the day swerved closer to propaganda than objective record.” After getting the green light from her publisher, Wood found herself poring over archives in the small northern Ontario town near North Bay.

Daily news and radio reports dispatched every milestone of their childhood, exposing every detail at an appallingly invasive level. Separated from their family not long after their birth, the five girls were treated like a profitable tourist attraction; they were on public display with more than 6,000 daily visitors, their images used to sell products and attract sponsorships.

People in their orbit were raking in money, including the Ontario government, whose intervention had dire, unanticipated consequences.

In 1997, the Dionne sisters themselves issued a warning reflecting on those consequences: “Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products.”

The story of the Dionne quintuplets has been abundantly documented – most notably by Pierre Berton. Yet, Wood says, “nothing had been published since the late 1990s. This story, I feared, was in danger of vanishing.” Wood says she hopes that readers already familiar with the story of the quints “come away from the novel inspired to rethink what they had believed to be true.”

Not only is the story recast for a new generation, readers are granted a reimagining of the sisters’ first five years of childhood through the eyes of a Wood creation – the fictitious Emma Trimpany, an aspiring young midwife. While the entire world values the children as a single unit, it is Emma – practical, calm, and imparted with heightened awareness for detail – whose fine, artistic eye recognizes each girl as unique.

“I wanted to create a character who simply loved them for them,” says Wood. “I imagined her as their protector. As the eyes inside the nursery, she is someone with no vested interests, and could wrestle with the issues.”

Emma stands in for the reader. “She’s an insider, someone who could observe and grow alongside the babies themselves.” In helping raise the girls, Emma delays her own adulthood, and her world is both grander through her proximity to the spectacle, and yet claustrophobically insular, as her life at Quintland increasingly revolves around the fate of the children.

As historical epistolary fiction, the novel is replete with authentic news clippings, fictionalized journal entries, and personal letters, making it an immersive, almost interactive, read. The story calls on readers to question the different points of views presented.

The Quintland Sisters grapples with the layered tensions and motivations at play as various actors circle the quints’ lives. Quintland functioned as a microcosm of the issues facing Canada in the early 1930s. The five girls were in the eye of the storm, at the intersection of contesting cultures, classes, languages, and faiths, where the battles of French versus English, Catholic versus Protestant, and rich versus poor played out.

“I’m not sure what lessons were learned in terms of how the lives of children like these can be better protected from the spotlight,” says Wood. “The Dionne story represents yet another instance of the Canadian government electing to take children away from parents deemed unsuitable and later failing to take responsibility for their well-being.”

Wood says McGill helped her develop some of the skills that resulted in the success of The Quintland Sisters. “Looking back, I credit my McGill degree for helping me develop my research skills and eye for analysis.” She is already at work on her second novel, set, this time, in Montreal, above a depanneur. “My main character is a McGill student.”

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