Inspired by true events, Goodman constructs a story reflecting a particularly heinous event in 1950s Quebec: the shame of unwed mothers and the exploitation of their offspring. Shunned by polite society, the unplanned infants are placed in orphanages. But the real trauma occurs when these children are moved to a mental facility, the hospital receiving more money for care. Labeled as mentally infirm, the children suffer untold horrors.
Behind the walls of a facility even more punishing than an orphanage, the children are the subjects of experiments, even lobotomies, trapped with no hope of escape until the ugly situation is finally exposed. It is a shameful and brutal era long sheathed in secrecy. Certainly 15-year-old Maggie Hughes could never imagine such a fate. In a stable home where her father's seed store is a magical place. Counting seeds to help her father maintain his inventory, she imagines taking over the store some day. She cherishes the idea that "he who plants a seed, plants a life". Though her English father has married a French woman, the family maintains a strict rule about fraternizing with the French. The class distinctions are fiercely enforced in the Hughes family, even though a boisterous French-Canadian family owns the farm bordering their property.
Maggie is ceaselessly reminded that the English are superior to the French but can't help noticing the slightly older, very handsome neighbor Gabriel Phenix, who works his fields in the summer. It is impossible for a young girl not to lose her heart to a forbidden man. When this ill-fated love affair leaves her with child, Maggie is swept away to her uncle's farm, there to await the child's birth--and removal to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Nazarius. Deprived of her beloved Gabriel, Maggie has only a moment to name her baby girl Elodie before she, too, is taken away. Though Maggie struggles against her father's dictates, stoically bearing her own humiliation and abuse, he prevails.
Contrasting Maggie's experiences after giving up her daughter to Elodie's terrible life as one of the infamous orphans sent to a mental hospital, Goodman painstakingly details the damage done to the child. Even when Elodie escapes that confinement, she faces an indifferent world with little education and no resources except her own determination. Both mother and daughter yearn for one another, even though the child is told by the nuns that her mother died in childbirth. Refusing to abandon her baby no matter how many years pass, Maggie leaves no possibility unchecked, relentlessly following every lead.
Exploring the pivotal characters--Maggie, Gabriel and Elodie--as well as the marriage of a distant mother and her straitlaced English husband, the ultimate harm done to Maggie and Elodie's relationship is etched in the mirrored pain of their enforced separation. The shocking true-life crime in 1950, the transfer of orphans by Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis into a mental hospital for financial gain, is a blight on the region's history. "Children of sin" becoming "mentally insane" suffer emotional and physical abuse at the hands of Catholic nuns cloaked in the robes of care. The endemic prejudice between English and French Canadians and the rigid enforcement of rules that perpetrate the silencing of guilt under the guise of propriety is inexcusable. The story of Maggie and Elodie speaks to the resilience of the human heart and the unbreakable bond between a mother and a child.