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Five of a kind

Novel detailing Dionne quintuplets' saga deftly marries fact and fiction

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/3/2019 (469 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Dionne quintuplets in their train car on a trip to Toronto in 1939. (National Archives of Canada)

The Dionne quintuplets in their train car on a trip to Toronto in 1939. (National Archives of Canada)

Once in a while, a book comes along that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. It doesn’t happen often, especially in the world of historical fiction where plotlines are typically black or white, with few shades of grey.

But when it does occur — and it’s done well — it means a gifted storyteller has taken an actual event and threaded fact with characters so authentic that readers quickly get snagged in the delicious tale before they even know what hit them.

Kelowna, B.C.’s Shelley Wood is such a storyteller; her debut novel The Quintland Sisters is that kind of book.

Wood, a working journalist who splits her time between her British Columbia home and New York, paired archived newspaper stories with fictionalized journal entries of young nursing assistant Emma Trimpany, who helped deliver and then care for Canada’s famed Dionne quintuplets for five years. Emma's "voice" throughout The Quintland Sisters resonates with truth, feeling and insight in this masterful, well-researched retelling of a piece of Canadian history.

Born May 28, 1934, in Corbeil, Ont., and the first set of quintuplets known to survive infancy, of the five identical girls (Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Emilie and Marie) only two are still alive.

Wood felt a strong need to document their early years before they, like the Quintland compound in Callander that once housed the young sisters, disappeared completely. Wood’s clever, well-paced narrative leaves no doubt at the human toll that results when personal poverty and general greed meet the ultimate marketing opportunity.

And make no mistake: the Dionne quintuplets were a hot commodity in their day.

At a time when good-news stories and old-fashioned miracles were few and far between, pandemonium ensued in 1934 when word hit the streets that five tiny babies had been born within hours of each other to the Dionnes — Elzire, 24, and Oliva, 31.

Already a family of seven living in a rural Ontario farmhouse without amenities, the Dionnes became parents of 10 children virtually overnight. (They would go on to have 14 offspring in total.)

Author Shelley Wood (Tyler Dyck)

Author Shelley Wood (Tyler Dyck)

Local country doctor Allan Dafoe quickly improvised rudimentary facilities to care for the five newborns. Delivered two months before term, the quintuplets together weighed only 13 pounds, six ounces. The largest weighed two-and-a-half pounds; the smallest, just over a pound-and-a-half. None was longer than nine inches. None was expected to survive.

But thrive they did. Claiming to thwart private exploitation of the babies, the Ontario government of the day made the quintuplets wards of the state four months after their birth.

From 1934 to 1943, the Quints were a bigger tourist draw than Niagara Falls, Radio City Music Hall, Gettysburg and Mount Vernon. More than three million visitors paid to watch the children interact in a fenced observation area at Quintland twice a day.

An estimated half-billion dollars was pumped into provincial government coffers during that time. Commercial product endorsements and movie residuals swelled the girls’ trust fund to more than $1 million, much of which was spent on Quintland trappings.

Elzire and Oliva Dionne (back, from left) stand with their quintuplets (from left) Cécile, Yvonne, Marie, Emilie and Annette. (The Canadian Press files)

Elzire and Oliva Dionne (back, from left) stand with their quintuplets (from left) Cécile, Yvonne, Marie, Emilie and Annette. (The Canadian Press files)

Little wonder, then, that it took nine years for the Dionne parents to win back custody of their famous offspring. Neither Ontario’s politicos nor appointed guardian Dr. Dafoe were eager to relinquish control of such a cash cow.

As for Wood, she says readers can decide for themselves who are the bad guys and the good guys in the Dionne quintuplet saga. Initially planning to give a portion of the proceeds from The Quintland Sisters to the Dionne museum, Wood has opted instead to make a donation to Winnipeg’s Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

Emma would approve.

GC Cabana-Coldwell is a Winnipeg writer.

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History

Updated on Saturday, March 30, 2019 at 4:45 PM CDT: corrects Emma's name

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