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Book Reviews Author Shelley Wood’s new book reminds us long before the Kardashians craze was the Quintland zoo

Elzire and Olivia Dionne stand with their quintuplets, Cecile, Yvonne, Marie, Emilie and Annette in this undated photo.

The Canadian Press

  • Title: The Quintland Sisters
  • Author: Shelley Wood
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • Pages: 480

In a time when Jon & Kate Plus 8 feels like a quaint cultural relic, the Kardashians are the rulers of a new world order, and bloggers in the thousands make entire livings documenting the mundanities of family life, it’s hard to fathom quite how all-pop-culture-consuming a phenom the Dionne sisters were nearly 90 years ago. As the first quintuplets to survive beyond a few days, the girls were objects of intense fascination from birth, their every move documented and disseminated in newspaper and newsreel, and product endorsers of everything from corn syrup to cars. This was reality television, 1934 style.

It’s within the quiet centre of this circus that Shelley Wood sets her debut novel, The Quintland Sisters. Written as a scrapbook of sorts, interspersed with real newspapers articles from the period and fictional letters between characters, the narrative spine of this story is the diary of Emma Trimpany, a teenager created by Wood, who becomes one of the quintuplets’ primary caretakers.

At first, this particular perspective is a source of frustration. While Emma labours quietly in the nursery, her accounts full of diaper changes, feeding schedules and the antics of the girls, much of the capital-A action is happening off stage, reported as hearsay or overheard conversations. This is not to say that the inner workings of early childhood are not worth writing about, never-before-seen multiples or not. Rather, there is a certain vexing of the reader when so much of the Quints story – the forces working outside of their bubble, as it were, that would turn them from ordinary children into a cultural byword in exploitation – is outside of this narrator’s control. More than that, they’re shrouded in a naiveté that, while fitting for the character’s age and inexperience, can make the reader feel at times as if they are watching a horror movie, and you know the killer is behind the door, but the hapless heroine doesn’t.

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The famous Dionne Quintuplets take in the sighs of New York City, October 21, 1950. Left to right, are Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie and Yvonne.

King Features Syndicate / CP

And horrors, of course, are plentiful in any account of the Dionne quintuplets’ lives. Born premature, they were taken from their family home and raised in a quasi-laboratory across the road, every aspect of their life prescribed and studied. They had no interaction with other children, saw their parents only when they were allowed to visit and did not leave this compound until well into their childhood. They were one part spectacle – tourists flocked to visit “Quintland” in the tiny Ontario town where they were born – one part experiment and one entirely unprecedented cash cow for the guardians (which included the government) who turned these babies into a brand worth millions.

It is as these sinister details begin to mount that The Quintland Sisters rewards a reader’s patience. With a quiet, patient plotting any Gothic novelist would applaud, Wood builds to her tragedy’s crescendo. Like storm clouds darkening a summer sky one by one, Emma’s diaries, in the most matter of fact way, begin to paint a portrait of dysfunction, exploitation and what may have been good intentions corrupted by the worst in human nature. It’s all in the details: Assigning each girl a colour she must always wear is presented as a useful exercise in telling them apart for visitors. The construction of an open air playground, where visitors hidden behind screens can watch the girls outside at scheduled times each day, is presented as a less stressful solution than having the curious traipse past windows into the nursery all day long. From her perspective inside Quintland, every decision to restrict freedom is framed as protection, every commercialization of these children as an investment in their financial future. (And yet, we’re surprised by the way we’re obsessed with Instagram now? Plus ça change …)

As I intimated earlier, this is a novel that will require a little tenacity in the first half, mostly depending on whether or not you find Emma herself compelling enough a narrator, if her own comparably mundane coming-of-age in this bizarre context is interesting enough to compete with the verging-on-grotesque zoo that is the quints’ life. It’s actually a question Emma even addresses herself, at one point noting, “I’m a note in the margin of someone else’s story.” Truthfully, sometimes Emma’s own story is tedious, a bit like being stuck talking to a boring person at a party when the real action is happening across the room. And certainly, her own slow awakening to the twisted reality of the quints’ existence is perhaps a bit ham-handed, the nail driven a bit too emphatically home. To wit the not so subtle: “It’s dawning on me that all these rules, walls, and fences may not have been keeping danger out, but locking us within.”

Ultimately, however, telling this story from Emma’s perspective pays off as a narrative strategy. This device creates room for ambiguity. The reader is given an observation, often incomplete and always through the lens of immaturity, and left to flesh out their own conclusions about the muddied motivations of almost everyone in this heartbreaking story. It is also, perhaps, a choice ultimately made in sensitivity, leaving space for the two remaining Dionne quintuplets to one day tell their own story of being the Quintland sisters.

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