It was a story stranger than fiction: Five identical girls, made famous by dint of their against-all-odds existence, separated from their family to become one of Canada’s biggest tourist attractions at a profit to many, including the Ontario government.
Despite the incalculable ink that’s been spilled over the Dionne quintuplets, author Shelley Wood says the full truth may never be known about the girls’ cloistered childhood inside Quintland, the compound near North Bay, Ont., where the girls were raised on public display.
That’s in part why Wood said she turned to historical fiction in her new novel, “The Quintland Sisters,” to wrestle with the ways in which a host of outside actors, of varying intentions, capitalized on the sensation surrounding the quintuplets — and to some extent, the Kelowna, B.C.-based writer admits, she’s also complicit.
“A lot of people have really, really entrenched beliefs about what happened way back when,” Wood said in a phone interview. “My hope, most of all, is that people would come away not angry at me for the fictional choices I made, but rather, inspired to rethink some of the things they thought about prior.”
At the height of their Depression-era fame, the Dionne quintuplets were household names in Canada, with fans across the globe following their every childhood milestone in the news. But today, the two surviving sisters, Annette and Cecile Dionne, lead largely private lives.
Fearing what she sees as a dark chapter in Canadian history was on the verge of being forgotten, Wood said she gave herself the “fictional licence” to reimagine the quintuplets’ early years, using the sisters’ own accounts in their autobiographies to anchor the historical elements of her tale.
“These women have been through so much, and even just daring to imagine what a small portion of that was like is a little bit of arrogance on my part,” said Wood, who is donating a share of the novel’s proceeds to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
“I hope that they understand my motives for doing this, and I hope to meet them in person one day if that’s something they want.”
Wood said she sent the 84-year-old sisters an advance copy of the novel, which they were unable to read due to vision loss, a family spokesman said in an email.
“This book is clearly and unambiguously presented as a fictional version of a major chapter of worldwide media history,” said Carlo Tarini, a communications consultant who works with the sisters.
“Sadly, the true and tragic story of the Dionne quintuplets never needed enhancement to demonstrate the incredibly high cost of unwanted celebrity.”
“The Quintland Sisters” is told from the perspective of invented characters on the periphery of the quintuplets phenomenon, beginning the day of their premature birth on May 28, 1934 in a farmhouse near Corbeil, Ont., to francophone parents already struggling to care for their five older children.
With the Ontario government’s intervention, Anette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie and Yvonne Dionne were installed in a custom-built hospital/nursery across the road from their family homestead, where they were tended to by a team of nurses and teachers. At its peak, Quintland brought an estimated $500 million to the northern Ontario economy, when five million tourists observed the girls through one-way glass.
By alternating between fictionalized journal entries and correspondence and archival news clippings, Wood sought to juxtapose the “fairy tale” public narrative against the tensions simmering within Quintland over the toddlers’ care and commercial success. Many of these clashes played out along Canada’s dividing lines, she said, pitting anglophones against francophones, Protestants against Catholics, and monied medical professionals against the impoverished Dionnes.
In the 1990s, three of the quintuplets and their late sister’s descendants received a $4-million settlement from the Ontario government after raising concerns about the alleged mismanagement of a trust fund that had been set up to provide for their future.
Wood said the quintuplets’ upbringing in what amounted to a “public zoo” left the them ill-prepared to navigate the world on their own, serving as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of modern-day reality stardom.
“As much as we want to know the behind-the-scenes story of any given celebrity, we also know in our hearts that they are entitled to their privacy and their independence. And that really wasn’t given to the Dionne sisters for many, many years,” she said.
“I think that we as a society need to look at how much we enjoy the spectacle of watching people squirm in the public eye, and what the long-term impact of that is.”
“The Quintland Sisters,” published by William Morrow, hits bookstores Tuesday.