In “The Quintland Sisters,” author Shelley Wood reimagines the Dionne quintuplets’ early years, using the sisters’ own accounts in their autobiographies. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

In “The Quintland Sisters,” author Shelley Wood reimagines the Dionne quintuplets’ early years, using the sisters’ own accounts in their autobiographies. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

‘The Quintland Sisters’ reimagines the Dionne quintuplets’ childhood on display

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta had 1,571 active COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta’s central zone now has 1,101 active COVID-19 cases

Provincial death toll has risen by nine

Dustin Mitchell (Coats) is wanted by police in relation to a homicide this past Wednesday. (Photo contributed by Red Deer RCMP)
Red Deer RCMP looking for man in relation to homicide

An arrest warrant has been issued for a Red Deer man in… Continue reading

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 1,731 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday

The province’s central zone has 992 active cases

Collin Orthner, manager at McBain Camera in downtown Red Deer, stands behind the store’s counter on Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
A few Red Deer businesses happy with Black Friday results

While this year’s Black Friday wasn’t as successful as it was in… Continue reading

Le Chateau Inc. is the latest Canadian firm to start producing personal protective equipment for health care workers, in a July 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Hundreds of millions of dollars for frontline workers yet to be released, says Alberta Federation of Labour

Information recently released by the Alberta Federation of Labour suggests more than… Continue reading

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre speaks during a news conference Monday, Nov. 16, 2020 in Ottawa. Poilievre says building up the Canadian economy post-pandemic can't be achieved without a massive overhaul of the tax system and regulatory regime. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Conservatives attack Trudeau’s ‘reset’ but they have ideas for their own

‘We don’t need subsidized corporate welfare schemes that rely on endless bailouts from the taxpayer’

In this undated photo issued by the University of Oxford, a volunteer is administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
Moderna chairman says Canada near head of line for 20 million vaccine doses

Trudeau created a firestorm when he said Canadians will have to wait a bit to get vaccinated

There were 47 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta Tuesday. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
Spread of COVID-19 in Brampton, Ont., linked to systemic factors, experts say

‘We’re tired. We’re numb. We’re overworked. We’re frustrated, because it’s not our rules’

The courthouse in Iqaluit is shown on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Three Nunavut judges, including the chief justice, are at odds over whether prison conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic should be considered when sentencing offenders in the territory. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emma Tranter
Nunavut judges disagree on how to sentence offenders during pandemic

IQALUIT — Three Nunavut judges, including the territory’s chief justice, are at… Continue reading

A corrections officer opens the door to a cell in the segregation unit at the federal Fraser Valley Institution for Women during a media tour, in Abbotsford, B.C., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. Independent reviews of the hundreds of inmates placed in segregation over the past year found only a handful were inappropriate, new government data indicate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Few federal inmates moved from solitary after external reviews, new data show

‘There can be rare cases where the removal may not be immediate’

A couple embrace during a ceremony to mark the end of a makeshift memorial for victims of the Toronto van attack, at Yonge St. and Finch Ave. in Toronto on Sunday, June 3, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
‘I’ve been spared a lot,’ van attack survivor says as she watches trial alone

Court has set up a private room for victims and families of those killed in the Toronto van attack

Banff National Park. (The Canadian Press)
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

EDMONTON — A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths on railway tracks… Continue reading

Cows on pasture at the University of Vermont dairy farm eat hay Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. Canadian dairy farmers are demanding compensation from the government because of losses to their industry they say have been caused by a series of international trade deals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Lisa Rathke
Feds unveil more funding for dairy, poultry and egg farmers hurt by free trade deals

OTTAWA — Canadian egg and poultry farmers who’ve lost domestic market share… Continue reading

Most Read