"A historical novel that will enthrall you... I was utterly captivated..." — Joanna Goodman, author of The Home for Unwanted Girls
For fans of Kristina McMorris’s Sold on a Monday or Joanna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls, The Quintland Sisters is a novel that traces the tragic true story of the Dionne Quintuplets, the world's first identical quintuplets known to survive birth.
Reluctant midwife Emma Trimpany is just 17 when she assists at the harrowing birth of the Dionne quintuplets: five tiny miracles born to French farmers in hardscrabble Northern Ontario in 1934. Emma cares for them through their perilous first days and when the government decides to remove the babies from their francophone parents, making them wards of the British king, Emma signs on as their nurse.
Over 6,000 daily visitors come to ogle the identical “Quints” playing in their custom-built playground; at the height of the Great Depression, the tourism and advertising dollars pour in. While the rest of the world delights in their sameness, Emma sees each girl as unique: Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Marie, and Émilie. With her quirky eye for detail, Emma records every strange twist of events in her private journals.
As the fight over custody and revenues turns increasingly explosive, Emma is torn between the fishbowl sanctuary of Quintland and the wider world, now teetering on the brink of war.
From the Author:
Long before IVF and fertility drugs, the Dionne Quintuplets were the first identical quintuplets born alive. At the time of their birth in 1934, the chance of survival was estimated at 1 in 57 million. For nearly 85 years, people around the world have been following the lives of these miracle babies—collecting newspaper clippings and memorabilia, keeping up with their tumultuous lives long after they disappeared from the spotlight.
I am not one of these people.
I’d been working for more than a decade as a journalist when, in 2014, I stumbled across a coffee-table book entitled 100 Photos That Changed Canada. Most of these photographs captured moments in history that I already knew well, but one page, featuring five identical toddlers, meant nothing to me. That photo piqued my curiosity and sent me plunging into a story I still, to this day, can’t believe I’d never heard before.
My journalism training sent me digging for facts before turning to the question of how to fictionalize this strange tale. As I swiftly learned, more than half a dozen nonfiction books, including several biographies co-authored by the Dionne sisters, have been written about these famous quintuplets, although most are out of print. I got my hands on all of them and, in my reading, was struck by how very differently each book perceived the bizarre series of events that led to the Dionne girls living the first nine years of their lives apart from their family in a ‘nursery’ across the road where tourists could watch them play from behind screened windows.
Other sources helped me see things from a different angle. The Canadian National Film Board produced a documentary in 1978 (getting my hands on that meant a special request at the university library, then finding someone with a working VCR!). There was also a television miniseries that aired in the 1990s and I managed to track this down.
My best sources of information while researching this book, however, turned out to be the medium I was already most comfortable with: the daily news. And while international newspapers often ran stories on the health and antics of the quintuplets, it was the Toronto Star that followed them the closest. Page through the digital archives and it’s hard to find a single day when there wasn’t a story in the Star about the “Quints.”
In fact, the Star played something of a ‘starring’ role in this saga: when the babies were just a few days old, the Star sent a car-load of supplies and a life-saving incubator to the Dionne farmhouse along with their prize feature writer, their top photographer, and a very photogenic nurse. It was the Star that secured sole rights to photograph the babies, even sending their photographer, Fred Davis, to live in North Bay for the first five years of the babies’ lives. Another senior Star staffer, Keith Munro, ended up managing the quintuplet’s savings when the endorsement deals and movie offers starting pouring in, in earnest. Even the newspapers, clearly, had an interest in keeping these miracle babies in the public eye. In other words, the newspapers themselves didn’t just tell the story—they were an integral part of the tale.
As a result, the novel I set out to write ended up being not about the quintuplets, per se. Instead it is as much about the mythology that sprang up around them, how that was generated, the people who moved in and out of their lives, and the extent to which the world seemed to forget—perhaps was encouraged to forget—that these were perfectly healthy, normal girls growing up under a microscope for the sake of tourism dollars and personal profit.
In the end, I used many of those real-life newspaper articles in my novel, weaving my fictional story around these often-sensational stories. My fictional heroine doesn’t appear in the news, but it’s not impossible that she could have existed, given the rampant turnover of nursery staff.
And how decide I decide who this fictional insider should be? At some point in my research I happened across a line in an article, written decades later, that made my breath catch in my throat—as if someone had reached out of the screen and shaken me by both shoulders.
“Of all the people with a vested interest in the Dionne Quintuplets,” the article ran, “was there not one person among them who loved these girls simply for who they were?” This, I decided. This person would be my protagonist: unremembered, uncelebrated, and unseen. Emma Trimpany would be my fictional eyes inside the lives of the Dionne Quintuplets. She would come of age in the eye of the Dionne storm and, in time, come to question everything that was happening from the closest possible vantage point. A fictional character—never photographed and never part of the formal record—she would also give them the love that seemed so desperately absent in their childhood.
But could she love them as themselves, and nothing more? Could anyone swept up in the media glare of Quintland, with its celebrity wattage and million-dollar deals, remain pure and altruistic in their intentions? Even the newspapers, with few exceptions, fell down in their watchdog role, failing to question the motives of everyone surrounding the girls, or why they continued to live such abnormal lives.
Emma’s diaries, the reader learns, tell one version of events—the version she wants herself to believe. But the letters she sends away from Quintland seem to be telling a different story. And at the heart of it all, the mainstream newspapers—where we typically turn for facts and accountability—proved to be spinning a tale of their own.
I make no attempt in The Quintland Sisters to provide a “true” story, despite adhering closely to real events and chronology. That story belongs completely to Annette, Yvonne, Marie, Cécile, and Émilie. And here is the central conundrum of this sad tale: as horrific as it was that the Dionne quintuplets lived apart from their family for the first nine years of their lives, they later came forward with allegations of molestation and abuse in the hands of their parents when they were finally returned home. Their years at the nursery, they insist, were the happiest of their lives.
If a news-savvy journalist like me had never heard their tragic story, there must be many others who will be equally galled by how a normal life was taken from them so many years ago. Perhaps fiction can reach a new and different audience than all the nonfiction books, now so difficult to track down. I leave it to this audience to hunt for the truth, for the facts of what happened—or at the very least, the closest thing they can find.