Wendy McLeod MacKnight recommends 3 historical fiction books she loved reading
Wendy McLeod MacKnight is an author based in Fredericton. The writer, known for her children's books such as The Frame-Up, is a fan of historical novels for adults.
She spoke with Shelagh Rogers about three historical novels she recently enjoyed: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and Caplin Scull by M.T. Dohaney.
"This book absolutely gutted me. It's about the orphans of unmarried girls in Quebec in the 1950s. The story is about a girl named Maggie, who gets pregnant by a local French boy and gives up her child. She's forever haunted by this and her daughter, Elodie, ends up in a church-run orphanage in the 1950s. There's this massive change in government policy and, in a bid to get more federal dollars for their institutions, the government designates all of their orphanages as mental institutions.
"All of these orphans are suddenly designated as mentally incompetent. They're no longer educated, they find themselves living with adult patients and they're forced to care for them. They're forced as guinea pigs to to be used for trials for treatments. It's absolutely horrifying. We're talking thousands of children stuck in the system until the word started to seep out. There were a lot of investigations. Then these kids were suddenly freed but they had no life experience. It was very tragic.
"I think I cried for an hour. It is amazing. It's part mystery, part love story, part horror story. It's all rolled into one. The ending is very satisfying, but it also brought up a lot more questions and made me want to read more nonfiction about this particular case."
"It's this sweeping saga that takes us from travels across the ocean with Captain Cook, with journeys to Tahiti, as it's been first colonized, to the Netherlands and the United States in the early 1800s.
"Our main character, Alma Whittaker, is born in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. Her father is a larger-than-life character who's bootstrapped his way across the Atlantic and made his fortune on pharmaceutical plants. He passes on that love of plants and botany to his daughter. He's the richest man in Pennsylvania at the time. He makes sure that Alma is very well-educated. She's also born into one of my favourite time periods in history, which is the Age of Reason and discoveries are literally happening every day."
"This is a book of 19 short stories set in the fictional place of Caplin Skull in the 1930s and 1940s. The thing that got me right from the very beginning is that Caplin Skull is named after the capelin, fish that hurl themselves onto beaches on foggy mornings in late June and early July to spawn and then die. This is a metaphor for communities that live hardscrabble lives while clinging to cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. It's brilliant.
"What struck me about this volume of short stories is that you know this takes place at a time when those outposts are being thrust into the greater world. You can feel the pressure of Confederation coming. There's lots of discussion of that in the book along with the collapse of the fisheries. The church is loosening its grip on these communities and their children are leaving. It's heartbreaking and written the language of the 1930s and 1940s. You are completely immersed in these stories. It's so rich and absolutely bewildering to me as a writer how she does it."
Wendy McLeod MacKnight's comments have been edited for length and clarity.