The weather is getting colder, daylight hours are getting shorter, and thanks to COVID nobody is going anywhere. Can you think of a better time to start a new project?
Earlier this month I officially began the first draft of what should be my 2nd novel. They say that getting started is the hardest part, and I can fully attest to that: since I opened the file 2 weeks ago, I’ve been mostly labouring over what amounts to four paragraphs. But at least I’m under way: I have a fairly clear path ahead of me, and give or take some bends in the road and all the unseen features that are bound to appear on my new narrative landscape, I have a sound idea of my final destination.
So what’s the book about? The brunt of the action takes place in a Québec orphanage between the years 1950 and 1959, a period known as La Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness). This was an era dominated by the conservative regime of petty-despot and demagogue premiere Maurice Duplessis. During this time, thousands of orphans (often simply the children of unwed mothers pressured by the Catholic Church to relinquish custody) were falsely reclassified as medically ill by the Church and the provincial government in order to misappropriate federal subsidies. Already labeled as “children of sin” and now wrongly certified as mentally incompetent, the Orphans of Duplessis were regarded by many as sub-human: kept under appalling conditions, they were subjected to the worst kinds of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, to say nothing of damage done to them in the name of psychiatric treatment (experimental drugs, confinement, straight jackets, electroshock, and lobotomies).
The narrative will focus on a young nun whose life as a teacher takes a devastating turn when the orphanage she works in becomes a psychiatric hospital almost overnight, and her students (some very dear to her) are reclassified as patients.
The tragic story of the Duplessis Orphans gained headlines in the 1990s when a number of survivors fought to obtain appropriate compensation from the government of Québec and the Catholic religious communities responsible for the abuse. Sadly, few people outside of the province of Québec heard much about the Duplessis Orphans. This was possibly due in part to an equally tragic and similar story (namely the allegations of abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland and the subsequent investigation, Royal Commission, and eventual settlement) that dominated the news in English Canada around the same time. For whatever reason, it is a story that remains largely unknown in English-speaking Canada.
I would never presume to take on the task of retelling and re-analysing the tragedy of the Duplessis Orphans, when it has already been done far more effectively that I ever could by dedicated researchers and victims’ advocates. What I hope to accomplish as a novelist, on the other hand, is to bring the story to light to many who may be unfamiliar with it, within the context of a well researched, deeply intimate, and ultimately very human work of fiction.
And for those who have asked, this novel will indeed occupy the same universe as The Perpetual Now, though probably without any significant element of the fantastic. It may not come up until the epilogue, but there will be a direct link between the characters and events of this story (in 1959) and those of 2006, as told in my first novel. That’s all I’m saying for now.