You never know when you’ll get an idea that will change the course of your life.
For Toronto-area debut novelist Heather Marshall it happened while she was soaking in her tub. “Two ideas suddenly clicked together in my mind and I realized that they were separate strands of the same woven story: the ongoing story of women fighting for agency over their own bodies,” she said.
The narrative in “Looking for Jane” practically dropped into her head fully formed: “once I started writing, these women’s stories poured out of me.”
When researching the history of abortion in Canada, Marshall says she “fell down the rabbit hole of Canadian maternity homes, places funded by the federal government and often run by churches, horribly cruel places where women were abused and where, according to Statistics Canada, an estimated 600,000 babies between 1945 and 1971 were born ‘illegitimate.’ She wondered, “How was it possible that, as a feminist student of history in Canada, these had never crossed my radar?”
By summer 2019, Marshall had enrolled at Toronto’s Humber School for Writers, participating in a workshop facilitated by novelist and children’s writer Kyo Maclear. She was developing a piece set in the 1960s featuring a young woman who gave birth in a maternity home and was forced to give up her newborn for adoption.
Early on in the writing process — in what Marshall calls “the director’s cut first draft,” in which all literary darlings remain — she knew one of her characters who had been raped by a family friend would grow up to be a doctor to make sure other girls had a choice. That character, Dr. Evelyn Taylor also writes a book about her involvement in Toronto’s safe underground abortion network during the 1970s: “The Jane Network.”
The piece Marshall workshopped with Maclear became the seed for “Looking for Jane.” This deeply researched, emotionally true, scintillating debut effectively interweaves the stories of three women across three generations and examines the impact of the ongoing struggle for women’s reproductive rights has had on each of their lives.
Feeling a strong sense of responsibility to do the stories of real women justice, “I made a conscious decision not to downplay what the women in the maternity homes experienced and, through fiction, to give them a voice, since they had been instructed to never discuss what had happened to them,” Marshall said. “They were told to forget about their babies and move on.”
That decision makes for uncomfortable reading at times, but that discomfort is essential, especially when held up against the enormous sacrifice that so many women made against their will.
In developing the narrative, Marshall “pulled at the threads surrounding motherhood, ” knowing she would write to the last scene “that lived in my head.”
She explores with aplomb and compassion the “grief rage” and the impact of secrecy through these three main characters.
There’s Angela Creighton who, in 2017, is trying to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization and has required the use of an abortion clinic to “treat one of the miscarriages that hadn’t naturally completed.”
Going back 40 years to 1979 gives the time frame for Nancy Mitchell’s story — she accompanies her cousin Clara to a back-alley abortionist and witnesses the life-threatening result as Clara hemorrhages on the subway ride home, requiring emergency room medical intervention.
The third story is of Dr. Taylor, herself a survivor of maternity home cruelty in 1960. A decade later, while at medical school in Montreal, she is trained by Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a physician whose compassionate work makes Evelyn realize that “an abortion could save a woman from a life sentence of pain, couldn’t it?” Evelyn is indefatigable and, as Marshall notes, “she acts accordingly as the trauma of others resonates with her and her own past experiences. Evelyn is willing to take personal risk in the face of providing safe, essential care for her patients.”
Marshall hopes her novel “creates space for conversation on personal and political levels, because we need to start essential conversations about the secrecy and shame surrounding the maternity home scandal.”
Time is running out to apologize to the mothers of hundreds of thousands of babies born post-Second World War and considered “illegitimate” in Canada, women who were forced to surrender their children in church and government-funded institutions like the fictional St. Agnes’s Home for Unwed Mothers in “Looking for Jane,” which, as one of the characters observes, is “nothing but a baby factory disguised as a reform mission” turning out product.
In July 2018, the Canadian Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology researched the postwar maternity home program, recommending that the government of Canada publicly acknowledge that this practice took place, and issue a formal apology to the women and children who were deeply traumatized and whose lives were forever changed by the forced adoption mandate. But still, there has been no official apology.
Marshall said she longs for readers of her novel “to get angry enough to put pressure on elected officials: a formal apology is the bare minimum.”
There continues to be an ongoing “fight for autonomy over our bodies, when even now nothing is ever taken for granted and we must be consistently vigilant, remaining aware of how quickly things can be scaled back,” she said.
“Looking for Jane” is a galvanizing, important book, one that humanizes through credible characters the enduring stigma and shame of abortion. The fight for women’s reproductive rights continues; it’s simply changed its form.
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