Latest review: The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sarah Miller

By Ekta R. Garg

Genre: Teens/YA memoir

Release date: August 27, 2019

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

In 1934 the world witnesses a medical miracle: the birth of a set of identical quintuplets who survive. The Dionne family welcome their daughters but soon learn the girls will be claimed by many people far from the small Canadian town they call home. Author Sarah Miller offers extensive research and sources for her chronicle of this fascinating, yet heartbreaking story in The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.

Having birthed several children before May of 1934, Elzire Dionne is no stranger to the aches and pains associated with having a baby. She thinks her most recent pregnancy will proceed like the others, yet it doesn’t. When she goes into labor two months early, no one can predict that the early onset of symptoms means the coming of an incident unlike anything she has seen: she gives birth to quintuplets.

From the start, the Quints, as they come to be known, fight defy all expectations by living beyond the first hours and days of birth. No one, least of all their doctor, Dr. Dafoe, expects them to survive. Still, he and the nurses assigned to the care of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie fulfill their obligation to do what they can to keep the babies alive—and to the astonishment of everyone involved in their care, the girls live.

Word spreads fast about the birth of the Quints, and newspaper readers across Canada and into the United States become fixated on the wellbeing of the girls. During the Depression years, most people struggle to find hope in their own lives. The survival of the quintuplets represents to them a wondrous occurrence: even in the bleakness of the world, an underdog has a chance.

Woefully unprepared for the immediate doubling of their household, the Dionne family do their best to help the new babies. Dr. Dafoe enlists the help of the media, and resources, including breast milk, diapers, and incubators, arrive in droves. So do the people who travel for hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to see the Quints.

Dr. Dafoe worries that someone will try to profit from the unusual birth and eventually convinces Elzire and her husband, Oliva, to allow the Canadian government to take custody of the babies. Despite deep misgivings, the parents agree. For the next nine years, the Quints live in a special hospital built just for them across the street from their birth home. There they receive the exclusive attention of Dr. Dafoe and the nurses who care for them, play with them, and discipline them. They also receive the attention of the thousands of tourists who come to see the girls riding their tricycles in their playground.

Oliva and Elzire object many times to the arrangement, but their voices are ignored for almost a decade. Through the years, the tussle between the Dionne family and the government continues as people near and far profit from Quint newspaper ads, product endorsements, and media opportunities. While Oliva and Elzire eventually win the right to bring the girls home, the discomfort continues. The quintuplets have only known life with the doctor, their nurses, and in the hospital. The relationships they attempt with their parents and other siblings in the following years are strained at best, but one thing that doesn’t change is their bond with one another.

Author Sarah Miller lays out the story of the quintuplets in a chronological format that is easy to follow. Young adult readers as well as adult readers will find themselves fascinated and horrified by turns at everything the Quints endured, including exploitation, abuse, and theft from the significant trust fund set up in their name when they were babies. Miller’s recounting of the experiences of Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie circle around one main theme: the tight bond the girls formed and their deep-seated desire to live as individuals in a world that saw them as one person.

Miller takes care to document her sources. If the book can be faulted anywhere, it’s in quoting the sisters as one. Ironically, the one thing the quintuplets wished for more than anything else—individuality—gets subverted by this collective quoting. Putting that aside, however, the book offers an intriguing look into a time and decade when a medical marvel captivated people and nations.

I recommend readers Bookmark The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets.

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