Summoned in May 1934, to help the local midwife deliver a child two months premature, Emma Trimpany, just 17 years old herself, witnesses the remarkable births of five tiny babes: the Dionne Quintuplets.
Wood’s debut novel tells the story of the first recorded successful delivery of quintuplets, to Elzire and Oliva Dionne in rural Canada. Through journal entries, Emma chronicles the girls’ lives from the frightening first days, when the tiny, fragile babies struggled to survive every hour, through their childhoods as well as Emma’s own blossoming into a nurse and young woman. Already raising five children, the Dionnes live on a farm that Dr. Allan Dafoe pronounces unfit for the quints. Initially, Dafoe transforms the Dionne’s kitchen into a sterile space with incubators shipped in from Chicago; eventually, a brand-new hospital is built, devoted exclusively to the quints and their medical team, across the street from the farmhouse. In addition to recording the girls’ developmental progress, Emma traces the comings and goings of various nurses, some of whom leave under shadowy circumstances. Telling the tale through Emma’s perspective enables Wood to capture not only the fiery conflict between the provincial, French-speaking Dionnes and the medical team (with its well-meaning but arrogant emphasis on cleanliness and what’s best technically for the children), but also Emma’s uncomfortable sympathies. The conflict escalates as Oliva Dionne and Dr. Dafoe lock horns in a series of lawsuits, with Dionne trying to assert parental rights and both sides (plus the Canadian government) trying to capitalize upon the quints’ popularity through advertising and movie contracts. Meanwhile, as Emma herself must decide whether mothering the quints is worth giving up her dreams of art school, she is headed for a cataclysmic change of her own.
A charming and well-researched, if long-winded, tale of love and survival.