I confess to not remembering how Sarah Miller and I first met face-to-face, but I knew we would be pals after reading her Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller (Atheneum Books for Young Readers). Sarah brought out aspects of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller that were new and fresh to me; I also figured out she was as much a research geek as I am. Sarah and I had the opportunity to catch up last spring and I took that opportunity to invite her here to tell us about her latest fascinating deep dive into history, The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets
(Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House). Read on!
One day in the fall of 2015, for absolutely no reason I can recall, it occurred to me that I had a set or two of Tyco Quints dolls in the attic. Are those worth anything? I wondered. So I typed “quints dolls” into eBay and found not the three-inch baby dolls with brushable hair and a plethora of times-five accessories that I’d played with in elementary school, but Madame Alexander’s once-coveted Dionne Quintuplets dolls from the 1930s. Prices for full sets ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars. A faint bell of recognition jingled in my head. See, my grandma loved everything you were supposed to love in the 1930s: Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, and the Dionne Quintuplets. My mind called up a vague recollection of Grandma excitedly showing me a TV Guide with five dark-haired toddlers on the cover — likely from the debut of a miniseries called Million Dollar Babies in 1994.
My curiosity piqued, I ordered three Dionne books from the library and read them in a single weekend. The facts are, quite frankly, bananas. Born two months premature in northern Ontario in 1934, Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie Dionne weighed a grand total of just over 13 pounds. No set of quintuplets in history had ever survived, so when the five identical Dionne sisters lived an hour, then a day, and then a week, the world collectively lost its mind. Reporters and newsreels descended on the Dionne farm. Hucksters from the Chicago World’s Fair and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not came courting the Dionnes, hoping to put the infants on display. The media frenzy was so intense, Grandpa Dionne had to stand guard at the gate with a pitchfork.
Frantic to save the fragile babies from exploitation, the Ontario government took custody of the Dionnes’ five daughters and installed them in a bespoke hospital across the street from the farmhouse, effectively snapping the family in half. Not only were Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie raised by nurses, but then, in a phenomenal act of hypocrisy, the government sanctioned the construction of an observatory around the sisters’ playground, so the public could oogle the five children through one-way glass twice a day. The Dionnes spent their childhood isolated from their parents and five elder siblings, in what was essentially a baby-zoo. “Quintland” became the Disney World of its time, a tourist hotspot more popular than Niagara Falls. And that’s only the first half of the story.
As I read everything from the sisters’ memoirs to the nurses’ diaries to long-forgotten interviews with Mr. and Mrs. Dionne, I quickly came to realize that the whole story has never been told all in one place. Quint-mania affected not only Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie, but their parents, siblings, doctors, and nurses. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of emotional wounds in this story. Some of them run so deep that it’s difficult for those who were directly involved to tell their part with any kind of objectivity. That’s where I come in.
My task has been to assemble these individual slivers into a multi-faceted whole, so that you can see the entire picture and, as much as possible, hear the story in the actual words of the people who lived it. So many voices, such as Mrs. Dionne’s, have not been heard for decades. Another significant challenge has been to resist casting anyone as a villain. Literally everyone on the planet demanded nothing less than the very best for these children. The Dionne story is one of good intentions gone awry — the kind of story that makes you wish you could swoop in and keep everyone from taking those disastrous wrong turns, if only you could pinpoint the magical moment that would lead to a happily-ever-after.
Thérèse Dionne, who was born four years before her five famous sisters once told a journalist, “We don’t feel anyone can be fair to both sides and tell the truth.” I’ve tried my utmost to prove her wrong, as respectfully as I know how.
Sarah Miller began writing her first novel at the age of ten, and spent two decades working in libraries and bookstores. The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets, her most recent nonfiction work, is a Junior Library Guild selection and the recipient of four starred reviews. Her nonfiction debut, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century, was hailed as “a historical version of Law & Order” by The New York Times. In addition to her non-fiction work, she is also the author of two historical novels for teens, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller and The Lost Crown, both ALA Notable Books, as well as a bestselling novel for adults, Caroline: Little House Revisited. Sarah lives in Michigan. You can learn more about her on her website, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.