A MOTHER’S WORK
History and fiction mingle in story about women's reproductive rights
There's a moment in Heather Marshall's debut novel, Looking For Jane, when a young Toronto woman visits a back-alley abortionist in a desperate attempt to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. A radio is turned up full-blast to drown out her screams and she's also told to bite down on a grubby leather belt carrying the tooth marks of previous women who have paid hundreds of dollars for these illegal services.
It's an unpleasant scene, an example of what can happen in a society lacking reproductive freedom, but for Marshall it's essential to the story she needed to tell — a story that moves back and forth over decades of history.
“It's about women's fight for agency over their own bodies and their own lives,” the 35-year-old author says now.
There's a later suspenseful moment in a properly equipped abortion clinic, when a fully qualified doctor named Evelyn Taylor is halted in her actions by a police raid. Again, we're in an era when abortion remains illegal in Canada, and when controversial reproductive rights advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who actually makes a guest appearance in this story, continues to defy existing law until a historic 1988 Supreme Court ruling will decriminalize abortion.
But Marshall is adamant that this is not a novel about abortion. It's about motherhood.
“In large part it is about reproductive choice and reproductive access in Canada, but I really wanted to look at motherhood from many different angles, including the particularly grey areas. This is not just a story about abortion — it's about women seeking control of their own lives.”
The book's seed was planted several years ago when Marshall was working on her master's degree and began researching the Morgentaler trials of the 1980s and the fight for abortion access in Canada.
“It was devastating to read,” she says from her home in southern Ontario. “I felt this could be a novel.”
More shocks came later as she began examining the ugly truth about the maternity homes for “fallen women” that became a prominent part of the nation's culture in the years after the Second World War. Sanctioned by government and usually operated by religious agencies, they were frequently — in Marshall's view — unconscionable baby factories where “unmarried teenagers and young women lived for the duration of their pregnancies before giving up their babies for adoption (generally by coercion, threat or force).”
Some of the book's darkest moments take place in Toronto's St. Agnes Home, the fictional creation that is a composite of actual institutions examined by Marshall during her research. Its fanatical, unforgiving warden, Sister Mary Teresa, even finds divine justification for the shocking practice of selling newborn infants for profit.
Babies for sale? In some cases — yes. “I'd never encountered any of this in my history books, and it was some of the most disturbing material I'd ever read,” Marshall says. The malign influence of Ireland's notorious Magdalene network of homes had crept across the ocean to Canada and taken root in some institutions operated by the Roman Catholic Church.
“The government of Ireland has issued a formal apology in connection with these homes,” Marshall says pointedly. “Our government has yet to do so ... and one of my motives with this book is to press the government to make that formal apology.”
Marshall felt she had threads for a potential book, but how best to weave them together? “Some of my best ideas come in the bath,” she laughs now. Hence her eureka moment in the tub when a fully formed story suddenly entered her mind so forcefully that she called on her husband to deliver her a notebook and a celebratory glass of wine.
“It was now a story ready to be told and I wanted to tell it and shine some light on these dark parts of our history. I really did feel sometimes that it was pouring out of me effortlessly.”
The novel focuses on three vividly realized characters.
One is Angela, a young gay antique dealer who has suffered more than one miscarriage during her driven pursuit of motherhood. Her life changes in 2017 when an item of furniture in her shop yields a mysterious unopened letter whose shocking contents will affect several lives.
“There's a streak of my own stubbornness in Angela,” Marshall says. But Angela is not just a catalyst for later revelations as she turns detective in an effort to find the truth behind her discovery. She's also important to what the novel wants to say about motherhood. “Infertility is a problem a lot of mothers face, but this is a same-sex situation and I wanted to normalize and shine a spotlight on that.”
Then there's Evelyn, middle-aged and a practising physician, still haunted by the horror she suffered decades before as an unwed mother, and an important player in the underground abortion network where she is determined to give other women the choice she never had.
“Evelyn's mechanism for dealing with her own trauma was to make sure that it never happened to any other woman after her,” Marshall says.
The third character is 20-yearold Nancy, who is struggling with an unwanted pregnancy and also a shocking discovery about her own family history. Marshall reckons now that Nancy was the most interesting person to write about. “I needed to explore the impact of family secrets on somebody's psychology, and that's what I did with Nancy.”
Marshall had completed the book before she became pregnant with her first child, and she's grateful for that.
“I don't know that I could have written this story after having my boy. It would have been too emotional for me now that I've become a mother.”
But there was still pain during revisions and editing, especially when dealing with the maternity homes. “I was now able to relate more to the girls who had their babies taken away from them.” Her own experiences with pregnancy and childbirth had made her more sensitive to the complexity of the issues she was tackling in the novel.
“It really opened my eyes to how it would feel to be pregnant against my will. That hadn't been a personal thing for me before. I had had empathy and compassion and from a social justice perspective believed very strongly in abortion access and reproductive rights.
“But earlier I had not experienced that shift in my brain and heart to relate on a more personal level.”
I don't know that I could have written this story after having my boy. It would have been too emotional for me now that I've become a mother. Heather Marshall