Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The Dionne Years, Pierre Berton

When selecting the next installment of "Generic Broadway Friday Afternoon Post," I was listening to "I'm Still Here" from Follies, and the lyric "five Dionne babies," which I'd always remembered as "five neon babies" for no particular reason, caught my attention.

Because the Quints (as they were immediately branded by the media) are fascinating. If you're not familiar with the Ur-Gosselins, they were a naturally-occurring set of identical quintuplets, born to an extremely poor farming family in a Francophone region of Northern Ontario in 1934. Medical treatment at the time being for shit, and the babies being two months premature, and the family having no electricity, their survival was completely unexpected. But they soldiered on, and were extremely adorable, and the Canadian government, sensing a welcome distraction from the trials of the Depression, decided to build a theme park around them, so that people could pay to watch them play and eat and grow behind a glass wall. That happened! That was something that happened. They pulled custody away from the parents first, of course, because they were clearly useless hicks who didn't necessarily grasp the money-making potential of turning their kids into a freak show. The surviving quints (there are two left) eventually clawed some money back from the province of Ontario in the 1990s, since, you know, it seems like it should probably have been in trust for them all along.

And then, eventually, Pierre Berton wrote a totally boss book about it.

Pierre Berton wrote every single book on Canadian history, because Canadian history is super boring and uninteresting, so there was very little competition, and he was totally bad-ass, and actually enjoyed it. And he wrote a new book every three months, and lived to be 234 years old, so the CBC had to keep re-doing his stock obituary constantly. They probably had a guy on the payroll with no other function.

The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama is one of his best. Because, you know, everyone's a jerk. The doctor who saved them was a jerk. The government were jerks. The tourists were jerks. Their priest was a jerk. The parents initially seem sympathetic, but then their dad totally molested the girls when they eventually got returned to them as teenagers. No one's a hero. It's just a mass of exploitation and greed and PR.

The reason you should be reading The Dionne Years now, as opposed to something else, is that Berton is completely, completely ON about the intersection of a nation in poverty and the need for a narrative like the one they were given by Quintland. The sweet country doctor, the beautiful little girls, the wonderful life they had, and the fun you could have seeing them. You can figure out everything you need to know about reality TV right there in Callander, Ontario, in the late 1930s.

Oh, and men used to offer their dad money in public washrooms to show them his penis. We didn't know a lot about reproductive endocrinology.

Check it out.

16 Comments / Post A Comment


Oh, Nicole... you must watch the movie: "Million Dollar Babies" instead. Roy Dupuis is the hottest father of 11 children EVER. The Berton book is ok but drags in the political chapters. I also recommend the self-penned quint biographies, especially the latter-day ones where they reflect on how being exploited like zoo animals earned them absolutely nothing in the long run.


@TDF@twitter Hell yeah! I was obsessed with the whole Dionne story when I was younger and loved this movie so much. I had taped it off of TV and only had the second half for many years, and then a few years ago I found it on DVD.
I also recommend "We Were Five" by the four remaining sisters after Emilie died.
Man, I love the Hairpin.

Fancy Mustard

@TDF@twitter This whole post made me want to hop up and down, but I'd totally forgotten the hotness of Roy Dupuis until you mentioned it. Didn't the movie end with a totally creepy shot of the quints riding their trikes round and round and round in some never-ending circuit of exploitation? Gah, awesomeness.


this is fascinating! between pierre and kate beaton, (and alias grace) canadian history turns out to be a rich source of inspiration!

while we're very very broadly on the subject of books, help me the hairpin! a loooong time ago there was this book featured, i think from the 1950s or some such, by a sassy lady giving advice on living alone to young women? i think maybe the advice involved wearing the most fabulous bathrobe you can find? please can you remind me what this was, or tell me i hallucinated it?


@plonk Please oh please... I don't know what this book is either, but someone has to, right? I need bathrobe advice!


@LaFabuliste It's called Live Alone and Like it by Majorie Hills. It is rather fabulous. Originally printed 1936 it was reprinted a couple of years back. I picked up multiple copies in a sale for distribution to worthy friends. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/05/14/1084289871324.html for a review.

Lady Pennyface

And the review that someone linked to in the comments is worth a read too. Very funny. Why don't I own this book yet?


@Lady Pennyface yessss that was it, thank you.
more half-remembered things, on baby-related history this time: at one of the world's fairs, didn't they have a pavilion of (newly invented) incubators containing live babies?


@plonk Baby incubators! I knew there was one at Coney Island, but looks like they did fairs too. http://www.neonatology.org/pinups/coneyislandnurses.html


putting this on my goodreads list.


Pierre Berton was so boss, please everyone view this clip of him teaching Canadians how to roll a joint on the Rick Mercer Report. http://videosift.com/video/How-to-Roll-a-Joint-With-Pierre-Berton


Hairpin, you are in my brain lately and I LIKE IT. This is a sick and awesome story. And EVERYONE MUST WATCH "Million Dollar Babies." It gave me creepy nightmares as a child. So good.


Oh, Nicole, you have just clarified a Marx Brothers joke for me, thank you so much!


I second the rec for We Were Five! I picked it up from a used bookstore for like $2, because the embers of my own teenage fascination with the Dionnes still fire up every once and awhile, and I was floored by how openly bitter they were. Not that they don't have an absolute right, but I was shocked by how quickly and easily I was pulled into their narrative because they seemed totally willing to get Real As Fuck. Although it was a little off-putting at first that they refer to themselves collectively - appropriate, but unusual.


"If a woman in Canada can have five children, why can't Godfrey? You see?"


This is the first time I've encountered ANYONE who shared my childhood fascination with the Dionne Quintuplets. Nicole, between this and the Mitford sisters, I'm thinking you're probably my secret twin.

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