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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.

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