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Book Review

Book review | Story of Dionne Quintuplets is quite a shocker

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There’s only one of you.

You’re unique, with your own set of likes and dislikes, ideas that are all yours, tastes you’ve developed on your own. Nobody in the entire world is 100 percent identically you. Yep, there’s one of you — even when, as in “The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets” by Sarah Miller — people count to five.

More than with any of her other pregnancies, Elzire Dionne was suffering terribly.

Though she was just seven months along that May, 1934, her legs were swollen, her toes barely visible. The local doctor told her to stay off her feet for the baby’s sake but, of course, with older children to tend and a husband needing help on their Ontario farm, rest was impossible.

Despite that, days after being told to relax, Elzire’s baby was on its way.

Oliva Dionne fetched a neighbor for his wife, then the midwife, then the physician, but by time Dr. Dafoe arrived, two babies had been born. Before coats were removed, there was another baby, and two more within minutes.

Says Miller, “No set of quintuplets had ever lived before, and (Dafoe) had no reason to hold out hope for these five.”

But survive, they did, though it was precarious: the largest, later named Yvonne, was slightly over three pounds; the smallest, Marie, was “a pound less.” Many times, one quint or another was pulled from the brink of death, and minor illnesses were a daily threat until Dafoe insisted that the older children be sent away for awhile.

While Elzire fretted about her children, Oliva worried constantly about money; his salary of $4 a day would never stretch to feed a dozen mouths. And so, he made a deal to display the babies, Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Ếmilie, and Marie, at the Chicago World’s Fair for $100 a week for six weeks. That was big money. But shortly after the first check arrived, he began to have regrets.

Surely, there was a way out. Could he break a contract? No, but there was another option: Oliva could turn custody of the babies over to the Canadian government ...

Even for someone who’s been around and knows this story, “The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets” is still quite the shocker.

For the uninitiated, author Sarah Miller tells this story in a way that feels like a contemporary exposé with solid resources but with a tinge of tabloid-like outrageousness. To make it so, readers are taken to the Depression years to show that times and social attitudes were different then, allowing room for accommodations — but not so much that outrage doesn’t roar back at several points along the story. Miller then goes beyond, to bring modern readers up to speed on this wrenching, semi-triumphant, and ultimately sad tale.

Oddly enough, you’ll likely find this biographical book in the Young Adult section of bookstore and bibliotheque, though it’s really more adultish. Get it wherever you find it, though: “The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets” is one great book.


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