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The Dionnes

by Ellie Tesher

The story of the Dionne quintuplets is an oft-told tale. Pierre Berton’s book on their miraculous birth during the Depression appeared in 1977. The surviving sisters’ battle for financial justice was headline news in 1998. The years between saw television documentaries, a National Film Board production, memoirs by the quints with startling revelations of parental sexual abuse, and counter-memoirs by the other Dionne siblings.

Ellie Tesher’s journalistic coverage of the quints’ fight with the Harris government was instrumental to its success. In The Dionnes, she has written a comprehensive history of the quintuplets, linking their bizarre upbringing to their dysfunctional marriages and tracing its disastrous effects into the next generation.

She tells a shocking story of exploitation, greed, and cruelty by the Ontario government, various commercial enterprises, members of the medical profession and the Catholic church, and the quints’ own parents. In the latter case, Tesher stresses the mitigating circumstances – the havoc wreaked on the family by having the quints removed when they were babies and summarily returned as adolescents.

I began by wishing that Tesher had more of a novelistic flair in storytelling. Reading on, however, I considered how many dangers attend the telling of this story. With its cast of powerless victims and powerful villains, it might easily have slipped into moralizing commentary, sentimentality, and melodrama. And the final chapter, with its flamboyant lawyers and opportunistic politicians, could have produced all the current clichés of courtroom drama. With admirable restraint, and a spare unembellished style, Tesher avoids all of these pitfalls. She simply presents the facts and allows the characters and situations to speak for themselves. It is hard to imagine this story being told more effectively.