Review: Timely and engaging, Looking for Jane deals sensitively with heartbreaking subject matter

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Looking For Jane by Heather Marshall is a confident debut album that offers fascinating and often unsettling insight into the state of Canadian women’s reproductive rights in our recent history.Amanda Kopcic/Handout

  • Title: Looking for Joan
  • Author: Heather Marshall
  • Kind: historical fiction
  • Editor: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 400

A young woman sits alone in a Toronto emergency room exam room. Her jeans are soaked in the blood of her cousin, who was admitted after nearly collapsing on the subway while returning from a clandestine abortion.

Terrified of causing trouble for them both – it’s 1979, and having an abortion and performing an abortion is still a criminal act – the young woman, named Nancy, tries to evade the questions of a doctor. She has already dodged accusations from a male doctor, who knows full well how a young woman ends up dying of hemorrhage from a punctured organ, and threatened her with the police. When another doctor appears in the doorway, she prepares for another round of interrogation. Instead, the woman closes the door, explains that she is recording her cousin’s case as a miscarriage, and then says something unexpected.

“If you, or a friend, or any other girl close to you gets pregnant when they don’t want to be, you need to call the doctor’s offices and ask for Jane,” she says quietly. “Call, keep asking Jane, and eventually you’ll get what you need.”

In Looking for Jane, Heather Marshall tells her story using three intertwined timelines.

As the title suggests, the question of this “Jane” is central to Finding Joan, a confident start that offers a fascinating and often unsettling insight into the state of reproductive rights of Canadian women in our recent history. If you incorrectly assumed that Canada had decriminalized abortion around or even before Roe v. Wade, buckle up because a) it only really happened here in 1988 and b) like much of our past, it’s much darker than the halo effect of our present (relatively ) more progressive suggests.

Marshall tells her story using three intertwined timelines: Evelyn, a pregnant teenager in 1960, sent to a maternity hospital to have her baby quiet; the aforementioned Nancy in 1971, who strongly suspects she may have been adopted; and Angela in the present day, undergoing fertility treatments in order to conceive with her partner. The thread that initially connects the three stories is a ten-year-old letter that Angela one day stumbles upon, though it quickly becomes clear that there’s a lot more connection between these women than just misdirected mail – and yes , it’s “Jane”.

For Evelyn, scarred by a traumatic experience in a maternity ward run by nuns who took advantage of vulnerable girls’ railroad to give up their babies for adoption, “Jane” doesn’t just refer to the baby she lost, but also to the cause to which she is dedicated. her life: the Jane Network, an underground circle of doctors and activists who made safe abortion accessible to women when it was still illegal in Canada. It is here that her story intersects with that of Nancy, who “visits Jane” to have an abortion herself, but later becomes a volunteer in the high-stakes, high-pressure labor, risking prison if discovered. . For Angela, connecting with Evelyn years later, “Jane” represents the sacrifices made and the tragedies faced by the women who came before her – and also a real person who is part of a plot line towards the end that could just try those with a low tolerance for soap-opera style melodramatic reveals. (It’s smart but so cool that it’s a little… silly?)

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Marshall has a master’s degree in history, and it’s obvious that this book, written in clear, easy-to-read prose, is deeply researched, almost erroneously. Sometimes it suffers from something that often plagues historical novels, in which the characters show up in one way or another at every relevant major event and experience the extreme of every real-life scenario, to a point where it strains the credulity of even those most willing to suspend their belief for narrative purposes. For example: not only do the police raid Evelyn’s office while she performs Nancy’s abortion (a scene based on real events), but a few years later they are together again when a another client of “Jane” turns out to be a wire-wearing cop, and they narrowly escape jail (again, based on something that actually happened.) That’s not to say that this sequence of events couldn’t (and didn’t) happen to the same two people in real life, but sometimes it’s just a shoehorn-that-anecdote-I-found-in-my – look too far, you know?

Minor flaws aside, it’s an engaging book that sensitively deals with heartbreaking topics – adoption, abortion, miscarriage, abuse, suicide – with an emotional intelligence that means nothing ever seems free, or that real pain human is exploited for intrigue. It is also a timely book, when the pandemic has affected Canadians’ often already limited access to reproductive care and services – and when, despite government promises, no federal legislation exists to actually define access. abortion rights across Canada. And, as Marshall points out in his afterword, there has been no action on a 2018 committee recommendation asking the government to issue official acknowledgment and apologies to the estimated 300,000 mothers who have been forced or coerced into giving up. their babies in these post-war maternities.

In many ways, it seems like we’re still looking for Jane.

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