The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets clocks in at a substantial 9 ½ hours, but listeners won’t want it to end. I practically listened to the entire thing in one day, and after I finished, I spent the next week telling everyone all about it. This is nonfiction audio at its best. Heartbreaking, fascinating, infuriating, thrilling…the story has it all, and guess what? It’s all true. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up, and it still amazes me that it happened in the first place.
The problem with nonfiction audios is that they aren’t a go-to favorite for some people. Many listeners love short stories, novels, and poetry, but nonfiction? Hmm. Nonfiction sometimes gets a bad rap because it seems like it’s good for you…horrors! Or it seems like it would be really school-y and boring with all kinds of off-putting footnotes. But here’s the thing. Great nonfiction audios can be moving and thought-provoking and just as exciting as any thriller. In fact, they may be even more affecting because these are stories about real people in real situations, and that makes for a powerful listening experience.
Of course, not all nonfiction audios are wonderful, but happily, The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets is a great one. The book tells the story of the super famous Dionne Quintuplets, born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne in Canada in 1934. Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie weighed in at just 13 pounds, and none of them was expected to make it through the night. They defied all odds, however, and lived into adulthood. Even so, their entire lives would be upended by the simple fact of their birth, a birth which captivated the world but resulted in the near-destruction of their family.
Because of the cost and intensity of the girls’ medical care, the Canadian government made the Dionne quintuplets wards of the state, taking them from their family home and raising them in a specially built hospital. This hospital—the only home that the girls knew—soon became the location of Quintland, an astoundingly popular tourist attraction full of trinkets and souvenirs, where people stood and watched the girls play. The story continues from there, utterly compelling, even though it is painful to hear about the awful way that the girls were made into media sensations and bandied about for other people’s gains.
A truly great nonfiction audio must have a truly great narrator, and that is what we find here. Narrator Robin Miles reads with precision and steadiness, employing a measured pace that is a joy to hear. Her voice is warm, promoting a connection between listeners and the girls, a connection which mirrors the text itself. Miles’ pronunciation is perfection as well. And this is really important in this book, because there are many French words, and all French words, including the girls’ names, are flawlessly pronounced throughout.
This audio is not bursting at the seams with audio extras like music, sound effects, or dramatic character voices. It is rather unadorned, but in its steady simplicity, it achieves something very special indeed—a piercing authenticity that will stay with listeners long after the audio has come to an end.
Before I let you go (off to find a copy of this amazing audio, I hope!), I did want to talk a little about pictures. Here’s where nonfiction audios can suffer. While listening, I personally never felt the lack of pictures, as I made pictures in my own head. But when I happened to look at a physical copy of the book, I was fascinated to see how the girls looked in real life. So, here’s the dilemma that nonfiction audios sometimes present. Print or audio, which is better? I’m not going to lie, seeing the pictures is really cool, but when I remember this story, it’s not the pictures that I remember, but Robin Miles’ exquisite narration. That continues to resonate with me, so I say…listen!
Could The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets be an Odyssey contender? What an amazing and brave choice that would be. I know that I, for one, would be cheering loud and long, if that were to happen!
The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets, by Sarah Miller, read by Robin Miles. 9 hours, 25 minutes. Listening Library, 2019.