Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall

a masterful debut novel about three women whose lives are bound together by a long-lost letter, a mother’s love, and a secret network of women fighting for the right to choose—inspired by true stories.

If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you know that I’m fond of including a little bit of actual history when I review a historical fiction novel. So let’s get into it, shall we?

Use the links below to skip ahead to the section you prefer to read:

History Part 1: Maternity Homes
History Part 2: Jane Collective
Book Review

Maternity Homes

There was once a huge stigma regarding unwed mothers. After World War II, several countries (including Canada and the United States) dealt with this problem via maternity homes. Often run by religious organizations (such as the Catholic church, the Salvation Army, and others), unwed mothers-to-be were sent to these homes in order to hide their “shameful” condition and give birth in secret. Up until the 1970s, more than 300,000 unmarried Canadian women were forced to give their babies up for adoption.

In a heartbreaking testimony heard by the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, a Canadian woman explained how she was forced to surrender her baby for adoption in post-war Canada.

“The social worker stood in front of me. Coldly, she said, ‘You will never see your baby again as long as you live,’” Sandra Jarvie is quoted as saying in a new report on post-war adoption practices. “‘If you search for the baby, you’ll destroy his life and the lives of the adoptive parents.’”

silhouette of pregnant woman
Image by Luciana from Pixabay

Things were no different in the United States. During the Baby Scoop Era, as it is now known, “…it is estimated that up to 4 million mothers in the United States surrendered newborn babies to adoption; 2 million during the 1960s alone.”

“Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to keep [my] baby, or explained the options. I went to a maternity home, I was going to have the baby, they were going to take it, and I was going to go home. I was not allowed to keep the baby. I would have been disowned.”

— Joyce


Abuse was rampant. Mothers were treated like prisoners, prevented from seeing their babies, and sometimes told their children had died. It was an era not only of emotional and psychological devastation, but a complete lack of choice. Once the unwed mothers entered these facilities, they ceased to have any control whatsoever over what happened to them, and the children they eventually delivered. What they wanted didn’t matter, because they didn’t matter.

Or so they were told.

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Jane Collective

In 1965, Heather Booth was a young civil rights activist and student at the University of Chicago when a friend confided to her that his sister was in need of an abortion. She found a doctor, T. R. M. Howard, who was willing to help, and it wasn’t long before she was approached by other women in need. Booth spent the remainder of her college years helping women seeking an abortion, referring them to Howard until he was arrested and she was forced to find someone else. By 1968, Booth—now married, employed full-time, and expecting a child of her own—was overwhelmed and unable to do it alone anymore.

Shortly thereafter, having recruited like-minded activists, the Jane Collective came into being.

Heather Booth, founder of the Jane Collective
JARX https://www.jarx.media/CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to Roe v. Wade, the Jane Collective was instrumental in providing access to safe abortions for more than 11,000 women. Word of mouth and discreet ads placed in underground newspapers alerted women to their presence, who were instructed to “call Jane” if they needed her. Rather than simply set it up, members would also provide health care, counseling, and even childcare for women who had no one to care for their child(ren) while they were undergoing the procedure. In time, members learned to do abortions themselves, drastically lowering the cost and enabling them to expand their services to include women with low incomes.

In 1972, seven of the Janes were arrested and charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. The “Abortion 7”, as they came to be called, each faced a maximum sentence of 110 years in prison. The charges were dismissed after the passage of Roe v. Wade in January 1973. No longer needed, the Jane Collective came to an end.

Abortion remained illegal in Canada for 15 more years, when it was struck down in R v Morgentaler. It is still legal today.

In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s abortion law as unconstitutional. The law was found to violate Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringed upon a woman’s right to “life, liberty and security of person.”


Unfortunately, that is no longer true in the United States. On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe, stripping women of their Constitutional right to abortion.

“Today’s Court, that is, does not think there is anything of constitutional significance attached to a woman’s control of her body and the path of her life,” said the dissent by Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs.”


Access to legal abortions now depends on where you live. 14 states have banned (or mostly banned) abortions. Seven states recently had abortion bans blocked (temporarily, at least) by the courts. Six states currently have legal access, but could be under threat. Four weeks shy of what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe, abortion is now legal in only 23 states and the District of Columbia. For anti-choice states, it’s not enough to prevent abortions from happening within their own borders; they’d like to prevent anyone from traveling to pro-choice states for abortions, as well.

With draconian measures, such as Texas’ S.B. 8 (which allows civil lawsuits to be filed against anyone who “aids and abets” abortions) in place, will the United States once again need Jane?

With the fall of Roe, activist Tamar Manasseh thinks we might. We Are Jane, a reboot of the Jane Collective, was launched earlier this year in Chicago.

Trailer for the HBO documentary “The Janes” which premiered on June 8, 2022.

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Now that you know a bit about the history that inspired the story… let’s talk about the book!

Book Review

Looking for Jane is set in Canada, with a timespan of 1961- 2017, and is told from the perspectives of three women:

  • Angela, manager of Thompson’s Antiques & Used books. In 2017, she discovers a misdelivered letter, and is determined to see it delivered to its rightful recipient after reading its contents.
  • Evelyn, a 1961 resident of the St. Agnes’s Home for Unwed Mothers.
  • Nancy, a Toronto college student. A terrifying experience in 1979, and the discovery of a long-kept secret a year later, sets her on a path that will affect her life in ways she never imagined.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was Marshall’s debut novel, because it certainly doesn’t feel like one. (If I had to compare it to another debut novel that I was equally impressed by, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is the first that comes to mind. Outlander remains a beloved favorite of mine, so this is a huge compliment, coming from me.)

Jane reads like the work of a well-seasoned author. The historical aspects are very well researched, the characters are vivid and nuanced to perfection. St. Agnes’s was the defining setting of the book for me. Its cruel, forbidding presence was constantly lurking in the back of my mind, and each time the story returned to it, a sense of dread would wash over me, and it wasn’t long before I began to hesitate for a moment before I resumed reading those portions. (And this is where I pause to applaud the author, because more often than not, I tend to read even faster when a book returns to something/someone that creates that feeling of dread within me.)

The underlying mystery of the story is the letter—Who was it intended for? Will Angela be able to find them? What about the other person the letter mentions?—but it’s not the only mystery we encounter. At a certain point in the story, a devastating event is revealed, only to be revisited and turned on its head later on.

I thought for sure that would be the ultimate shocker of the story. Even more so, I was sure I had everything else all figured out, too. Ha! Little did I know, there was more to come that would leave me frantically re-reading select portions of the story, trying to figure out how I’d gotten it so wrong. I’m glad I did, though, because it led to an even more satisfying ending that I’d originally hoped for!

I can’t wait to read Marshall’s next book. If Looking for Jane is any indication, I’m sure to enjoy her next novel as much I enjoyed this one!

Highly recommended.

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I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Atria Books via Netgalley.

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Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Heather Marshall
Title: Looking for Jane
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: February 7, 2023 by Atria Books

About the Book

For readers of Joanna Goodman and Genevieve Graham comes a masterful debut novel about three women whose lives are bound together by a long-lost letter, a mother’s love, and a secret network of women fighting for the right to choose—inspired by true stories.

Tell them you’re looking for Jane.


When Angela Creighton discovers a mysterious letter containing a life-shattering confession in a stack of forgotten mail, she is determined to find the intended recipient. Her search takes her back to the 1970s when a group of daring women operated an illegal underground abortion network in Toronto known only by its whispered code name: Jane…


As a teenager, Dr. Evelyn Taylor was sent to a home for “fallen” women where she was forced to give up her baby for adoption—a trauma she has never recovered from. Despite harrowing police raids and the constant threat of arrest, she joins the Jane Network as an abortion provider, determined to give other women the choice she never had.

After discovering a shocking secret about her family history, twenty-year-old Nancy Mitchell begins to question everything she has ever known. When she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, she feels like she has no one to turn to for help. Grappling with her decision, she locates “Jane” and finds a place of her own alongside Dr. Taylor within the network’s ranks, but she can never escape the lies that haunt her.

Weaving together the lives of three women, Looking for Jane is an unforgettable debut about the devastating consequences that come from a lack of choice—and the enduring power of a mother’s love.

About the Author

HEATHER MARSHALL lives with her family near Toronto. She completed master’s degrees in Canadian history and political science, and worked in politics and communications before turning her attention to her true passion: storytelling. Looking for Jane is her debut novel. Visit her website and connect on social channels at HeatherMarshallAuthor.com