Alumni Author Series: Theresa Shea’s “The Unfinished Child” | Work of Arts
Alumni Author Series: Theresa Shea’s “The Unfinished Child” | Work of Arts

Alumni Author Series: Theresa Shea’s “The Unfinished Child”

Theresa Shea pulls at the heartstrings as she explores society's changing views of Down Syndrome

Over the next few weeks, we are very excited to introduce some of our alumni who are making waves in the world of writing. Stay tuned to learn about some budding (or established!) authors who launched their writing careers with their Arts education.


Credit: Catherine Burgess

Theresa Shea (’97 PhD, English) decided to pursue her PhD at the University of Alberta because of its well-established Writer-in-Residence Program. For five years, while working on her dissertation, she visited every writer-in-residence, attended their readings and learned how to improve her craft. While wrestling with a major research project for four years, she also enjoyed having time to read.

“I learned how to persevere through times of great doubt and fatigue,” says Shea. “In other words, writing a dissertation was the perfect apprenticeship for writing a novel. Many writers have come out of the Faculty of Arts, and I’d like to think there’s a strong link between having a writer-in-residence on site and the number of writers that emerge from the University of Alberta. Literature is, after all, a living art.” 

Shea’s debut novel, The Unfinished Child (Brindle & Glass, 2013)draws on her experience of coming to motherhood later in life (at the age of 35), and being caught off guard by genetic counselling, prenatal testing, and the culture of fear surrounding pregnancy. The novel was a finalist for the 2014 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award and the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction. A hit at book clubs, The Unfinished Child is in its third printing and has sold more than 12,000 copies.

Shea lives in Edmonton with her husband and three teenagers. When she is not freelance writing or serving as a university lecturer, she is working on her second book, a novel set in Washington D.C. that deals with the civil rights movement in the 1960s.



Actors and fans of Shea’s book Jamie Brewer (American Horror Story), 2) Blair Williamson (Scrubs & Nip/Tuck) and 3) Lauren Potter (Glee). Photo courtesy of Gail Ford Williamson.

Description from the book’s website:

When Marie MacPherson, a mother of two, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant at thirty-nine, she feels guilty. Her best friend, Elizabeth, has never been able to conceive, despite years of fertility treatments. Marie’s dilemma is further complicated when she becomes convinced something is wrong with her baby. She then enters the world of genetic testing and is entirely unprepared for the decision that lies ahead.

Intertwined throughout the novel is the story of Margaret, who gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome in 1947, when such infants were defined as “unfinished” children. As the novel shifts back and forth through the decades, the lives of the three women converge, and the story speeds to an unexpected conclusion.

With skill and poise, debut novelist Theresa Shea dramatically explores society’s changing views of Down syndrome over the past sixty years. The story offers an unflinching and compassionate history of the treatment of people with Down syndrome and their struggle for basic human rights. Ultimately, The Unfinished Child is an unforgettable and inspiring tale about the mysterious and complex bonds of family, friendship, and motherhood.


Read an excerpt from The Unfinished Child (reprinted with permission of Brindle & Glass):

Dr. Morrison returned to the room with a sheaf of papers in his hand. “Look these over,” he said, handing them to Donald. Then he took the baby from Margaret’s arms, handed her to the nurse, and nodded toward the door. “It’s for the best,” he repeated. “She’ll get the special care she needs. Poplar Grove Provincial Training Centre. She’ll be taken care of there. They even have a special ward just for mongoloids.”

The door closed behind her baby.

The room emptied of life until just she and her husband remained. The overhead lights shone like a spotlight onto the black type on the pages before her. A government-run institution for undesirables. All they had to do, according to the doctor, was sign at the bottom of the page and their troubles would disappear. Dr. Morrison said their baby would have the mental development of a three- to six-year-old, but people loved three- to six-year-olds, didn’t they? Why hadn’t he spoken about love?

UnfinishedChildShame wrapped them in its dark cloak. “She’s just a baby,” Margaret cried. “It’s not her fault.”

Donald sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her shoulder. Margaret took his hand and forced him to look at her. His eyes were wet and afraid, like a little boy who had hurt himself. In that small glance before he looked away, she saw his fear and his attempts to hide that fear so he could be strong, like a man should be. She saw his desire to take charge, to comfort and not need comforting himself, and as she witnessed his clumsy effort to shield her from his own fear, she loved him more and desperately hoped his decision would make him someone she could be proud of.

“It’s not anybody’s fault,” he said. “If the doctor says Poplar Grove is the right place for her, then we have to trust him. Those places must exist for a reason.”

“Did you see her? She was warm and sweet and—”

“Stop it, Margaret. I can’t . . .” He stood up and walked to the dark window.

Margaret felt herself go cold. Did he think his mother might be outside in the parking lot, ready to tell him what to do? Was she standing by to heap more criticism on Margaret, in her muted way. You tried, dear. Better luck next time. Don’t use the dessert fork for the salad, dear.

Donald looked so vulnerable that for a brief moment Margaret felt her heart constrict. He had chosen her; he’d stood up to his mother at least that one time.

Dr. Morrison said their baby would have the mental development of a three- to six-year-old, but people loved three- to six-year-olds, didn’t they? Why hadn’t he spoken about love?

Finally he turned and spoke. “I’m not a pioneer, Margaret,” he said so quietly that she strained to hear. “I’m sorry to say that I’m not that brave.”

She held out her hand. “Maybe we could learn to be brave together.”

He turned back to the window and didn’t respond. Against the dark pane, his face was reflected back to her, but she was unable to read the variety of emotions that played across his face. Finally, she saw his back gradually straighten and she knew what he had decided.

Hours later, when Margaret finally stopped crying, she and her husband signed the papers, but first they named their child. Carolyn, after her mother’s sister who died of tuberculosis at thirteen. Jane, after Margaret’s childhood friend. Carolyn Jane Harrington.

Donald gathered up the papers and tapped them on the table to line them properly. The death of expectation, that’s what this was. They’d expected to take a baby home, and now . . .

“We’ll try again,” her husband said, wiping a tear from her cheek. Then he kissed her softly on the mouth and held her chin up to look into her eyes. “We’ll be okay, won’t we?”

Margaret smiled weakly and nodded, moving her hand to touch his unshaved cheek, gathering all her energy into that simple gesture to move them both forward.


With files from Theresa Shea and Brindle & Glass.

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