The Day She Cradled Me,by Sacha de Bazin (Random House, 2012), 319 pp., $37.99.
Minnie will swing – there’s no doubt about it. If you pick up this book, unaware of Williamina Dean’s claim to notoriety, you have only to turn it over and read: ‘A fascinating novel based on the life of the infamous baby farmer Minnie Dean, the only woman in New Zealand history ever to be hanged.’ The Day She Cradled Me is a novel based on a true story with a protagonist based on an un-knowable historical figure. Convicted of the murder of a baby in her care, she is condemned on the first page of this narrative and confirmed as well and truly dead 300 pages later. ‘To comply with the law the body had to remain hanging for one hour …’
Minnie Dean was hanged in the yard of the Invercargill Gaol on 12 August 1895. On the advice of her lawyer (the illustrious Alfred Charles Hanlon) she did not testify in her own defence, but while in gaol wrote her version of the events that lead to her arrest. This (unpublished) account informs much of this book, which also quotes ‘verbatim’, according to de Bazin, from documents such as letters and newspaper reports. ‘My intent in writing this book was simple:’ she explains in her Author’s Note, ‘to bring Minnie Dean’s last statement to a public forum as she intended, and to challenge the many previously held beliefs that surround her, even to this day.’
De Bazin achieves the first part of her brief, giving Minnie a voice – she tells much of her own life story, sharing the point of view with the Reverend George Lindsay, who, although initially reluctant, ministered to her in gaol. (Josiah Hanan, Hanlon’s colleague, narrates the brief final chapter.) These interwoven first person accounts help to create an historical context for the events and bring the reader closer to them. Lindsay provides some balance and relief from Minnie’s staccato reportage and her frantic comings and goings, but he seemed at times to be a ‘stuffed shirt’, mouthing platitudes:
‘I am here, Sergeant Macdonnell, not in the name of forgiveness, for I see you do not hold that in your heart. I come therefore in the pursuit of mercy, which all God-fearing gentlemen such as yourself must surely hold sacred, for did not God himself display mercy on us all?’
Not surprisingly, this speech makes little impression on Sergeant Macdonnell. My question is, did anyone, even clergymen, talk like this?
De Bazin no doubt intended the reader to identify with Minnie as she lays bare the hard path of her life from a poverty-stricken childhood in Greenock, Scotland, to her conviction for murder in southern New Zealand. We are reminded that children in the nineteenth century grew up with death as an ever-present reality. Young Minnie lost so many of those she loved, and the trouble never lets up. Her life story makes for grim reading and in the end this accumulation of calamities does not explain or illuminate what happened on those fateful train journeys when two little girls lost their lives. This reader became a little weary. Yes, life was hard in those days: children were beaten, they fell ill and died, adults behaved badly in the name of religion. This begins to feel drummed in. And while Minnie Dean in so many ways embodies the plucky heroine, battling adversity, who is so beloved of historical novelists, she remains a hard character to warm to.
Things certainly didn’t look good for Minnie in May 1895. Known to local police as a woman who ‘farmed’ babies, she was under surveillance. She was seen with a baby, then without a baby, but carrying an unusually heavy tin hat box. (It was the era of the big-brimmed hat.) When the police started digging in her garden they found the bodies of two infants. Subsequently, worse still for our beleaguered heroine, the body of a four-year-old boy was unearthed. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip that ‘to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Given her ‘misfortunes’, can we forgive Minnie Dean her ‘carelessness’?
The Southland community and ultimately the jury were not prepared to give Minnie the benefit of the doubt when it came to her intention to kill Dorothy Carter. Even though many more children died from illness and misadventure in those days, the evidence was seen to indicate that Minnie was a monster. The assumption was made that if she killed one she would have killed many. Hanlon’s defence of Minnie was persuasive, but the judge directed the jury against a verdict of manslaughter, which he described as ‘a weak-kneed compromise’. Her fate was sealed. Was Minnie the victim of local hysteria and a miscarriage of justice? In her 1994 book Minnie Dean; Her Life & Crimes Lynley Hood suggested as much, but allowed the reader to reach her own conclusion. This novel is, necessarily, less dispassionate.
A modern reader, as squeamish as this reviewer, finds the situation at The Larches appalling. The Deans had fallen on hard times. They had a tiny house, teeming with children, supervised, if at all, by a minor. Minnie was perpetually on the move, acquiring more children against her husband’s wishes, or acting as a ‘middle-woman’. And for money. Money to survive of course. Money for food and for children’s clothes and shoes. But still, for money. ‘Child care’ was Minnie’s profession but she was ‘care-less’ to a fault. As a ‘baby farmer’ her record wasn’t good. A moment’s inattention, a poor decision here, a tad too much laudanum there, a too-thorough spanking, perhaps. Minnie had to bury her mistakes.
However, while ‘baby farming’ was unpalatable work, someone had to do it. Illegitimate children were ‘the disappeared’ of the nineteenth century. Society demanded that they vanish in the interests of family respectability. If Minnie didn’t take them in, who did? She had some sympathy for unmarried mothers, having been in that very predicament herself. (Being an enterprising sort of woman, she had invented a doctor husband, sadly deceased, just as she had invented a clergyman for a father.)
In spite of the reader knowing how badly it will go for Minnie, there is tension in The Day She Cradled Me, achieved through ample use of the present tense and plenty of short, sharp dialogue. However, it is the dialogue that has to carry the story and the characterisation, for there is little in the way of reflection, which the content of this story would seem to demand. The pace is at times too hectic and, though some information is inserted unnaturally into snippets of conversation, much in the way of interpretation is left unsaid. Here is an example:
‘Sold up,’ Dean says one morning.
‘I beg your pardon?’ I have almost finished sewing a blanket for Catherine Cameron’s new baby, and my fingers are full of pricks.
‘Bought some acreage up yonder.’ He waves his arm vaguely in the direction of the window.
‘But you can’t have,’ I say.
The needle slips and draws blood. ‘But the price of land. Everyone knows it’s going to crash.’
He takes a swill of tea. ‘What do they know?’
De Bazin covers too much ground is in this abrupt fashion, skimming over events and risking dislocating, confusing and alienating the reader.
Although I am a daughter of the south, I wasn’t raised on stories of Minnie Dean and her terrible hatpin. I read Lynley Hood’s book eighteen years ago. It isn’t hard for me to accept that Minnie did not intentionally kill Dorothy Carter, Eva Hornsby or Willie Phelan, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that she was to a greater or lesser extent culpable. I read this book with an increasingly heavy heart. The novel-reading experience would have been more enjoyable if I had cared for Minnie, if I had believed in her and viewed her in a sympathetic light. The fact that she was herself a victim of abuse and had suffered personal tragedies didn’t really help. It was hard to lose sight of the fact that in our own time adults continue to inflict fatal injuries on children and claim their deaths as accidental.
CHRISTINE JOHNSTON is a Dunedin short story writer, novelist and reviewer.