The Day She Cradled Me by Sacha de Bazin review

by Louise O'Brien / 17 March, 2012
A fictional retelling of the Minnie Dean child murders story sets out to challenge the historical record.
Sacha de Bazin’s first novel, The Day She Cradled Me, adds to the growing body of local historical fiction in its sympathetic retelling of the story of the notorious Minnie Dean. Known as the Winton Baby Farmer, Dean was convicted in 1895 of murdering children under her care, becoming the first and last woman to be hanged in New Zealand.

The novel begins with the judge’s sentencing in the Invercargill Court before turning to the events that led Dean to the dock. De Bazin examines not only the period immediately surrounding the deaths of Dorothy Edith Carter and Eva Hornsby – basing her account on Dean’s own – but also the circumstances that brought Williamina Dean to New Zealand in the first place.

The back story that humanises and attempts to explain Dean, based around the few certain facts, is one of abuse, poverty and doomed inevitability.

Left bereft by the early death of her mother and sisters, subject to an abusive father and spiteful stepmother and betrayed by the father of her unborn child, Dean emigrates from Scotland to the new world, discovering on the journey her strong instinct for survival.

She makes a life in New Zealand by seizing whatever opportunity is available to her, ending up in the secretive and rather distasteful business of taking in unwanted and illegitimate children for payment and procuring children for adoption.

De Bazin’s defence of Dean as a victim of history, circumstance and poverty is bolstered through the narrative of the Reverend Lindsay, Dean’s confi dant in jail, who documents the contemporary social context that engulfed her case in moral outrage and public hysteria. His movement from repulsion to sympathy is the trajectory also intended for the reader.

He slowly overcomes his prejudices as he comes to know Dean, discovers unheard evidence and is frustrated by a stubbornly single-minded police force.

The tone and voice of the period is nicely pitched, and the novel is exhaustively researched, interspersed with historical documents, including advertisements, newspaper articles, court reports and letters. But, with the novel adrift in the murky ground of faction, the lack of distinction between fiction and fact becomes an irritant.

The author’s note declares that The Day She Cradled Me is meant to be read as a fiction, yet that it is also meant as a challenge to the historical record; those two impulses run uneasily alongside each other in the narrative, and the real Minnie Dean remains as elusive as ever.

THE DAY SHE CRADLED ME, by Sacha de Bazin (Vintage, $37.99).
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