The Day She Cradled Me
Sacha de Bazin
Black Swan, $38.00,
The Day She Cradled Me is about Minnie Dean, the Southland “baby-farmer” hanged for infanticide in 1895. Therefore it has the problem of any such novel about a real person. The basic story is predetermined by history. The novel’s job is to offer a different experience of that story, using the emotional or stylistic effects of fiction to take us deep into an understanding we can’t get anywhere else. If we’re not getting that special experience of fiction, we might as well be reading a good history book instead.
And in this case a highly innovative biography already exists in Lynley Hood’s Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes (1994). That book pierced the mythology surrounding Dean and the hypocrisy of a Victorian society that punished her for doing its dirty work by taking in illegitimate and unwanted children. Hood also showed how Dean made her life-story “contradictory, confusing and incomplete” by constantly lying and reinventing herself, partly to elude a system that frowned on her personal and business choices but offered few alternatives.
Of course, the great advantage that novelists have is point of view, the ability to provide the imagined inner voice of the historical person. It’s here that de Bazin delivers the first surprising pleasure of the novel. In her prison-cell statement, Dean’s own writing voice was literate, religious and aggrieved. Here she is more down to earth, and funnier. Overcrowded with kids and hounded by poverty, she has that harassed sort of tone that any overburdened parent can relate to.
In the compelling first section, Dean attempts a complicated baby-swap via railway, transferring two unwanted children to new carers. It doesn’t go well. Soon two dead infants are disappearing into the infamous tin hatbox in a moment of panic that is superbly realised:
The child is dead, dear Lord, put her in the box, the guard mustn’t see her, the guard mustn’t see her, dear Lord, oh, God, the child is dead and I have to put her little body in this box ….
Given the history, we’ve always known to expect a scene like this one, but the techniques of fiction ‒ close point of view and dramatic shaping ‒ are so well-managed that we share Dean’s moment of shock.
The middle sections dealing with Dean’s backstory are more problematic. A string of bad-luck episodes are touched on too quickly, allowing tension and intimacy to leak away. A more novelistic approach might have shrugged off this burden of history by selecting fewer events and developing them into fully dramatised scenes.
A secondary perspective is offered through Reverend George Lindsay, who comes under increasing pressure to reject Dean’s claim to his sympathy, as the trial reactivates his wife’s grief over their own child’s death. This divide works well, forcing him to choose between his emotional comfort and his conscience. His character is less convincing where it’s used simply as a viewpoint on Dean’s inquest and trial. Readers may react differently according to their appetite for courtroom drama, but it’s at the end that he becomes really convincing as a fictional character again, stepping forward to plead for clemency and lead his blinkered parishioners in a prayer for Dean’s soul.
The protagonist’s death, so often a problem in novels about real people, is managed adroitly. Having shown how the community and its newspapers have gloried in making a pariah of “the baby-killer”, de Bazin now obliges one reporter to describe her punishment until “sickened” by the treatment his society has inflicted on one of its own.
Because the Dean material has such power to worry and intrigue, it’s tempting to imagine alternative elaborations that might make more of its primal potential: a raw, outraged cry from prison, for example, or a stylised experiment like Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Perhaps those other approaches are still available. The Minnie Dean story is one of those that will always be revisited, because it touches on such deep emotional territory.
For de Bazin’s part, she has been open about the intentions and sympathies of her novel. More inclined to endorse certain aspects of Dean’s version of events than Hood, she states via her author’s note an objective of bringing that perspective to a wider readership. This aim, by one measurement at least, has already been achieved through strong sales of this novel, de Bazin’s first. But still the book is most persuasive where it is most involving, using the techniques of fiction to thoroughly absorb readers in Dean’s disturbing journey.
Lawrence Patchett’s collection of short stories, I Got His Blood on Me, is reviewed on p5.