The Trials of Minnie Dean : a verse biography, Karen Zelas

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The Trials of Minnie Dean : a verse biography
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9780994129994
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Book Synopsis

Minnie Dean: the first – and only – woman to be hanged in New Zealand. Baby farmer and child murderer, or hardworking wife and mother, supporting her family by caring for unwanted children in a society that shunned her?

Karen Zelas explores the trials of Minnie Dean using a myriad of voices, including Dean’s own, from her childhood in Scotland to the gallows in Invercargill, 1895.

Book Review

It is rare, but not unknown to encounter a crime fiction novel in verse. Dorothy Porter's written some of the best examples of this that I've been fortunate enough to read, but I think this might be the first biography of a true crime figure in verse I've come across. Equally beautifully written and wonderfully laid out on the page, THE TRIALS OF MINNIE DEAN is fascinating reading.

Minnie Dean 1872

an open face one

could say    dark hair

drawn back    nothing to hide

a little lace at throat & cuff

hands rest loose on bentwood back

gaze into the camera     eyes

soft & open    brow deep

sole adornment in her hair

                 poverty

not yet 

           staining face or dress

Minnie Dean, as the blurb explains, was the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand. Baby farmer and child murderer or hardworking wife and mother, supporting her family by caring for unwanted children in a society that shunned her? 

The story of Minnie is told in a combination of verses, images, handwritten snippets, all of which have had particular attention paid to their layout on the page. It's a feast for the eyes, although given this combination it's obviously not an indepth exploration of all that could ever be said about Minnie Dean, her background and her alleged crimes. There is, however, more than enough here for the reader to consider - from Minnie's background and reactions, statements and reactions of the police involved in the investigation and trial, even a short snippet from the hangman and her descendants. 

All the way through though there is Minnie's voice and it's desperately sad, and sometimes quite chilling. 

that inquest made me

a social outcast    a

pariah

                     there is no law

                     to stop me taking babies

                     to my heart & home

                     I may take as many

                     as I want    charge

                     whatever fees I wish

                     & keep them

                     in the manner of my choosing

                         so long I don't neglect or mistreat

that is all

let them try and stop me

Eventually, obviously, they did stop her in the most final of ways. Not having previously heard of Minnie Dean I was interested to find a Wikipedia entry and some historical facts about her, suspicions about her activities, and the final events that lead to her trial and execution.

THE TRIALS OF MINNIE DEAN is a beautifully constructed, extremely thought-provoking and moving book. It is one that I've now revisited many times since my initial reading.

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