________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 18 . . . . May 10, 2002

cover Mama's Babies.

Gary Crew.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2002.
160 pp., pbk. & cl., $8.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55037-724-8 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55037-725-6 (cl.).

Subject Heading:

Grades 5-9 /Ages 10-14.

Review by Cora Lee.

*** /4


I knew then that Mama was lying. Words such as "dear" and "darling" had never been part of her vocabulary for either Horrie or myself. And as for her references to our Saviour and his angels, such terms only passed her lips when she had "bad news" to convey. I did not resume my weeping but asked, as calmly as I could, "Mama, what are you going to do now?"

Let's confess. Even for the best of us, murders hold a morbid fascination. And the more innocent and helpless the victim is, the more compelling the story becomes. Award-winning Australian author Gary Crew is thus virtually guaranteed success with his fictionalized account of the events leading to a 1890s baby farmer's conviction of murder. He faces a problem, however: how does he capitalize on this fascination without sensationalizing the story so that it profoundly disturbs his young audience?

     At the centre of Mama's Babies is Sarah who, at the age of nine, started questioning the strange circumstances of her isolated life with Mama Pratchett and her many young, so-called siblings. Mama's dependence on her unwilling accomplice is growing, and so too does Sarah's awareness of the sinister situation. Finally, Sarah finds the courage to expose Mama's crimes and to stand against her in court.

     The tale is told by the adult Sarah, writing away the memories of her childhood. This choice of narrator must have been a tough one for, while the passage of time safely distances the reader from an intense situation, the formal, matter-of-fact presentation by the lady is far removed from the more gripping first reaction of a child. The drama does increase with the confrontation between Sarah and Mama, but the impact of Sarah's choice to proceed with testifying is muted, and the reader feels little of the emotional tug-of-war that the girl must surely feel.

     Because the voice of the adult Sarah overrides that of the young Sarah, readers might find it hard to engage with the character. She doesn't come across as terribly spunky, despite the incredible courage she must have possessed, and, while she is no doubt a hero, she's not a very pro-active one. The sense that all happened in the remote past is underscored by the depiction of other characters as well. Will is simply the nice boy who helps her (and eventually becomes her husband). Mama's singularly evil character as recalled by Sarah is difficult to reconcile with Lady Islington's implicit trust in and Uncle Bernie's ardent admiration for the woman. The babies and toddlers are little more than names, and, although this brevity does serve to emphasize the efficiency with which they were dispatched, readers will find it hard to care about them.

     Sarah's ordeal comes to a storybook ending when Sarah's real mother, the beautiful and refined Lady Islington, returns to reclaim Sarah on the basis of a birthmark. It adds, for better or for worse, to the removal of readers from the horrific reality of a disturbing time in history when an uptight society could discreetly condone the systematic, often parent-sanctioned, disposal of bastard children.


Cora Lee is a Vancouver writer and editor.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364