Review Blog

Feb 05 2018

The suitcase baby by Tanya Bretherton

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Hachette, 2018. ISBN 9780733639227
(Age: senior secondary to adult) Recommended. Themes: Murder, Post natal depression, Migration, Sydney, Australia 1920's. Paralleling the escalating love of crime fiction is an intense interest in real life crime, and The suitcase baby falls into this realm, a non fiction book telling a story of a horrible crime, but at the same time showing the background that led to this murder and others like it. In the 1920's Sydney was experiencing an increase in the number of dead babies found in places like train stations and in the sea. This particular one, found in a suitcase in Sydney Harbour in 1923, set in place investigations, here described in detail, until the murderer, the child's mother was found and detained.
The media at the time was enthralled with the detecting that led to the arrest and eventual trial of the mother, Sarah Boyd. But nothing is that simple, as Sarah and her friend, Jean Olliver were embroiled in the court case.
Bretherton delves into society's attitudes to women at the time, with no women on the jury, able to offer a more sympathetic ear to the proceedings, and the medical profession holding some very odd ideas about post natal depression. Chapters on the immigration of these desperate women from the poverty of Ireland and Scotland gives the reader an insight into the difficulties they faced. Often physically smaller from malnutrition, they were treated with scant attention, few finding the jobs they expected and having to live in sub standard conditions with little hope of climbing out of the poverty they knew so well. Little wonder that many turned to alcohol and prostitution.
Politicians then used them to further their own ambitions and Sara Boyd was a victim of political expediency and sentenced to death, an unexpected verdict as most women were given light sentences at that time.
Sociologist Tanya Bretherton tells us the story of Sarah, just one of many women coming to Australia for a new life early in the twentieth century, but finding themselves in straightened circumstances. This situation led to an increase in the number of babies abandoned and killed, and this was instrumental in developing ideas about adoption as a policy in Australia.
Tanya Bretherton has a PhD in sociology and is particularly interested in social history, working at the University of Sydney where she published a book about the conditions of modern nursing. In 2016 she published a book about families living below the poverty line in Australia, and her association with organisations such as Mission Australia, The Smith Family and Adopt Change saw her publish Journeys to Permanency telling real stories of foster children and adoption in modern Australia.
Mark Knight

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