The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography by Karen Zelas

(Mākaro Press, 2017)

Review by Helen Anderson

Minnie Dean entered New Zealand’s history books with all the compelling notoriety that results from being at the centre of a scandal about missing and dead infants. The outraged interest was reinforced by the unclear parentage of the babies and the challenging notion of baby farming. Not unlike a current-day Twitter feed, the talk bounced around the districts of Invercargill and beyond through 1895. The conversation was about current, past, and future morality in a colony influenced by Victorian values and pretenses, while also trying to absorb, with humanity, the realities of life in a harsh environment.

Williamina McCulloch (Minnie Dean) may have slipped off those pages and out of the chatter quite promptly, if it had not been for her status as the only woman ever hanged under New Zealand law.

Karen Zelas subtitled her book about Minnie ‘A verse biography’. Like all biographers, she had the challenge of deciding where to position herself as the writer. She could have taken the option to glower at those who judged Minnie and then committed a like act of taking a life. She could have taken a dark and dramatic view of the deaths of the babies, as was seen in some of the language of the day. She could have shown Minnie as damaged, desolate and afraid, and Zelas could have distanced herself from her story, or included herself.

The choice of a notebook style of verse to carry her story allowed Zelas to do all of this and more. She has been able to present the reader with the contradictions, the half formed, the over simplified and the carefully nuanced understandings of the day and to look back at the events from our current thinking when she joins the discussion.

Thus, presented as a letter to the Evening Star, 7 July 1895

                                              it would be far better
for the country if there was state punishment

for the crime of illegitimacy of such a nature
that both sexes would remember it with fear
o the end of their lives
(“A mother”, p.156)

In contrast:

a special meeting of the women’s

institute declares in favour of
the abolition of capital punishment

as the state has no right to murder
& it has proved no deterrent
(Some suffer moral outrage, p159)

The technique of maintaining a strong narrative line while moving from voice to voice across the pages of the book is very successful in creating a many-layered picture of a complex story. Zelas includes notes to add information and commentary. The following is added to the poem quoted above

(although capital punishment in new zealand was not abolished until 1941 no woman was hung before or after minnie dean)

These notes both inform and direct. There are many of them. They are placed purposefully, and there is a feel of the writer prodding the reader. Mostly they draw attention usefully, and the reader may decide how to respond.

The Trials of Minnie Dean is a significant achievement, and is a compelling read for those who love experimental poetry, as well as for those who would enjoy having the Dean story laid out in all its angles and yet, it is entirely readable. It leaps past any roadblocks about poetry to draw in and engage the reader, from multiple viewpoints, with many poetic and authentic voices, akin to parallel processing. An intensely current experience of a story from the past.