Julian Leatherdale's Reviews > The Suitcase Baby

The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton
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it was amazing

What a beautifully written and well-researched account of the case of Scottish migrants Sarah Boyd and her friend Jean Olliver accused of the murder of baby Josephine whose body is found washed up in Sydney Harbour in 1923.

This could have so easily been a fast-paced, lurid, heartless true crime story (similar to other stories from the same period I have read recently) but was instead a wonderfully nuanced, measured and thoughtful reflection on many aspects of Australian society in the early 1920s.

Bretherton manages to tell a heart-wrenching and tense story while also investigating larger contexts. These include the pressures on a corrupt NSW police force to competently solve the case; the medical profession's bizarre reasoning behind an insanity defence for infanticide; the long shadow of the Irish Famine for a generation of Irish and Scottish migrants; the proliferation of murdered babies in 1920s Sydney and the hypocrisy of anti-abortion laws; the public perceptions of 'the flapper' and the immoral single mother; the cruel philosophy of state 'homes' and the 'boarding out' of abandoned children; and the evocative symbolism of a suitcase for migrants and foster kids. A survey of death sentences for women since the start of the colony points to a surprising pattern of leniency except where an example had to be set for emerging gendered crimes.

Fact is so often stranger than fiction and the resolution of this story post-trial is poignant and unexpected. Congratulations to Bretherton for writing with such a precise and empathetic eye for her subject in a manner both scholarly and poetic. Her writing dissects this tawdry, tragic case to throw light on the courage women needed in the face of overwhelming odds and structural prejudice and hypocrisy.
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Reading Progress

June 5, 2018 – Started Reading
June 5, 2018 – Shelved
July 27, 2018 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Penny (new) - added it

Penny Fields A beautiful, evocative and inspiring review. I will look out for The Suitcase Baby!

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