Monday, December 10, 2012

As a lifelong New Zealander, writer Lynley Hood heard all the folklore about the so-called “baby farmer” Minnie Dean.

Dean, who in 1895 became the only woman in New Zealand’s history to be hanged for murder, was said to have taken unwanted babies into her home for money, only to kill them with hat pins and rusty nails before sticking those same pins into dolls. She also was accused of burying her victims along country roadsides with clumps of a wildflower—known in Southland New Zealand as “Minnie Dean”—planted on top.

The telling and retelling of these stories—by seemingly rational people a century later—inspired Hood to investigate whether this witch hunt of Dean was warranted. The result was her third book, Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes, which was short-listed for the 1995 New Zealand Book Awards.

”Around the time of her arrest, there was a worldwide panic about baby farmers,” Hood says. “It suited
New Zealand at the time to make a scapegoat out of somebody for the high infant mortality rate and the perceived decline in moral standards in a strictly Victorian community. Minnie Dean became a scapegoat for Victorian morality.”

Hood’s writing took her to the University of Iowa. She was one of 37 participants from 32 countries in the International Writing Program (IWP) in 2011. The IWP, which reports to the Graduate College, introduces talented international writers to American life, enables them to take part in American university culture, and provides them with time for the production of literary work.

“Lynley is a precise, complex, and engaging writer—someone who can illuminate large issues by the sheer power of her storytelling,” says IWP Director Christopher Merrill.

Throughout her life, Hood, who turns 69 on Nov. 14, has never shied away from rocking the boat of public opinion in her quest for the truth. After completing her book about Minnie Dean, she embarked on her most challenging project—getting to the bottom of the Christchurch Civic Creche case. Allegations arose of satanic ritual abuse in a New Zealand childcare center in 1992, and staff member Peter Ellis ultimately was convicted of 16 counts of sexual offenses involving children and served almost seven years in prison.

The case has always been controversial, dividing New Zealand, and particularly the city of Christchurch, into two camps, one believing he is innocent, the other convinced of his guilt. Hood said anyone who publicly questioned the outcome of the trial was branded as a supporter of child abuse.

That didn’t stop Hood from spending seven years researching and writing A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case.

“I have always been the person who stands on the side of the road when people are waving placards and chanting,” Hood says. “Here I was writing this book that ended up saying to everybody from the courts to the justice system to the police, ‘You’re wrong, wrong, wrong.’

“I had to dot every I and cross every T and question absolutely everything I had said to make sure I was fair, accurate, and sensitive. I knew people would go through it with a fine tooth comb. If they could find one thing I got wrong, they would use it to discredit me.”

To her surprise, after naming names and expecting public backlash, Hood received tremendous praise for her book.

“For writers of my ilk, high-profile disputes are magnifying glasses through which we may bring into sharper focus matters which in the normal course of life remain blurry—matters of human nature, of right and wrong, of good and evil,” Hood says.

Merrill is impressed by Hood’s willingness and ability to write about controversial subject matter in the right away.

“These are incredibly difficult subjects to tackle, and the recognition that Lynley has received is a testament to her ability to address significant issues with the level of nuance and complexity that they deserve,” Merrill says.

For Hood, the Christchurch Civic Creche Case raised the same questions as the Minnie Dean saga. Most notably, how do you bring peace and reconciliation to a bitterly divided community?

Hood answered her own question after receiving an e-mail in 2008 from Scotsman Martin McCrae, who had discovered that his great grandmother was Minnie Dean’s sister. Part of McCrae’s genealogical work included providing headstones for ancestors who lie in unmarked graves.

Minnie Dean and her husband Charles are buried in the same plot in the Old Winton Cemetery in Winton, New Zealand. Hood assisted McCrae by researching the local regulations about marking a grave.  She concluded that permission isn’t needed to lay a headstone on a relative’s grave.

On Feb. 10, 2009, another chapter was written in the Minnie Dean story when her headstone was marked 113 years after her death.