CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 27 . . . . March 16, 2012
The Baby Experiment.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2012.
152 pp., trade pbk., $9.99.
Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.
Review by Crystal Sutherland.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Herr Vogal peered over Johanna’s shoulder. “If I were taking care of these babies…” He pursed his lips. “…these dying babies who are subject to an experiment…”
“Yes?” said Johanna. “What would you do?”
Herr Vogel averted his eyes. “I might want to rescue one of the babies.”
“You would?” Johanna’s heart skipped a beat. Does Herr Vogel suspect what I am doing? Will he betray me?”
It wasn’t easy to be a 14-year-old girl living in Hamburg, Germany in the 18th century: you were expected to forgo school and stay at home to help your mother with housework and child care. Along with the barriers that come with being a girl, Johanna has an additional disadvantage with which to to deal: Johanna is Jewish. In the 18th century, people were often unwilling to employ anyone who was not Christian. Jews were also not allowed to become citizens, whether or not they were born in Hamburg. To make matters worse, the Black Plague was spreading rapidly, and, despite what others thought, everyone, including Jews, were affected. Johanna, however, is not ready to let any of these obstacles hold her back, especially when a human life is at risk.
Johanna was lucky her family thought that, although she had to leave school to help her mother, it was important for her to know how to read. Johanna knew she was lucky to have her brother teach her, and his teaching gave her skills that would prove invaluable, especially after the Black Plague took most of her family, leaving only Johanna and her mother. Johanna's ability to read was considered an ‘added bonus’ when she secretly applied for a job at an orphanage, a job Johanna wanted badly. Getting the job would mean Johanna’s leaving her mother to live at the orphanage, but her room and board would be taken care of, and she would be able to send money to help her mother. To get the job, however, Johanna would have to hide the fact she is a Jew, and, perhaps even more difficult, she will have convince her mother that it would be best for both of them to hide the fact they are Jews. Johanna is excited when she is offered the job but very worried about telling her mother. After some resistance, Johanna’s mother says she understands, and Johanna is about to set off on an adventure, but not the one she thinks.
The other girls at the orphanage are very unfriendly, and the only one who talks to Johanna is Cecile, a girl who applied for a job at the orphanage the same time Johanna did. Johanna isn’t bothered by the way the girls are acting, but she does find the rules at the orphanage difficult: no one may speak to the six babies at the orphanage, the babies may not be held ‘more than necessary’, and the babies may not interact with each other. The babies have no toys and must stay in their isolated cribs. If these rules are broken, the offending party will be fired immediately. Johanna realizes it isn’t an orphanage: it’s an experiment, and the experiment is slowly killing the babies one at a time. The scientists hope to find out if the babies will acquire language without interaction. Johanna doesn’t think a scientific discovery can justify the suffering the babies are experiencing. Deciding she must save at least one baby, Johanna makes a deal with Daniel, the man who delivers coffins for the orphanage’s dead babies. Daniel’s happy to help, but only for the right price, and Johanna’s not sure if he can be trusted, but she doesn’t really have a choice.
Everything is going well on the day Johanna is supposed to leave with baby Rebecca until Cecile appears out of nowhere and begs Johanna to let her come, too. Cecile points out Johanna will have a difficult time without someone to help her with the baby, and, again for the right price, Daniel is happy to have another passenger. They decide to go first go to Altona, a small town where Cecile’s family lives. They find Altona devastated by the Black Plague and no sign of Cecile’s family except a letter from Cecile’s brother telling them where he has moved. Johanna agrees to again change her plans and help Cecile find her brother before continuing on her journey to Amsterdam, one of the few places Jews are allowed to become citizens.
Johanna feels guilty for keeping the fact she’s Jewish from Cecile, especially when Cecile’s been such a good friend. Johanna decides she must be honest and tell Cecile that she is a Jew; she is surprised, both for the worse and for the better, with the reactions from those close to her and those who have just entered her life. While Johanna’s feelings are hurt when Cecile makes it clear they can no longer be friends because Cecile’s is Lutheran, Johanna realizes there are things more important than the opinions of others: she needs to get herself and Rebecca to where they will both be safe and will be given an equal chance in life. If the wrong person finds out that Johanna is a Jew or that she kidnapped Rebecca, even if she did it simply to save the baby’s life, Johanna and Rebecca could have their lives take a drastic turn for the worse.
Anne Dublin immerses the reader in 18th century Hamburg, and creates an immediately loveable and genuine main character, 14-year-old Johanna. Readers will find it easy to connect with Johanna: they will share her feeling of frustration in wanting to move from childhood to adulthood, and her desire to escape daily routine and embark on an adventure. Johanna learns a lot about friendship throughout The Baby Experiment: sometimes the things you don’t think should matter, like religion, are extremely important to others. Johanna finds friendship, allies, and acceptance in unexpected places. The obstacles Johanna faces, and the resourcefulness she shows in overcoming them, are certain to inspire readers to examine prejudices of the past and present, and consider what can be done to create positive change in the future.
My only reservation is that some readers may be upset by some of the content found in The Baby Experiment. Not everyone will be comfortable reading about experimentation on infants, and there are some violent scenes. Johanna, Cecile and their carriage driver, Daniel, are attacked and robbed at one point in their journey. The robbers consider ‘having some fun’ with the girls, dragging them off with the intention of sexually assaulting them. While the assaults do not happen, thanks to the fight Johanna puts up, this passage may not be suitable for all readers.
The Baby Experiment is a great book for anyone, but it stands out as a book perfect for the classroom with many opportunities to expand on the themes of friendship, tolerance, prejudice, and historical events. .
I highly recommended The Baby Experiment, but it is necessary to note some readers may be upset by some of the violence.
Crystal Sutherland is a MEd (Literacy) and MLIS graduate living in Halifax, NS. She is solo-librarian for the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, an arms-length government agency created to educate the public and advise the provincial government on issues of interest and concern to women.
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