June 22, 2012

The Baby Experiment

by Anne Dublin
Dundurn
978-1459701359
150 pp.
Ages 11-15
2012

When fourteen-year-old Johanna Eisen answers an ad for orphanage workers, she presents herself as Johanna Richter.  With Jews in Hamburg being accused of poisoning the water and spreading the plague (did I mention this story takes place in the early 1700s?), and having much prejudice levied against them, Johanna recognizes that she must keep her Jewish background hidden if she is to get the job.  Hired, Johanna agrees to care for the infants, always adhering to the strict rule of not speaking to the children or providing any comforts beyond the basics needed to survive.

Johanna and the other two caregivers, Cecile and Monica, are each assigned a section with a number of babies aged one to three months old.  As the weeks pass, several of the babies die.  Learning from Monica that the orphanage is actually an experiment being run by Professor Gottfried Leibniz, and overhearing the visiting Dr. Keller telling the Professor that his experiment is denying the children their emotional needs, Johanna decides to conduct her own experiment on Rebecca, one of the babies in her care.  Disregarding her instructions when away from prying eyes, Johanna cuddles, hugs, sings to, and kisses Rebecca, helping the baby to thrive, while sadly other children die.  Taking a lesson from the story of Moses, Johanna decides to escape with Rebecca, now nine months old, and travel to Amsterdam where Jews are treated more fairly.  But, a simple plan becomes an ordeal with Johanna enlisting the help of those who may harbour antisemitic views, confronting the dreaded plague, being assaulted by bandits, and ultimately revealing her true Jewish nature.

While I could not find any historical references to such experimentation, it is evident that antisemitism was pervasive in 18th century Europe, just as it is in The Baby Experiment, and this prejudice would have dominated all of Johanna's experiences.  Everything from her home to travel, work, friends and purchases, was affected, perhaps banned, restricted or impossible, due to the antisemitism of the time.  Having Johanna endure the masquerade of being non-Jewish (e.g., eating non-kosher food) and deny her heritage, even with friends, demonstrates her fortitude and resolve to manage in that prejudicial society.  Anne Dublin writes of Johanna's escape to Amsterdam as a grave undertaking, though it reads like an adventure, rife with obstacles and unexpected stumbling blocks, with the occasional advantage and luck tossed in to mitigate the oppressive nature of the times.  In The Baby Experiment, Anne Dublin has created a perfect story at the reading level for the middle grades but with the maturity appreciated by those readers slightly older, all in a historical setting brimming with atmosphere.  Young readers will appreciate Johanna's dangerous endeavour while The Baby Experiment spurs discussions of evolving social justice.

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