Set in Germany, in 1703, The Baby Experiment tells the story of a 14 year old Jewish girl, Johanna Richter, who signs up to work at an orphanage. With her father dead, Johanna and her mother try to support themselves by selling their lace in the market but it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make enough to feed their family. Johanna gives a false name, one that isn't Jewish because she knows as a Jew she would never be hired. When Johanna is offered the job, she is told that she must follow one rule absolutely. She must never talk or sing to the babies nor may she hold them longer than is absolutely necessary. Although she thinks the rule is strange and unnatural, Johanna needs this job badly and she accepts the position, without further thought.
Life in Hamburg, Germany during this time is not easy for the Jewish people. They have been prohibited from building a synagogue and rumours are afoot that the Jewish people would no longer be allowed to practice their religion even in private houses. The people of Hamburg have been agitating for the Senate to expel all the Jews in the city and many had moved to safer cities such as Altona and also to Amsterdam in Holland.
When Johanna arrives at the orphanage she learns that the babies are part of an experiment being run by Professor Gottfried Leibniz. Each young woman is assigned a section of the nursery with a number of babies under her care. When a baby cries the girls are to change the diaper and feed the baby but they cannot sing or talk to the baby. The work is tiring and difficult. Soon the babies start dying. Doctor Keller who is the orphanage doctor, tries every remedy he knows to no avail.
One day Johanna overhears a conversation between Keller and Leibniz about the babies and the experiment. She soon comes to understand that the young girls not interacting with the babies is slowly killing them. In effect, they are being asked to emotionally neglect the babies and Johanna cannot do this any longer. Johanna comes to a difficult decision and chooses a drastic course of action. She decides to flee with one of the babies in an attempt to rescue at least one child from death. With the help of Daniel the wagon driver who delivers fresh vegetables and fruit to the orphanage, and accompanied by another young girl, Cecile, Johanna slips out of the orphanage with baby Rebecca.
Johanna's journey is a difficult one, fraught with many dangers. She is aided by a Jewish man who has taken on the appearance and public practice of a Christian, Mendoza. Johanna feels a strange attraction to him. After many adventures, Johanna arrives at her destination knowing she has saved at least one of the babies from certain death.
Author Anne Dublin, lives in Toronto and is an award winning author of historical fiction and juvenile biographies. The Baby Experiment will appeal to younger fans of historical fiction who are looking for something a little different to read. This plot driven short story is well paced and provides young readers with a map to aid in understanding Johanna's journey and the setting of the story. The characters are believable and well conceived.
Johanna is a likeable character who struggles with the ever prevalent discrimination against Jews in Europe at this time. Her deep faith forms the basis for her actions. She is both courageous and intelligent, quick thinking and resourceful. Liked well enough by Cecile at first, when she learns that Johanna is a Jew she changes her opinion almost immediately.
The Baby Experiment touches on a few delicate subjects including human experimentation and prejudice.
Dublin is planning a new historical fiction which is set in 1931 Toronto and deals with the dressmakers strike. This should prove to be another interesting read.
The Baby Experiment by Anne Dublin
Toronto: Dundurn Press 2012