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The Exiles

Review

The Exiles

Christina Baker Kline’s latest novel, THE EXILES, transports readers to 19th-century Australia and the perilous journey to get there.

Twenty-one-year-old Evangeline, the daughter of a country parson, is employed as governess to the Whitstone children in the tony London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. Her shyness and education sometimes falsely portray her as aloof and elitist, but her solitary ways garner the attention of the family’s eldest son, Cecil, who quickly seduces the naïve girl. Before he leaves for a trip abroad, Cecil offers Evangeline a gift of a family heirloom --- a ruby ring: “It wasn’t until much later that she realized she had built gossamer connections between his words, sticky as spider silk, filling in the phrases she wanted to hear.”

"[Kline's] research, coupled with her knack for telling a compelling story, coalesce in a riveting tale that will keep readers breathlessly hurtling toward the heart-rending conclusion."

Not long after, Evangeline discovers that she is pregnant. When the ring is found in her room, her employer accuses her of stealing. Without Cecil there to vouch for her, and with no family of her own, she is sent to Newgate Prison and sentenced to “fourteen years transportation to the land beyond the seas.” Evangeline would now have to endure the four-month journey across the seas to Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia, knowing that she will be giving birth on this voyage.

On board the Medea, the ship transporting the convicts to that faraway land, conditions are beyond squalid. When shown her “quarters” in the orlop, Mickey, a sailor on the crew, reports that “Orlop’s just above the bilge. A stew of filthy water. Fragrant, ain’t it? Add to that the chamber pots and stinky candles and god knows what else…. There’ll be close to two hundred women and children down here at night.” Evangeline notices, “The space was half a yard high and half a yard wide. No room to sit up and not long enough to stretch out. But it was hers.”

It is under these terrible circumstances that Evangeline meets Hazel, a 16-year-old Glaswegian who learned to be an herbalist and midwife from her mother. Her reticence speaks to a hard childhood in Scotland, but Evangeline sees a kindred spirit in this misunderstood soul. By carefully observing her mother’s midwifery, Hazel gleaned many helpful skills about safe delivery and the benefits of using herbs --- another reason that a nervous Evangeline wants to align herself with this clever young woman.

Mathinna lived with her people on Flinders Island until she was eight. The orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, she had lost her mother a few months before the arrival of the new governor of Van Dieman’s Land and his impulsive wife, the latter of whom views taking in the child as a quirky souvenir from her travels. Having the daughter of a chieftain, she thinks, will add a certain cache to her collection. So Mathinna and her pet possum, Waluka, are packed and transported to her new life, not realizing the precipice on which she is standing. She takes some comfort in the words of her late mother, who told her, “You carry the people and the places you cherish with you. Remember that and you will never be lonely, child.” Mathinna hopes she is right.

As in her previous novels, ORPHAN TRAIN and A PIECE OF THE WORLD, Kline’s impeccable research adds great import to the already moving story of three women, all of whom are exiles navigating the turbulent waters of their newfound circumstances. As Mrs. Fry tells her, “Men don’t have to live with the consequences of their actions. You do.” Each woman learns this difficult lesson the hard way.

The origin of THE EXILES was the true story of a female convict being transported to Australia, but Kline felt that it would be irresponsible not to address the issue of Aboriginal people who were exiled from their own lands by the British. She learned all she could about the real-life Mathinna to complement the narratives of Evangeline and Hazel. This research, coupled with her knack for telling a compelling story, coalesce in a riveting tale that will keep readers breathlessly hurtling toward the heart-rending conclusion.

Each woman learns in her own way how the past is prologue, just as Noonuccal, the Aboriginal poet, states in the novel’s epigraph: “Let no one say the past is dead. The past is all about us and within.”

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on August 25, 2020

The Exiles
by Christina Baker Kline

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Custom House
  • ISBN-10: 0062356348
  • ISBN-13: 9780062356345