Title/Author: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: Custom House
In a nutshell (Publisher):
Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.
During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel—a skilled midwife and herbalist—is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.
Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.
In this gorgeous novel, Christina Baker Kline brilliantly recreates the beginnings of a new society in a beautiful and challenging land, telling the story of Australia from a fresh perspective, through the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. While life in Australia is punishing and often brutally unfair, it is also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption, for a new way of life, for unimagined freedom. Told in exquisite detail and incisive prose, The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship, the unbreakable bonds of female friendships, and the unfettering of legacy.
My verdict: A heartbreaking yet uplifting story about love, loss, friendship, courage and determination.
This is my first historical fiction based in Australia and it blew me away. I thought it was well-researched, had great pacing and brilliantly portrayed characters. It had me at first page.
Set in the 1840’s alternating between London and Australia, ‘The Exiles’ opened on Flinders Island, Australia, where Mathinna, an 8-year-old orphan, was ‘adopted’ by Lady Franklin, wife of a Governor and taken away to Hobart Town, in Van Diemen’s Land, or Lutruwita, where they were temporarily residing.
Then we were introduced to Evangeline Stokes, 21, vicar’s daughter, raised in Tunbridge Wells was charged for attempted murder and larceny and was to be transported (penal transportation or just known as ‘transportation) to The Cascades Female Factory in Australia, where she’d complete her 14-years sentence. On the repurposed slave ship, the Medea, she met Hazel, only 15 at that time, who was caught stealing a silver spoon and was sentenced to 7 years. She was young, but very street-smart. She used her knowledge and skills as a midwife to exchange for favors and had helped her survive. They also got acquainted with Olive, a loud and foul-mouthed convict, but a loyal and faithful friend, and Dr. Dunne, the doctor on the ship.
When they arrived at the Cascades Female Factory, the hardships of living in prison tested the women’s friendship, tenacity and perseverance. Will they survive? What would become of Hazel whose knowledge and skills as a midwife brought her special privileges as well as jealousy of other prisoners? Will Olive, her one and only true friend, turn her back on her when Hazel approached her for help?
In the book, we’d read about life on the Medea. Days on the ship filled with fear – the torrents, winds and gloomy skies and unpredictable weather constantly threatened their lives. We’d learn about the sailors – their skills in stitching, their language like Burgoo for porridge, lobscouse for stew. Due to the long journey, some of the women convicts learned to fish, and before long a barter system developed between convicts and the crew – dried fish for biscuits or buttons, stockings for brandy. Convicts who broke any rule, will be locked in ‘the hold’, wear a placard around their neck, or chained to the main deck for grave offenses, some would even be locked inside a box.
In The Cascades, life wasn’t any better. In prison, singing, laughing, talking, and whistling weren’t allowed. The convicts drank muddy water, ate watery broth of cabbage, and if they were lucky salt beef or dried cod. Some convicts survived the overcrowded prison by smuggling in rum and wine to trade for favors, or stealing from the weaker convicts. While serving her time in prison, Hazel worked in the nursery with Mauve and made it more liveable for the babies who were not given any care nor attention at all were it not for them.
I was immersed in the story as much as its characters and Hazel was definitely one of my favorites. Hardened by a difficult childhood and an alcoholic mother whose midwifery skills she learned from, eventually opened herself to Evangeline, the first person who showed her compassion, love and friendship. I loved watching how their friendship grew and strengthened, even with Olive, who was, yes, rough around the edges but my, her loyalty touched my heart and her seemingly nonchalance attitude enlivened the story. I want and need an Olive in my life!
And there was also Mathinna, whose story was based on a real-life character. But in Mathinna’s real life, she was taken away at 6, not 8. She was an indigenous Australian girl, a Palawa, born in Flinders Island. She was used by Lady Franklin, whose hobbies included collecting boiled skulls and taxidermied snakes and wombats, as an experiment to see if the ‘savages’ can be trained to be ‘civilized’.
Mathinna was treated like one of Lady Franklin’s collectibles – to be shown off and studied. Shemhad a difficult time adjusting until she met Hazel, who was one of the ‘assignables’ (well-behaved convicts who were taken out daily to work in settlers’ homes and shops as housemaids, cooks, flax spinners, straw plaiters, weavers, seamstresses, and laundresses) from The Cascades, chosen by Mrs. Crain, the housekeeper, to help out with chores at the Franklins. Hazel’s sincerity touched Mathinna and they bonded.
This wasn’t in the story, but according to Wiki, Mathinna “drowned in a puddle while drunk on 1 September 1852. She was 17 or 18 years old.” Below is a portrait of her painted by Thomas Bock (taken from Wiki) when she was residing with The Franklins, as mentioned in the book.
This book also brought to light the mistreatment of the Aboriginal people who were taken away to make way for the white settlers. George Augustus Robinson, sponsored by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, tried persuading the Aboriginal Tasmanians to surrender themselves and promised that they’d be protected and provided for and that their lands will be returned to them, when Robinson’s true intention was to exile the Aboriginals to Flinders Island.
A gripping, brilliantly-told story set in 19th century Australia about love, loss, friendship, courage and determination, propelled by a page-turning plot and a cast of compelling characters. If you’re looking for an immersive historical fiction, one that is not about WW2, ‘The Exiles’ is one I’d strongly recommend!Tweet
I haven’t read The Orphan Train, also written by the same author. The book is still sitting on my shelf, unread, except for an occasional browsing. I really want to get to it…but…Sigh…oh you know why! 🙂
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Or have you read The Orphan Train? Please share with me your thoughts!