Friday, September 4, 2020

Book Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline



Pages: 384
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: August 25, 2020
Publisher: William Morrow
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Goodreads says, "Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a na├»ve 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."

Evangeline is working for a wealthy family in London as a tutor.  While working for this family, she has an affair with the eldest son, who gives her a family heirloom.  When someone reports this to the head of the house as having the family ring, they, of course, accuse her of stealing it.  Off she goes to infamous Newgate Prison. The eldest son is vacationing in Italy, so the chances of him saving her are slim.  To top it off, she is pregnant with his child.  This is a major scandal, especially in the 1840s.  On the other side of the world in Australia, there is an orphan, Mathinna, who is being kept by one of the dignitaries. She has lost her parents, her world to white colonists, and the only life she has ever known.  She has become a "pet project" for Lady Franklin.  Once Evangeline is transported via a slave ship to a prison colony on Australia, she meets fellow prisoner, Hazel.  Hazel comes from Glasgow and was caught stealing a silver spoon. She is only sixteen years old and was only stealing, because her mother put her up to it. Now her life has been irrevocably changed.  Evangeline and Hazel become friends aboard the dangerous ship, Medea, and find solace in each other amidst all the horrific things that happen out at sea.  All three females' stories come together once they reach land and Christina Baker Kline ties their stories together expertly.  The Exiles isn't a story I will forget easily; it's one of my favorite historical novels of the year.

Kline introduces us to three very different, but very strong female character in The Exiles. Evangeline is a character that I feel badly for. She got played by the eldest son. She is a bit naive and you can tell she has lived a sheltered life.  She gets accused of stealing, has no alibi, freaks out about this, and she is also pregnant. I mean it can't get much worse.  For the time period, this is social suicide.  Evangeline can't even ask her father to vouch for her character, as he is dead.  So, obviously things are looking pretty dreary for Evangeline.  She spends some time in Newgate Prison, which is a version of hell, and then finds she is selected to be transported by ship to Australia where they have a penal colony.  This isn't some quick voyage though. It's long, arduous, dangerous, and not to mention, there's tons of brazen sailors set on tormenting the female prisoners.  Could you imagine being pregnant in this situation? It's truly a nightmare.  The one good thing that comes out of all of this is her friendship with some of the other women, such as Hazel.

Hazel is an incredible character in The Exiles. Her lousy mother pretty much is the reason why she finds herself on this prison ship and right away you can tell she is much more than just a naive teenager. She knows much more about the world than even Evangeline.  Her mother was a midwife, so Hazel has picked up many skills, which is helpful to the women aboard the ship.  At first the ship's doctor is hesitant to utilize her, but once she proves herself, she makes herself invaluable. I adored her friendship with Evangeline and I loved that they got each other's back.

Kline gives us glimpses into Mathinna's life as an aboriginal young girl living amongst the white colonists. I appreciate Kline doing this as it gives readers a different perspective of what it must have been like to have her world taken away from her. Her story is heartbreaking. She is, essentially, Lady Franklin's little experiment. Can Lady Franklin make the heathen civilized enough to attend tea parties and other events?  Lady Franklin shows her off to her friends as a pet in a way and it's humiliating for Mathinna, not to mention disgraceful.  Mathinna has so much to offer, but no one gives her a voice. She feels so lonely amongst the colonists and longs for her former life.  It was hard to see how Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna's story would collide, but trust that Kline makes it happen.

The Exiles is a powerful story. I learned a lot about nineteenth century Australia and the penal colony.  I loved meeting these strong female characters and appreciated the novel's overall positive message of hope, the importance of female friendships, and the power that resides within us all. If you love historical fiction that is memorable, moving, and smart, look no further. The Exiles is one of my top ten favorite books of the year.



2 comments:

  1. I've been seeing this book everywhere lately! I haven't seen really any books that focus on the penal colony in Australia, so that's really interesting.

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    Replies
    1. It's soo good, Angela. I think you'd like it. I haven't read many books that take place in Australia during 19th century, so it was really unique in that way. Thanks for visiting!

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