Title: The Exiles
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Narrator: Caroline Lee
Publisher: Custom House
Publication date: August 24, 2020
Print length: 370 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of a trio of women’s lives in nineteenth-century Australia.
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.
It’s been a few days since I finished listening to this fascinating, moving, and well-written story, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath.
In The Exiles, author Christina Baker Kline tells a powerful story of women displaced by the rules of others, struggling to survive and to find a place to call home. While the story is uplifting, it’s often so heartbreaking that it made me want to stop and sit quietly for a while to regroup and get my emotions under control.
The book starts by focusing on two very different characters: First, we meet Mathinna. At the opening of the story, she’s eight years old, already living in a sort of exile along with her tribe, who’ve been removed from their lands and forced to relocate to the harsher landscape of Flinders Island. Even there, their lives aren’t peaceful. They’re ruled by British governors, forced to adopt English speech and dress, and limited in their abilities to live as their people always have. When young Mathinna catches the visiting governor’s wife’s attention during a schoolchildren’s performance, Mrs. Franklin decides that Mathinna will be her next experiment. With no consent needed, Governor and Mrs. Franklin leave instruction for Mathinna to be brought to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), to be raised in their home as a test subject — to see if “savages” can be civilized enough to fit into proper society.
At the same time, back in London, we meet Evangeline Stokes, the inexperienced, orphaned daughter of a vicar, who seeks work as a governess with a wealthy family in order to survive after her father’s death. Evangeline is seduced and impregnated by the elder son of the family which employs her, and after she’s found with his ring in her possession, she’s arrested and imprisoned. (He, of course, is such a cad that he never lifts a finger to help her.)
Evangeline is sentenced to transportation, and begins the harrowing four-month sea voyage from England to Australia. To survive, she forges friendships with some of the other women convicts, but the voyage itself is dangerous, as are some of the crewmen onboard the ship.
During the voyage, the character Hazel is introduced as well — a teen girl convicted of robbery, after her alcoholic mother sent her out to pickpocket for their survival. Hazel is a trained and gifted midwife, and her skills become invaluable to Evangeline and the other women on the ship, as well as providing Hazel with a way to improve her own life once she arrives in Van Diemen’s land.
The relationships among the women are complex and important. While their backgrounds vary widely, all find themselves at the mercy of an unfair justice system that deprives them of their voices and their freedoms. As becomes very clear, poor and powerless women have no one to defend them, and no ability to contest or avoid the judgments handed down against them. And as one woman points out to Evangeline, it’s not just about punishment — as British colonizes the Australian territory, they need more women to build a society with, so why not solve two problems at once?
The story alternates in sections between the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and the other convicts, and the strange and awful half-life Mathinna is forced into. Again, here is a young woman with no voice and no power, treated as an object of curiosity and a plaything, but all too easily cast aside when her novelty wears off.
All of these women truly are exiles, removed from their homes and families, given no choice about where they’ll go or how they’ll live, forced to give up everything they’ve known and start over in a foreign land. In Mathinna’s case, of course, it’s not just the story of a personal tragedy but the tragedy of a people, as British colonization decimates the lives of the native people of Australia.
The Exiles is a beautiful and powerful read. I don’t want to talk too much about the individual characters and what becomes of them, because the specific storylines are best discovered by reading the book. Overall, this is a tragic and lovely story, and it left me wanting to learn more about the actual history of Australian settlement.