Christina Baker Kline
Custom House Pub
July 6th, 2021
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline brings to life five women in nineteenth century Australia. All faced similar hardships struggling for redemption and freedom in this new society. They were mistreated and taken from a culture they knew. These women were all brought to their new lives against their will but showed strength and courage.
Evangeline, orphaned after her Vicar father died, found a job as a Governess. But the stepson living in the manor seduces her and shows her affection by giving her a family heirloom ring. The maid, Agnes, finds it and accuses her of stealing it. To make matters worse, she pushes Agnes and is now also accused of attempted murder. Found guilty she is sentenced to fourteen years in an Australian prison.
“I wrote her as the perfect person to lead the reader into the story, in some ways a stand-in for the reader. Evangeline was naïve and emersed herself in books. The convict world was a shock for her. She was inquisitive, thoughtful, brave, and very lonely. She did not know how to survive as a convict because she was not tough so depended on Olive and Hazel.”
Olive, also a prisoner, befriends Evangeline. Accused of stealing, she received a sentence of seven years and transport to the Australian prison. She was street wise and knew what was needed to survive.
Hazel, a sixteen-year-old, was accused of stealing a silver spoon and sentenced to seven years in the Australian prison. She is a skilled midwife and herbalist, bartering her skills for goods and favors.
“I gave her this “superpower” of healing; a knowledge learned as a mid-wife. Hazel knew how to balance things really well. She was savvy, caring, and angry at being abandoned. I think she goes through a change in the novel. At first, she was a mistrusting teenager, betrayed by her mother. As the story unfolds, she begins to trust more people and comes to love the baby, Ruby.”
All three women are transported to Australia on the ship, Medea. They must struggle with sea sickness, avoiding sailor’s advances, and the harshness of the journey. Evangeline also must deal with being pregnant, the father being the stepson. She knows she will give birth to her baby while at sea.
Mathinna, the Aboriginal native, an orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land the setting for the Australian prison. She is used by the Governor’s wife as an experiment in civilization, trying to make her into a “lady.” Her life intersects with Hazel’s about two-thirds of the way through the book. Although Mathinna is not a convict, she like the other women is a prisoner with no control over their life.
Caleb Dunne is the doctor on the ship. Because of a misdiagnosis of a prominent woman, he decided to escape and signed up for the ship. Shy and feeling out of place he first forges a friendship with Evangeline, both enjoying the discussion of books. But later he and Hazel become friendly after he realizes her worth as a mid-wife. Their relationship becomes stronger as the story progresses.
The story fascinatingly allows the reader to follow the lives of these women in 19th Century Australia as they forge a new life with new opportunities. People will have their eyes open to pieces of history that are still pertinent today. It is obvious the author did her research and intertwined it into a riveting novel. Readers’ take a journey with these women and root for them as they gain strength and resilience.