I have counted up the number of books I’ve read but not reviewed, and I’m too embarrassed to tell you what that number is. Rest assured, it’s bad. Obviously, I’ve been reading a lot but not much more. Sure, reading a lot is a very positive step, and I’ve read some great works by some fabulous authors. This is one example. I’m a sucker for historical fiction, but I have to admit that sometimes certain subjects get a little old and I get a hankering to take a break and find a subject or time period that I really don’t know much about. Christina Baker Kline excels at this. She strikes me as an avid researcher who loves to delve into the little-known gems of world history and then shares the knowledge she’s gleaned with her audience in a way that’s both educational and compelling.
The Exiles follows the lives of three women from very different backgrounds who find themselves suffering a similar fate. Evangeline, a governess to a wealthy family in London, is cast aside after being seduced by her employer’s son and falling pregnant. As the family desires to dispose of her quickly and quietly, they conveniently accuse her of a crime she didn’t commit. With no one to speak for her to clear her name, she is jailed and then sentenced to life in exile at “Van Diemen’s Land,” a penal colony in Australia that is in need of women to balance against the droves of male prisoners who have been sent to their own exiles. Essentially, these women are relegated to the status of breeding livestock. Go forth and multiply, indeed. Aboard the ship, Evangeline meets Hazel, a girl accustomed to the unpredictable life of poverty and cruelty that befalls a woman of her station. Though Hazel is barely more than a child, she has endured so much in life that she has a hardened and weathered exterior that Evangeline lacks. Occupying the land that awaits their arrival is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of an Aboriginal Chief that has been taken from her people and thrust into white society in the home of the governor.
As with almost all historical fiction involving women, this is a difficult read. I willingly confess that I was completely ignorant as to the plight of female prisoners sent to Australia in the nineteenth century. Women guilty of the smallest of crimes, and often those guilty of nothing at all but being born poor or for trusting the wrong man, were forced from the only homes they’d ever known into a harsh and unforgiving world full of some extremely dangerous men. What did not surprise me was the story of Mathinna. In fact, Mathinna is the only character from Kline’s book who is based on the life of a real woman. This fact makes her story all the more heartbreaking. It’s quite disgusting how the Governor’s wife parades Mathinna around like Paris Hilton with her handbag dogs to prove that “the savages may be tamed.” Children like Mathinna were given education but were still told they were a lesser race, no more than show ponies learning cute tricks. And like the cute fluffy Easter bunnies bought as gifts, they soon lost their appeal and were left in the cold. Let me tell you, no creature on this Earth, human or otherwise, deserves that kind of fate. Ok, maybe Hitler. Take his ass to the South pole and drop him off. Anyone else? Nope.
Kline’s book is full of compelling characters, and you really find yourself drawing closer to them, fully invested in their stories. She does throw some curve balls along the way, one in particular that left me a little speechless, but once I sat and thought about it, it made sense. You can’t have a story like this without throwing in some awful, heinous stuff we don’t want to admit truly happened. It would be disingenuous and disrespectful to the women who truly lived lives such as these to gloss over the authentic depth of their pain. We need to feel it to make sure it’s never repeated.
Overall, I think this is a very important and compelling work of historical fiction. It’s well-researched and finely crafted. Thematically, it’s not an easy read, but I maintain that historical fiction, if done correctly, presents some difficult topics. It forces us to come to terms with our past demons while simultaneously celebrating the people who battled those demons and eventually brought the world forward into a more enlightened time.
Published August 25, 2020 by Custom House. ISBN 9780062356345. Hardcover. 370 pages.
Any kind of story that can help bring awareness and understanding to help prevent the mistreatment of anyone is a good read in my humble opinion. Thanks for bringing this story to light for me. I will look for it in my local library. Each and every of your reviews is spot on. Thanks for continuing to share your insights.
Thank you so much, Dan! Happy reading 🙂