Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

 I was very lucky to receive an ARC of this novel, mostly because I finally just last week sat down to start it. I was browsing my bookshelves and spotted it and remembered it was out in August and I definitely wanted to read this latest from the author of The Orphan Train. I'm sure this will be wildly popular and hard to get unless you buy a copy for yourself. 

Before I give my review, I'll update you on my bookshelves, after the Great Weeding Project of 2020 that I did a few months ago. I'm still being pretty tidy, and not stacking any books on the floor. I'm still buying books, but trying not to buy too much! Now I can see everything fairly quickly, so it does make it easier to find something to read. Now to just circle around and pick up on the books I tried to read this summer and didn't for one reason or another. I'm very happy I did the work and cleaned up my books. All that clutter was making me feel like I couldn't read fast enough, but no matter how fast I read, I wasn't making any progress. Now I don't feel like that anymore. I'm settling into my Fall nesting mode. I basically just go to work, then home to read each night. It's my time of year to chill on the couch and gobble up books. 

So, let's get to The Exiles. I was very surprised at how fast I dove into it and spent a few late nights and early mornings reading it. I know I'm in a good story when the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning is the book and if I can read for a bit before I have to face the day. This was that kind of book. Historical fiction is always my favorite genre; it wasn't hard to get caught up in the journeys of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. 

Evangeline is a governess in London in 1840 who has fallen under the spell of the son of her employer. He gifts her with a ruby ring, and she is smitten. Unfortunately, she's accused of stealing the ring, and her lover is out of the country. She's taken to Newgate Prison, and found guilty of stealing and sentenced to deportation to Australia, to serve her sentence of fourteen years in prison as a convict laborer. Evangeline is a gentle reverend's daughter, fond of poetry and has a sweet soul. She's also pregnant, with no family to save her. On board the ship, she meets Hazel, a young Scottish girl found guilty of stealing a silver spoon, and sentenced to seven years convict labor in Australia, too. Hazel has had a very rough upbringing, and is a survivor. She's also skilled in midwifery and herbal medicines. 

Finally, there is Mathinna. This young girl is the daughter of an aboriginal chief; she  has lost her mother and father. She has been selected by the wife of the new governor of Van Diemen's Land, famed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Mathinna will live at the Governor's home, and be schooled in how to be a white child; losing all of her "savage" qualities. It's a cruel game Lady Franklin plays; parading Mathinna around to her friends, having her perform. Mathinna is so lost. Her story is all the more heartbreaking knowing she's just a little girl trying to navigate a very strange world that dismisses her as a human being. 

I have to admit there were quite a few times my heart jumped, as the women struggle to survive in the most hellish conditions. The treatment of women convicts was brutal, and absolutely infuriated me. They were completely at the mercy of those with power, and those with power were men. They were starved, beaten, raped, forced to live in absolute primitive conditions; giving birth to children and forced to turn them over to an orphanage until their sentence was served. 

What I can say about Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna is that they were so strong. Broken, yes, but still had that fire in them. I wish I could tell you there's a happy ending for all of them, but that just isn't the case. I'll leave it to you to read the novel and find out. 

This was such a good read. So good. Definitely a great selection for a book club. 

Rating: 5/6 for a powerful historical novel about women convicts traveling to Australia, and their struggles to survive and retain their dignity and sense of self in the face of overwhelming despair. It also focuses on the decimation of the aboriginal people, culture, and homeland. This novel certainly made me curious to read more about the convicts who traveled to Australia as exiles from Great Britain and the history of their experiences. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

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