Review of The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
Many of her characters find themselves in despairingly difficult situations, but Kline offers glimmers of hope as well.
Christina Baker Kline tells the story of three women's lives in the nineteenth century: Evangeline, a British governess who becomes pregnant and is ultimately sent to prison in Australia, “the land beyond the seas"; Hazel, a savvy young woman who is a midwife and an herbalist, sent across the ocean for stealing a silver spoon; and Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of an Aboriginal chief, adopted by a powerful white British family in Australia.
Kline deftly exposes the raw truths of tough situations in her character-driven historical fiction. In The Exiles, she writes a story of friendship, despair, and emergences of hope with a richly drawn Australian backdrop--while laying bare the country's often-painful history.
She offers uncomfortably vivid details of prison life, sea voyage, male-female power structures, the tiny glimmers of hope characters try to kindle into sustaining flames, and the deadly influence of negative societal judgment.
Many of the characters in The Exiles find themselves in despairingly difficult situations, and I trust that Kline reflected the grim details of many realities. To be fair, she offers glimmers of hope as well. But the dark injustices were tough for me to read; some of this may have been personal timing.
About halfway through the book Kline takes the reader through a plot twist that dramatically affects one main protagonist's life path. It threw me for a loop and I'm not sure I recovered from it; when I woke in the night after reading this section, my mind immediately began worrying over it.
The women's discoveries of their inner strength during their desperation are wonderful lights in the darkness here. As Evangeline reflects during the months-long boat journey to Australia, "The sheltered, unworldly governess who'd entered the gates of Newgate [Prison] was gone, and in her place was someone new. She felt as flinty as an arrowhead. As strong as stone." Hazel arrives in the story fully formed as a tough, clever, street-smart character; I loved seeing her heart open bit by tiny bit--as well as the details of the poultices, healing herbs, teas, and midwifery and other medical care with which she assists others.
The (limited) Mathinna story line was particularly fascinating to me. The tragic destruction of her indigenous clan at the hands of the British mirrors the horrors enacted against Native Americans in the United States, and the book touches on how the British took advantage of a vastly different culture and obliterated it. There was no word for property among her people, yet the British stole her people's land and asserted ownership to drive the native peoples out. The story arc concerning Mathinna focuses on her life within the white culture and how it both does and does not break her spirit and her sense of self. The girl's confusion about the word "savages" was particularly poignant; she hears it used by the British to refer to her and her people, whereas she had heard it from her people accurately used to describe white men who were whalers and sealers, who "seemed...half men, half beast."
Kline offers an enactment of justice in one egregiously unfair and horrible situation that is satisfying, if anticipated. (However, why this evil character would continue seeking out and lingering around the others was not clear to me; I imagined that this person would likely light out for other places and wreak random havoc elsewhere.)
What did you think?
Kline also authored Orphan Train (which I really liked) and A Piece of the World (which I loved).
I had a tough time with the injustices here, although I understand and respect Kline's reflection of reality. I think some of my reaction was just bad reading timing on my part. Kline's research and resulting detail is fantastic, and I'm in for all the Christina Baker Kline books.
I mentioned this book in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 10/22/20 Edition.