Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Title: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: Custom House
Genre: Historical, Literary Fiction
Length: 380 pages
Book Rating: A+ & A Recommend Read

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss


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.


The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline is a captivating historical novel that offers a poignant and thought-provoking glimpse of the British transportation of convicted criminals to Australia. This riveting novel also highlights the heartrending plight of the Aboriginal people as the British seize their land.

Eight year old Mathinna is the daughter of an Aboriginal chief who lives with her stepfather on Flinders Island. Although forced to assimilate to the British way of life, Mathinna fights to hold her heritage close.  Catching the eye of Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of the governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Mathinna is whisked away from her home. Lady Jane views Mathinna as a part of her collection of exotic objects that catch her eye and the young girl is forced to perform for her benefactresses friends. The British harbor a deep prejudice against the Aboriginals and their remarks about and attitude toward Mathinna reflect this abysmal attitude.

In Britain, Evangeline Stokes is the orphaned daughter of a vicar and now works as a governess for a wealthy family.  Seduced by the eldest son and heir, she is sent to prison and sentenced to 14 years at the penal colony on Van Diemen’s Land.  Evangeline holds out hope she will she rescued, but as the months pass, she becomes resigned to her fate. She and the other prisoners are transported to Australia on the Medea, a former slave ship. Their journey is somewhat perilous as they endure illness, storms, heat and unwanted attention from unsavory crew members.

Evangeline befriends Hazel Ferguson, a teenager from Glasglow.  After she and her midwife mother  fall on hard times, Hazel is neglected and forced to steal in order to survive.  Her knowledge of herbal remedies turns out to benefit her as she uses her skills to barter with the other passengers. Hazel eventually assists the ship’s doctor Caleb Dunne who is surprisingly kind and compassionate as he takes care of the prisoners and crew members.

Life in the Cascades Female Factory is not easy as they provide free labor for the settlers.  Their day to day life is uncertain as they try to abide by the rules in hopes of being released early from their sentences. At the same time, young Mathinna’s fate is tied to the whims of the Franklin family and her future is uncertain.

The Exiles is a well-researched novel that shines a much needed light on the brutality of the penal colonies and the mistreatment of the Aboriginal people. The characters are well-developed with realistic flaws and strengths. The storyline is engrossing and features shocking twists and unexpected turns. The conditions at Newgate prison, the sea journey and the penal colony are harsh and these details are not downplayed. The British treatment of the Aboriginal people is horrendous and they endure jaw-dropping prejudice and misconceptions. Christina Baker Kline brings the trials, tribulations and hopes of this shameful period in British history vividly to life. A deeply affecting novel that I found impossible to put down and highly recommend.

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