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January 25, 2021

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline ~ a Review

by Susan Roberts


"She was starting to think that maybe she belonged in this terrible, beautiful place, with its convict-built mansions, its dense bush and strange animals. The eucalyptus with their half-shed bark and woolly foliage, the orange lichen that spread like molten lava across the rocks.  Here she was, rooted to the earth.  Her branches reaching toward the sky, the rings inside as dense as bone.  She felt ancient as if she'd lived forever, but she was only nineteen years old.  The rest of her life in front of her like a ribbon unfurling."  (p 343)

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The Exiles
August 2020; Custom House; 978-0062356345
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); historical fiction
The Exiles
is about the early history of Australia.  It's a well researched and beautifully written novel about female friendships and the way women were treated in the mid-1800s. The story is told through the eyes of two female prisoners transported to Australia - Evangeline and Hazel and one Aboriginal girl Mathinna who was taken from her home to live in the capital with the governor's family and treated like a rare pet.

Evangeline is a maid at a grand house in London.  Her father was a bishop and she lived a very quiet life.  When he died she had no way to support herself so she became a maid.  She was lonely and was easily seduced by the rich son of the family.  She thought he was in love with her when he gave her a ring but when the ring was found in her room, she was arrested as a thief and sent to Newgate prison.  The living conditions at the prison were much worse than she had ever imagined and when she found out she was pregnant she knew she had to protect her unborn baby.  When a group of women was sent to Australia for punishment, she felt like it was her chance to have a better life.  The voyage was terrible with all of the women kept below deck and harassed by the ship's crew.  The only good part of the voyage for Evangeline was her friendship with Hazel.  Despite being very young, Hazel was a healer and a midwife.  She helped Evangeline with her pregnancy problems and Evangeline started teaching her how to read and write.  When a catastrophe happens during the voyage, only one of them ends up in Australia with the baby.

Marthinna lived on a remote island with her family and tribe.  She was happy with her life and the customs of her tribe.  One day the governor of Australia and his wife visited her island and decided to take her home with them to see if they could educate her and make her more British. She was given fine clothes and the beginning of a good education but was treated as nothing more than entertainment only brought out of her servant's room to entertain the governor's wife and her friends.  She wasn't really part of the English life but was no longer part of the people that she grew up with, so she didn't fit in anywhere.

These three women represent different parts of the culture of Australia in this time period.  All three of them were treated as less than human. The prisoners were treated terribly - they were barely fed and were forced into hard labor. Marthinna was put into an entirely different life at the whim of the governor and was forced to give up her past. While life in Australia was punishing and often brutally unfair, it was also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption and a new way of life. The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship and the bonds of female friendship.  

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More than 160,000 convicts — 80% men, 20% women — were transported to Australia from the British Isles between 1788 and 1868. The British sent criminals to NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and WA, but freed convicts soon spread their footprint across the country, and these days, one in five Australians is the descendant of a convict.


Susan Roberts lives in North Carolina with her husband of over 50 years.  She grew up in Michigan but now calls North Carolina home. Since her travel plans had to be canceled for this year, she is starting to make plans for travel in 2021. She reads almost anything (and the piles of books in her house prove that) but her favorite genres are Southern fiction, women's fiction, and historical fiction. Susan is a top 1% Goodreads Reviewer. You can connect with Susan on FacebookGoodreads, or Twitter.


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