Summary and book reviews of The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline X
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
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  • Published:
    Aug 2020, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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Book Summary

The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant historical novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of a trio of women's lives - two English convicts and an orphaned Aboriginal girl - 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.

Prologue

Flinders Island, Australia, 1840

By the time the rains came, Mathinna had been hiding in the bush for nearly two days. She was eight years old, and the most important thing she'd ever learned was how to disappear. Since she was old enough to walk, she'd explored every nook and crevice of Wybalenna, the remote point on Flinders Island where her people had been exiled since before she was born. She'd run along the granite ridge that extended across the tops of the hills, dug tunnels in the sugary dunes on the beach, played seek-and-find among the scrub and shrubs. She knew all the animals: the possums and wallabies and kangaroos, the pademelons that lived in the forest and only came out at night, the seals that lolled on rocks and rolled into the surf to cool off.

Three days earlier, Governor John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane, had arrived at Wybalenna by boat, more than 250 miles from their residence on the island of Lutruwita—or Van Diemen's Land, as the white ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Were you familiar with this part of Australia's history before reading? Was there anything new you learned that particularly surprised you?
  2. Mathinna and Evangeline are both orphans, and Hazel has a difficult relationship with her mother. What impact does this have on their characters, and how do you think their stories would have been different if their families were still alive?
  3. Compare the different treatments of male and female convicts aboard the Medea. Though the male convicts are also being punished, they are still in a position of authority over the female prisoners. What does this say about British society in the 1800s?
  4. The Franklins make Mathinna feel like she doesn't belong in Hobart Town, yet Mrs. Wilson tells Mathinna ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about The Exiles.
You can see the full discussion here.


'Living in a new world accords one certain freedoms. Social hierarchies are not as rigidly enforced.' Is this true for all the characters? What are the limitations of these freedoms? What does freedom mean to you today?
Perhpas, there are some freedoms in the new world, but it surely wasn't that way for poor Mathinna. I wonder what would have happened to Hazel and Ruby had the Dr. not saved them? Would she have been judged for being a single mother? I feel free, but... - momo

Could you identify with Evangeline? Have you ever been swept away. By circumstances beyond your control?
No, I have not. Probably due to luck and not being in the same situation. - beckyd

Did you think the timeline of the story was too compressed?
I think when books are too drawn out, it is easy to lose interest and frequently they become "history" books. A lot of facts and not enough story line. - elise

Do you think Hazel really could have forgiven Buck if he had let her? Do you think her actions toward him at the end of the book were justified?
Fortunately Hazel knew about the poisonous plants and was able to save Ruby. Even if, and that is a big if, he deserved some kind of forgiveness for his earlier evil behavior, the threat to Ruby was beyond foregiveness. - joyb

Do you think that Mathinna had other options after leaving the orphanage for the second time? How much of the way one's life turns out is under our control, and how much is chance, in your opinion?
I will add that I believe some of our life choices are under our control but many are not. We have to figure out in life how to utilize and maximize those choices we can control to be happy and successful. Not always easy or as planned. - Patricia Marie

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Exiles can't be described as a happy story, but it is inspiring and thought-provoking. Exploring historical events that may be unknown to some readers, Kline offers a unique look at the treatment of those outside of the strict rules and regulations of 19th-century British society. Furthermore, the three points of view tell three distinct stories that intertwine to create a larger picture of friendship, survival and hope. It's a fascinating tale that will appeal to readers with a taste for well-researched historical fiction and female friendships that can't be broken...continued

Full Review (791 words).

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(Reviewed by Jordan Lynch).

Media Reviews

New York Journal of Books
This is a novel for our times, and a novel that will stay with you. It's a perfect book club read. Save it for a time when you feel grounded, safe, but do read it...The author's ability to weave fact with fiction, tragedy with moments of hope, and the everyday with the universal will leave you immersed, wanting more. You’ll open this novel because of history, read on because of story, and close it knowing more about your own life, right here, right now.

Publishers Weekly
[G]ripping...Filled with surprising twists, empathetic prose, and revealing historical details, Kline's resonant, powerful story will please any historical fiction fan.

Booklist
Kline deftly balances tragedy and pathos, making happy endings hard-earned and satisfying...Book groups will find much to discuss, such as the uses of education, both formal and informal, in this moving work.

Library Journal (starred review)
Both uplifting and heartbreaking, this beautifully written novel doesn't flinch from the ugliness of the penal system but celebrates the courage and resilience of both the first peoples and the settlers who came after, voluntarily or not, to create a new home for themselves and their children.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[M]onumental...This episode in history gets a top-notch treatment by Kline, one of our foremost historical novelists. This fascinating 19th-century take on Orange Is the New Black is subtle, intelligent, and thrillingly melodramatic.

Author Blurb Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin
Master storyteller Christina Baker Kline is at her best in this epic yet intimate tale of nineteenth-century Australia. I loved this book.

Reader Reviews

Sonia Francis

The plight of the indigenous people
After reading A Piece Of The World, Christina Baker Kline did not disappoint with her research on the Australian Aborigines, the penal colony and the way the British in the 1800’s felt about the Aborigines, albeit , negatively. Actually they thought ...   Read More

Tired Bookreader

Great Book
Every year, there is one book that sticks out as an excellent read; one that stays with you and you think of often; the story never leaves you. This book, about very strong women under challenging circumstances and how they manage to not only ...   Read More

ELIZABETH @Silver's Reviews

ELIZABETH @ SILVER'S REVIEWS - FANTASTIC
What a wonderful history lesson and beautifully written book. I have never heard of these ships that took female prisoners from England to Australia to work off their sentences and who were charged with crimes of no consequence such as stealing a ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Mathinna and the British Treatment of Aboriginal Australians

watercolor painting of Mathinna, age seven, in a red dressIn The Exiles, Christina Baker Kline tells the stories of three women caught up in the British colonization of Australia and the nearby islands (which today form the Commonwealth of Australia). One of these stories is that of a young Aboriginal girl named Mathinna. Although Kline has embellished on what is known about Mathinna's life to some degree, she was a real girl taken from her family to live with the governor of Tasmania John Franklin and his wife in the 1840s in the hopes that she could be "civilized." Tasmania is an island 150 miles south of mainland Australia about the size of West Virginia. It was called Van Diemen's Land at the time, after the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies Anthony van Diemen. Mathinna's forced ...

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The author of Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant historical novel.

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