"The Exiles" By: Christina Baker Kline

Dec 7, 2020

Credit Christina Baker Kline

“The Exiles”

Author: Christina Baker Kline

Publisher: Custom House, William Morrow

Pages: 371

Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)

Kline’s Latest Tale Takes on Crime and Punishment in Australia 

Christina Baker Kline is, to begin with, a fine storyteller. “The Exiles” is that rarest of novels, a true page-turner. The action moves along; the reader feels himself to be in the hands of a professional.

Of Kline’s seven previous novels I had read and reviewed two and they are, praise be, not the same.

“The Orphan Train” told the stories of homeless children taken from the streets of NYC and removed to the American Midwest to live on farms, some happily, some not.

“A Piece of the World” weaves a fictional tale around the subject of Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World,” the girl on the grass, gazing up at the farmhouse. 

“The Exiles” opens in London in 1840. Evangeline Stokes is a heroine one might meet in many a cautionary tale. Her mother deceased, she lives with her father, a quiet bookish vicar in tiny Tunbridge Wells.

When he dies, she is penniless and homeless and without practical skills. She must become a governess. Evangeline is well-educated, with a knowledge of Latin and Shakespeare, but she might have been better off had she read some eighteenth-century novels like “Clarissa Harlowe.”

In London, working at posh Whitstone House, she commits the primal error of naïve young women. Although “she knew from her father’s sermons, a woman’s greatest possession was her chastity,” she succumbs to the charm and lies, the blandishments, shall we say, of the young master Cecil Frederic Whitstone. Evangeline, pregnant, is then dismissed on false charges, arrested, convicted and sent to Newgate Prison, women’s division.

Dickens himself could not have described Newgate as any more foul. The prisoners, some fairly hardened creatures, some mere girls who stole for food, are cold, hungry, dirty, sick. It could serve as a treatise on vile incarceration practices and prison reform, and is also chilling. Prison may not have had much useful deterrent effect in 1840 in London but if I ever find myself there you may be sure I will be the most law-abiding citizen on the island. 

Evangeline thinks young Cecil will come to Newgate and rescue her. Readers know better as does every woman in the prison.

After four months Evangeline is deported to Tasmania, Van Dieman’s Land, to a penal colony prison.

In a nice, historically accurate touch, the ships used to transport convicts are ex-slavers, put out of business, cynics remark, when “a few do-gooders in parliament got cold feet about owning human beings.”

For the four-month voyage aboard the Medea, named for the goddess who was deserted cruelly by Jason after helping him search for the golden fleece, the women are crammed into the orlop deck, just above the stinking bilge, where the enslaved had been carried.

The sailors, no surprise, do not behave like gentlemen.

Life in Cascades Prison in Tasmania, an island off the south east coast of Australia, is awful. Convicts and even the convicts’ babies, and there are many, are treated cruelly, as subhuman. 

To mark them as convicts, the maids are required to wear a white cap and “a blue dress and white apron” not as stunning as the Handmaid’s outfit in Margaret Atwood. 

The British ruling class in Tasmania is not the cream of the Empire.

Aborigines are rounded up, incarcerated, killed. 

Lady Franklin, the governor’s wife, takes in Mathinna, an aboriginal child, as an experiment to see if she can be “civilized.” Treated like a monkey, she is taught French, taught to dance, dressed in scarlet velvet.

Life is harsh, but is not entirely without hope. There is work-release, a kind of convict-leasing system, and if convicts can survive their sentences, it is possible, finally, to start a new life in Australia. 

Millions have.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.