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Today we are really pleased to welcome bestselling author, Christina Baker Kline, to Alternative-Read.com
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline brings to life five women in nineteenth century Australia. All faced similar hardships struggling for redemption and freedom in this new society. They were mistreated and taken from a culture they knew. These women were all brought to their new lives against their will but showed strength and courage.
Evangeline, orphaned after her Vicar father died, found a job as a Governess. But the stepson living in the manor seduces her and shows her affection by giving her a family heirloom ring. The maid, Agnes, finds it and accuses her of stealing it. To make matters worse, she pushes Agnes and is now also accused of attempted murder. Found guilty she is sentenced to fourteen years in an Australian prison.
Olive, also a prisoner, befriends Evangeline. Accused of stealing, she received a sentence of seven years and transport to the Australian prison. She was street wise and knew what was needed to survive.
Hazel, a sixteen-year-old, was accused of stealing a silver spoon and sentenced to seven years in the Australian prison. She is a skilled midwife and herbalist, bartering her skills for goods and favors.
All three women are transported to Australia on the ship, Medea. They must struggle with sea sickness, avoiding sailor’s advances, and the harshness of the journey. Evangeline also must deal with being pregnant, the father being the stepson. She knows she will give birth to her baby while at sea.
Mathinna, the Aboriginal native, an orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land the setting for the Australian prison. She is used by the Governor’s wife as an experiment in civilization, trying to make her into a “lady.” Her life intersects with Hazel’s about two-thirds of the way through the book. Although Mathinna is not a convict, she like the other women is a prisoner with no control over their life.
Caleb Dunne is the doctor on the ship. Because of a misdiagnosis of a prominent woman, he decided to escape and signed up for the ship. Shy and feeling out of place he first forges a friendship with Evangeline, both enjoying the discussion of books. But later he and Hazel become friendly after he realizes her worth as a mid-wife. Their relationship becomes stronger as the story progresses.
The story fascinatingly allows the reader to follow the lives of these women in 19th Century Australia as they forge a new life with new opportunities. People will have their eyes open to pieces of history that are still pertinent today. It is obvious the author did her research and intertwined it into a riveting novel. Readers’ take a journey with these women and root for them as they gain strength and resilience.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the story?
Christina Baker Kline: I was inspired by a small article I read in a newspaper about criminal ships. The point of the article is how convicts then had it harder than today. I thought how parts of my life intersected with this story. I had a life-changing six-week Rotary fellowship to Australia. I taught in women’s prisons. I also wrote a book with my mother about the second wave of the women’s movement. A lot of the issues in this book are relevant today including the needed reform of the criminal justice system and the role of women in society. I think it is a hopeful story.
EC: Why the map in the front of the book?
CBK: I wanted to show the route from London to Van Diemen’s Land, renamed Tasmania. It is from the mid 19th Century. I hope readers get a sense of the wide-open places including the placement of the ports, an understanding of the geography. This is the setting where the convict women stayed.
EC: Why the Lowreenne Tribe?
CBK: I went to Australia and Tasmania before Covid. I learned when I arrived about the Aboriginal people who were essentially being pushed into open air concentration camps. By the late 1860s there was no full-blooded Aboriginal people left in Tasmania, out of thousands. I felt it would be irresponsible if I did not address it. Mathinna was a real person who died tragically at the age of seventeen. Everything I described in the novel actually happened to her.
EC: How would you describe Evangeline?
CBK: She was the perfect person to lead the reader into the story, in some ways a stand-in for the reader. Evangeline was naïve and emersed herself in books. The convict world was a shock for her. She was inquisitive, thoughtful, brave, and very lonely. She did not know how to survive as a convict because she was not tough so depended on Olive and Hazel.
EC: How about Hazel?
CBK: She had this “superpower” of healing; a knowledge learned as a mid-wife. Hazel knew how to balance things really well. She was savvy, caring, and angry at being abandoned. I think she goes through a change in the novel. At first, she was a mistrusting teenager, betrayed by her mother. As the story unfolds, she begins to trust more people and comes to love the baby, Ruby.
EC: How would you describe Olive?
CBK: Funny, irreverent, a comic relief, and does what it takes to get by in prison.
EC: What about the relationship between Dr. Dunne and Hazel?
CBK: He is called the “hot doctor.” As with Hazel, he also changes over time. He went on the convict ship because he needed work. At first, he befriends Evangeline who is more like him. Yet, over time Hazel and he realize they share an interest in medicine. He comes to respect her. All the class restrictions fall by the wayside.
EC: How would you describe the doctor?
CBK: A complex character. At times he could appear to be a jerk because he was dismissive, a snob, but overall caring.
EC: What was the role of the Quakers?
CBK: They believed the convicts were worthy of redemption. Elizabeth Fry was a real person who helped them. She was very judgmental because she thought they were sinners. She gave them a sense of dignity and treated them as human beings but was never 100% accepting.
EC: There are similarities with today’s topics?
CBK: Most of these women sent to Australia committed crimes of poverty. They stole to feed themselves and their family since there was no social safety net. These women fell through the cracks. The criminal justice system was brutal then. Back then the poor had no rights and were considered expendable. Legal counsel was only for the rich and the poor had no recourse. Evangeline was an example of someone without allies, resources, and representation.
EC: Why did the British courts sentence these women to prisons in Australia?
CBK: The goal of the British government was to populate Australia. It had a ratio of nine men to every woman. They were sent there under flimsy pretenses. Today, 20% of Australian descendants come from convicts. The Australian personality was forged within their convict past: irreverent, willing to take changes, and never took themselves very seriously. When out of prison, these women had opportunities they would never have had in Britain.
EC: Why the drowning scene?
CBK: I wanted to show how no life is sacred. I read books on drowning. Sebastian Junger who wrote the non-fiction book, The Perfect Storm describes in detail how someone drowns. This was very helpful to me with those scenes in the book.
EC: A powerful quote, “People we love live inside us, even after they’re gone.” Please explain.
CBK: In my novels I often talk about this. In Orphan Train the book begins with the line, “I believe in ghosts. They are the ones who haunt us. They are the ones that left us behind.” With both quotes I thought about the tree metaphor. I love the idea of years that pass, giving us a core of strength. The convict women were alone and had to draw on what they had internally. Even though they lost someone they still had a piece of them in their memories.
EC: What about your next projects?
CBK: My next book, probably out in 2023 will be set in the Civil War era in North Carolina. This novel has been optioned for a TV series by Bruna Papandrea. I will be an executive producer.
If you liked this article you may like to read :
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
‘Christina’s level of research into characters, place and time to tell a powerful story of suffering and survival in an historical fiction is masterful’ Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz
‘Gorgeous’ Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale
London, 1840. Evangeline has languished in Newgate prison for months, falsely accused of stealing her master’s ring. Now beginning the long journey to Australia on a prison ship, she hopes for a new life for both her and her unborn child.
On board she befriends Hazel, sentenced to seven years’ transport for theft, whose own path will cross with an orphaned indigenous girl. The governor of Tasmania has ‘adopted’ Mathinna, but the family treat her more as a curiosity than a child.
Amid hardships and cruelties, new life will take root in stolen soil and friendships will define lives, but only some will find their place on the other side of the world.
‘Master storyteller Christina Baker Kline is at her best in this epic tale of Australia’s complex history—a vivid and rewarding feat of both empathy and imagination. I loved this book’ Paula McLain, bestselling author of The Paris Wife
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
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.The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline Insta
Book Beginnings / First Chapter First Paragraph / Tuesday Teaser!