The Exiles

by Christina Baker Kline, 2020

This was the 3rd book selection for the Old Town Library Book Club 2022-2023 year. Historical fiction set in 1840’s London and Australia; specifically, Van Diemen’s Land, the colonial name for Tasmania. Young governess, Evangeline Stokes, pregnant and wrongly accused of stealing a ruby ring given to her by the young aristocrat who wooed her and made her pregnant. She is sent to Newgate Prison and then transported to Van Diemen’s Land. She has the baby on the ship on the way over. An evil sailor, Buck, takes revenge because Evangeline saved her friend and fellow convict, Hazel, from being raped by him, and he is punished. He throws Evangeline overboard when he is released from his confinement on the ship. She drowns because the captain refused to allow the kind doctor, Dr. Dunne, to jump in and try to save her. Hazel and Olive, two fellow convicts, care for the infant daughter. Hazel loves her like her own, names her Ruby, after the ruby ring Evangeline was accused of stealing.

Another story line of the book is that of Mathinna, a young aboriginal girl taken from her home and family and raised in the governor’s home. Mathinna’s tale is tragic – she is unloved and easily discarded and sent to an orphanage when the governor and his family move away. She becomes a drunk, living on the streets of Hobart. Hazel tries to convince her to come live with her, but Mathinna chooses to remain in her drunken lifestyle.

It’s a good tale. The horrors of prison life, and of the ship, are not too graphic – she describes just enough to give the reader a taste of what it was like. The ending was good, except for Mathinna’s story. Hazel ends up with Dr. Dunne, the kindly ship’s doctor who wanted to jump overboard and save Evangeline, but the ship’s captain would not allow him to do so. He makes sure Hazel gets to take care of Evangeline’s baby. Hazel ends up helping him in his practice when he opens one in Australia. She has all kinds of knowledge about mid-wiving and herbs and uses those to help people, and also to save Ruby’s life when Buck, the evil sailor, comes to kill Ruby. Hazel gives him a cup of tea laced with the flowers (pink trumpet-shaped) of a bush that are poisonous. She saves the day.

Here are some quotes that I liked:

When Evangeline is taken away to prison and instinctively leans against the constable for warmth int he carriage, and he curls his lip at her: “Evangeline felt a prickle of shock. She had never in her life experienced a man’s revulsion. She’d taken for granted the small gifts of kindness and solicitude that came her way: the butcher who gave her choice cuts of meat, the baker who saved her the last loaf.

“Slowly it dawned on her: she was about to learn what it was like to be contemptible.”

When Evangeline is in the horrible Newgate Prison:

“When she closed her eyes, Evangeline found comfort in recalling even the small routines she used to complain about: heating a kettle to wash dishes in the sink, scooping coal from the bin to keep the fire going in the stove, heading to the bakery with her shopping basket on a cold February morning. Ordinary pleasures now seemed unimaginable: black tea sweetened with sugar in the afternoon, with apricot cake and custard; her mattress at the rectory, stuffed with goose feathers and cotton; the soft muslin gown and cap she wore to sleep; calfskin gloves, dark brown, with mother-of-pearl buttons, molded to the shape of her hands through years of wear; her wool cape with its rabbit-fur collar.”

Surrounded by the sick and suffering, she realized how judgmental and unsympathetic she had been to them in her abundance: “How young she’d been, she realized now, how easily shocked, how quick to judge.”

As the ship she is on is moving down the Thames and out to sea, leaving England behind, she remembers some lines from a Wordsworth poem: “Turn wheresoe’er I may, by night or day. The things which I have seen I now can see no more. As a young woman she’d been stirred by the poet’s lament that when he became an adult he was no longer attuned to the beauty of nature; he saw the world through different eyes.”

Lying in the filthy bunk in the orlop deck, Evangeline would think back to a beautiful trail in the English village in which she grew up, and it would help her get to sleep: “On mild afternoons in Tunbridge Wells she used to grab her bonnet from a peg in the foyer and wander down the rutted path to the stone bridge over a stream, passing tangled nettles, butterflies hovering above foxgloves, a field sprinkled with orange-red poppies, listening to the willows rustle in the wind…In the darkness of the orlop deck, she retreated to that mountain trail. Sidestepping small rocks and avoiding mud puddles, she breathed in the damp earth and the sour-sweet grass, felt the prickle of brambles on her legs and the sun on her face as she made her way toward the summit. She drifted to sleep to the distant bleating of sheep and the sound of her own beating heart.”

After Evangeline drowns, the story turns to Hazel, a very young girl sent to prison for stealing a silver spoon, in order to feed herself and her mother, who was a drunk. She has been angry and bitter towards her mother, who never showed her any love and just used her for food and rum. When she is in solitary confinement in Australia, thinking about her mother: “Sitting in the darkness now, prying apart strands of rope, she thought about all the convicts in other cells, each stewing in her own heartache and misery. This place was filled with women who’d had wretched childhoods, who’d been used and deceived, who felt unloved. Who were bitter and spiteful and couldn’t let go of their wounded feelings, their outrage at having been betrayed. Who couldn’t forgive. The truth was, Hazel could stoke her own hot coal until the day she died, but what good would it do? Its warmth was scant.

“It was time to let go. She was no longer an angry child. She didn’t want to carry that burning coal around anymore; she was ready to be rid of it. Yes, her mother had been selfish and irresponsible; yes, she sent her out on the streets to steal and turned her back when she was caught. She also taught her the skills that would save her.”

She would not allow herself to give in to despair. She coped by focusing her attention only on the task at hand. “Hazel tried not to think of Ruby, alone at the orphanage. She focused her attention on the sopping laundry, the stains and spots, the bar of lye soap in her hand. Warm water, rinsing water, ice water, mangle. As soon as she finished one piece, she started another. She did not retort when provoked by the guards. When she needed to move, she did so stealthily, like a cat. At mealtimes she wended her way toward the gruel without drawing attention. She stayed as quiet as she could. This, she found was the trick: you didn’t have to react to each little thing. You could just exist. Let your mind simmer over a low fire.”

When Hazel runs into Mathinna on the streets and asks her to live with them, Mathinna refuses. “”Don’t worry about me, Hazel. I’m a wanderer. I’ll be all right.” …

“Sitting on the bench with Ruby, watching Mathinna make her way down the street, Hazel felt a strange and unquenchable sadness. They were, both of them, exiles, torn from their homes and families. But Hazel had stolen a spoon to earn that status; Mathinna had done nothing to deserve her fate. Hazel was marked with the convict stain and would be for many years, but it erased itself as time went on. She could already feel it lessening. She could stroll through the market with a basket over her arm, and Ruby’s hand in hers, and no one would guess. Mathinna had no such luxury. She would never be able to melt into the crowd, to go about her business without judgment and suspicion.”

Good book. Takes you away to a time and place and you feel what it was like. Gives tidbits on how a human can cope in dark, dark places. And she points out the endemic racism in the white man’s world and how terribly, terribly wrong it is.

I missed the book club discussion because I tried to do it via Zoom and the sound didn’t work very well, except when one of the (very rude) ladies yelled, “I can’t hear!” It was a cold and icy and dark night, so I just signed off and stayed home, but I think I missed a good discussion.