Reviewed by Lincoln Millstein
Special to the Mount Desert Islander
SOMESVILLE — The historian Jill Lepore wrote, “Fiction can do what history doesn’t but should. It can tell the story of ordinary people.”
I came upon this in an article linked to Christina Baker Kline’s website. In her latest novel, “The Exiles,” Kline steers us through the Anglophilic diaspora of the 19th Century in a journey to Australia through the lens of three women — all forcibly taken from their places of origin to shape lives under the most challenging of circumstances.
Kline takes full advantage of fiction — its freedom to create compelling characters who fully illuminate monumental events to make history accessible — and forever etched in our minds.
She uses her characters to tell the story of England’s treatment of Australia as one giant hoosegow, by shipping its “incorrigibles” there from 1788 to 1868. A total of 32,000 of the 160,000 English prisoners were women.
One principal character is a naïve English governess who was seduced by her employer’s son, discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate English prison on phony charges, then tagged as a candidate for transport to Australia.
Then there is Hazel, a Scottish teenager sentenced to seven years for stealing a silver spoon. The estranged daughter of a midwife, she creates her own barter business by trading her learned apothecarial skills for services and tools from other prisoners and sailors.
The third major character is not a transported prisoner but the aboriginal daughter of a chieftain who, left to her own fledgling devices, manages to survive in the bush with her wherewithal and cunning instincts only to become the pet of the ruling English overlord and wife, and turned into a domestication experiment.
Kline tells their stories with relentless detail and tests our capacity to endure the most wretched of human conditions. We smell every ounce of human waste excreted, taste the inedible slop served to prisoners, feel the pain of whips on our flesh and, most of all, rebel at the de-humanizing condescension of one people to another.
A few of the early reviewers with advanced copies of “The Exiles” bristled at the degree of detail of cruelty and suffering, particularly inside Newgate. I don’t know how you prettify rat-infested dungeons with prisoners sharing the same space, or rapes, or the fevered condition of typhoid and other diseases rampant at the time.
Kline is a serious researcher and a vivid storyteller. She had a Rotarian fellowship in Australia as a young graduate student and returned as a best-selling author to dig deeper. An English-born, well-traveled American, Kline is the best exemplar of the adage, “Do what you know best.”
Her No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2013, “Orphan Train,” borrowed copiously from Maine’s colloquialisms through authentic characters of the region, as did her next bestseller, “A Piece of the World,” about the woman depicted in Andrew Wyeth’s mysterious painting — his most famous one, “Christina’s World.” Kline’s father was a professor at University of Maine and she has had a home for many years on Mount Desert Island.
Kline’s prose is purposeful and urgent: “The constant contact with other women, cheek to cheek, their sour breath on her face as she tried to sleep, their snoring in her ears. She learned to dim the noise: the clanging door at the end of the hall, the tapping of spoons and wailing babies.”
But there is also hope and optimism in “The Exiles,” and redemption, and many unexpected side characters — the sea captain hired to transport the newly adopted orphan to her new home, the reluctant surgeon aboard the transport ship, the wily female prisoner whose own pregnancy becomes a major turn in the story.
The Australia backdrop provides a big canvas. Kline takes us from the claustrophobic and astringent hell hole of Newgate prison in the early 1800s to the land of the “free settlers,” those who traveled to Australia of their own accord to build a new life — mostly agricultural. The free settlers needed laborers and the prisons provided them.
There are good surprises and turns in the plot, which I will not spoil. I developed a keen interest in all the characters and was sorry to leave them.
So thorough is Kline’s research, she sent me googling throughout the book. “Angel’s Trumpet,” “Scotch Reel,” “orlop deck,” which this lifelong sailor had never heard of. She sprinkles the expository text with deft use of dialog to move the story forward effortlessly.
“The Exiles” comes out in September 2020 at a time of great global upheaval. The world is engaged in timely introspection about the oppression of one tribe of humans by another in history. I grew up in Third World Asia and witnessed the Han Chinese disenfranchising minority peoples, and other Asians, and experienced the broad reach of the U.S. Seventh fleet as America brought tremor to every corner of Asia.
Christina Baker Kline and Jill Lepore are bright beacons in a new incandescent wave of writers and historians unraveling the cankered alchemy of human events. They do it through women who heretofore did not have champions, and thus telling these stories for the first time. Lepore’s “These Truths,” her one-volume history of the United States, was published last year and leans heavily into the nation’s original sin of slavery. That helped set me up for Kline’s “The Exiles,” a tour de force of original thought, imagination and promise.