Christina Baker Kline’s new novel, “The Exiles,” takes readers on a harrowing exploration of 19th-century British justice (or lack of) system and its after-effects, which helped to settle Australia in the early 1800s. Women and men – nearly all poor, often convicted on scant evidence at sham trials, were bound in irons and loaded on transport ships for the four-month journey in order to furnish “free people” in the British colony with free laborers.

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Baker, who lives part-time in Maine where she has set several of her previous novels (including “Orphan Train” and “A Piece of the World“), focuses on the plight of a handful of characters, most of them women. She weaves in the real-life story of Mathinna, an eight-year old Aboriginal girl, daughter of a deceased tribal chieftain. Mathinna is selected by the white governor’s wife to live with her family. The woman adds Mathinna to her collection of primitive artifacts and decapitated skulls — Mathinna’s ancestors — to “decorate” her manor, thinking that the girl “will be entertaining.”

The story-telling in “The Exiles” is triumphant. The first half of the book centers on Evangeline Stokes, the daughter of a vicar. With her father’s death, the 21-year-old woman is forced out of the parsonage and into service as governess to a wealthy British family. Her story turns on an heirloom ruby ring given to her by the master’s son, used to aid his seduction of her. She becomes pregnant and then, when found in possession of the ring, is declared a thief .

Evangeline is sentenced for “transport” (shipment to Australia) for 14 years. Her dark descent begins when she enters London’s Newgate Prison to await departure for Van Diemen’s Land (later renamed Tasmania). She is cast into an overcrowded cell, where her senses are assailed by the “metallic smell of blood, the fermented tang of vomit, the foulness of human waste…” covering the floor. She is befriended, however, by Olive, a large, crude “ruddy-cheeked woman of substantial girth, half a dozen years older…” Olive also is pregnant, sentenced for prostitution to transport for seven years.

Hazel Ferguson, a sullen, withdrawn young girl from Glasgow, learned midwifery and herbal healing from her mother. When a patient dies, her mother’s thriving practice fails. As a consequence, she “pushed Hazel out the door to beg and pick pockets on the streets when Hazel was eight years old.” The third time Hazel is picked up, at 15, the judge sentences her for transport for seven years. Her crime: “stealing a sliver spoon…”

Once under sail, Evangeline slowly befriends Hazel by teaching her how to read. They join with Olive as protectors of one another. At one point, Evangeline hears a cry on deck. A sailor with a knife has Hazel bent over a barrel with her dress lifted. Evangeline challenges him with a hooked shaft. He turns to battle her, but is thwarted when Hazel rolls the barrel that catches him behind the knees and takes him down. He turns once again on Hazel who slices his wrist and forearm with his own knife. The event transforms Evangeline, who had felt victimized but now feels strong and fearless.

Months into the voyage, Olive births a stillborn boy, the cord wrapped around his neck. She is swallowed by despair. When Evangeline goes into labor, the ship’s doctor discovers the fetus is breeched. Hazel steps in to turn it properly. Evangeline gives birth to a healthy, dark-haired baby girl.

From this point on, the story grows even darker and more frightening. What has primarily been Evangeline’s tale opens up to include the complex, intertwined fates, against immense odds, of Hazel, Olive and Ruby — Evangeline’s daughter. The women’s struggles are filled with adversity and grief. But the novel also reveals moments of love, courage and bravery and resilience. Dark as it is, the seed of light is ever-present.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound.” His novel was also a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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