The Exiles – The incarceration of women from 19th century Australia to 21st century California. Christina Baker Kline’s story proves that the more the world changes the more it stays the same.
Just a few hours after I finished reading Christina Baker Kline’s novel, The Exiles, I watched a Powell’s Books webinar interview of Jaime Lowe, author of Breathing Fire. Much to my amazement, the two books deal with the same topic—the incarceration of women. One is fiction; the other, nonfiction. One is set in nineteenth-century Australia; the other, in twenty-first-century California. Both, however, consider the plights of women arrested for being poor, for stealing when starving, for making poor decisions about men, for having dark skin rather than white. Even more amazing, both address forced labor issues. In Tasmania, unpaid convicts toiled in the colonists’ homes; in California, prisoners earn a dollar an hour fighting forest fires. In both places, the unfortunate women are intimidated and often humiliated by wardens and guards.
The more the world changes, the more it stays the same.
The Exiles considers the experiences of three very different young women. One is an Aboriginal orphan adopted by the Tasmanian governor’s wife, who treats her rather like a trinket or a pet dog. Mathinna learns British ways, and even learns to speak French as well as English, but she never is treated like a real person. She is seen as a savage, not as a human being with human wants and needs.
Next, the reader meets Evangeline, the motherless daughter of a vicar who must find work as a governess after her father dies. Well-educated in Greek and Latin and Shakespeare, Evangeline knows little of the real world. She’s an easy target for seduction, as the older half-brother of her charges soon ascertains. A jealous housemaid discovers the ring Cecil gave his beloved, reports it stolen, and his stepmother immediately has Evangeline arrested for theft. The naive eighteen-year-old is sent to London’s notorious Newgate Prison, convicted, then deported when no one steps forward to attest to her good name. That she is pregnant seals her fate.
On board the ship to far-off Australia, Evangeline befriends Hazel, a sixteen-year-old from Glasgow whose mother taught her to pickpocket so they might have food and, for the mother, drink. Her mother also taught Hazel how to be a midwife and how to use herbs and herbal mixtures to remedy serious maladies and ills. In turn, Hazel teaches those skills to Evangeline, while Evangeline teaches Hazel how to read.
The second half of The Exiles echoes much of what I heard Jaime Lowe say on Zoom about the firefighting conditions for penal firefighters. Shipboard conditions were brutal; life on Van Dieman’s Land, now called Tasmania, was almost as rough. Kline conducted a significant amount of research when writing The Exiles, so her scenes and her characters’ confrontations realistically replicate mid-nineteenth-century life for “criminals,” especially women. Even an apparently insignificant misstep could lead to severe punishment, as Hazel learns when she is sent to Solitary and made to pick oakum in the dark.
I haven’t read Lowe’s Breathing Fire, though I intend to, but I gather from her presentation that firefighting is every bit as mentally and physically draining, with little salvation awaiting the prisoners upon their release. Certainly that was true of Kline’s women. Their enslavement seemed endless. Breathing Fire apparently has a lot to say about friendship, though, and so does The Exiles. Mathinna has no friends in her exile, while both Evangeline—more educated than the other prisoners—and Hazel—more reserved—find themselves very much alone. Kline brings them together in ways that will surprise but please her readers.
Kline also gives her readers some things to think about the treatment of women. It would be easy to dismiss The Exiles as part of a past that no longer exists. Listening to Jaime Lowe convinced me that modern-day incarceration still entails enforced slavery. What, after all, is the difference between fighting wildfires for a dollar an hour or washing and ironing the governor’s family sheets and underwear for free? Or finding friendship as the only deliverance.
Also available by Christina Baker Kline: The Way Life Should Be; Bird in Hand; Sweet Water; Desire Lines; Vivian’s Choice; Room to Grow; The Conversation Begins (with Christina Looper Baker); A Piece of the World.
Booking’ with Sunny strongly supports Independent Bookstores and Public Libraries.