THE EXILES, by Christina Baker Kline; William Morrow, 2020; 371 pages, $27.99.

THE EXILES

Best-selling and award-winning Mount Desert Island author Christina Baker Kline is well known for her historically accurate, powerful portrayals of people in distress — especially women and children — in dire circumstances beyond their control.

“The Exiles” is Kline’s eighth novel, based on true events, is an extraordinary tale of three women in the 1840s cast aside by society and the English judicial system into the horrors of prison and “transportation” to the penal colony of Australia.

Kline has done her homework well, telling a superb story of how these women survived the hardships of brutal convict life, while also offering vividly colorful and disturbing pictures of British social distinctions, the unfair criminal justice system, blatant racism, the convenient use of Australia as a colonial convict settlement, and the dismissive treatment of women as mere chattel.

Evangeline is a 21-year-old governess for a wealthy London family. Falsely accused of theft and assault, she is sentenced to 14 years in prison in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). She is bright, well-educated, pregnant and innocent. On board the convict ship, Evangeline befriends Hazel — a worldly 16-year-old midwife and pickpocket sentenced to seven years for a petty crime she did commit.

Only one woman will survive the voyage, the other now mother to a newborn and housed in the hellish Cascades women’s prison. On a work detail, she meets Mathinna, an 11-year-old native girl torn from her tribe to be the social experiment of the governor’s wife.  Treated as a toy, a curiosity, Mathinna is alone and frightened she will lose her identity and heritage.

Tragedy, heartache, death (even murder), abuse and despair await these women, but they reveal moral and physical strength, determination and resourcefulness — and one will make her mark in English and Australian medical profession history.

 

HOW TO BUILD A HEART, by Maria Padian; Algonquin, 2020; 343 pages, $17.95.

HOW TO BUILD A HEART

Teenagers:  A simmering combination of angst, uncertainty, image, know-it-all sass, hormones and the painful struggle for self-identity. However, teenagers can also be loving, bright, considerate and hard-working. And 16-year-old Isabella (Izzy) Crawford is all of those things.

“How to Build a Heart” is Brunswick author Maria Padian’s fifth young-adult novel, following her excellent “Wrecked” in 2016. Nobody writes young-adult fiction better than Padian. Where “Wrecked” was a powerful story of teens at college, this novel focuses on high school teens and conflicts among themselves: rich kids versus poor kids, friend versus friend and, of course, parents and families trying to make sense of it all.

Izzy is smart, resourceful, pretty, funny and a wonderful singer. Her father was a Marine killed in Iraq 10 years earlier, and she misses him terribly. Izzy, her widowed mother and precocious little brother live in a mobile home park, and she attends an all-girls Catholic school on scholarship. Very aware of the power of image, Izzy doesn’t want anyone to know where she lives or that her family is poor.

She and her best friend Roz are a bit wild, until both develop a crush on a handsome rich boy and their friendship becomes fractured. Before she knows it, Izzy is the target of snarky social- media bullying led by the boy’s jealous girlfriend.

Meanwhile, her family is approved for a home with Habitat for Humanity, and she’s scared her family’s status will be revealed, exposing her to embarrassment. Fortunately, her mother, her friends, their parents and her father’s family step up in a wonderfully warm example of family unity, forgiveness,and generosity.

This is a delightful, inspiring coming-of-age story, smashing stereotypes and reinforcing the strength of the family unit and the great value of Habitat for Humanity.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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