3.5 stars rounded up to 4
This is a compelling historical fiction about women who were convicted, given harsh sentences, and shipped off to an Australian penal colony.
The story follows three main characters. Evangeline is a 21 year old governess who foolishly has a relationship with the elder son of her employee and becomes pregnant. After he gives her an heirloom ring and takes off on vacation, she is accused of stealing the ring and attempted murder when she shoves the maid that vindictively turned her in down the stairs. Hazel is a 16 year old girl that has learned midwifery and healing from her uncaring mother. When she’s forced by her mother to steal to help support them, she is immediately caught and convicted. Mathinna is an 11 year old aboriginal girl living on a remote island with members of her people. She catches the eye of the wife of the governor and is then whisked away to live with them so they can “civilize” her.
The story describes the relationships formed between Evangeline, Hazel and other women on the ship, as well as the brutality they suffered at the hands of the crew members and the elements. Once in Australia, the women are housed in a dank prison overseen by a harsh warden. The women are not aloud to speak, must toil away at back-breaking work, and must attend chapel twice a day to be screamed at by the chaplain about how evil and wicked they are.
The only break from the harsh conditions is when settlers choose the women to work in their homes or businesses. The women provide free labor all day, and then return back to the prison each night. At first Hazel is assigned to work in the nursery, where she cares for the prisoner’s children, including Evangeline’s child. One day she is abruptly pulled from the nursery and re-assigned to work at the governor’s house, where she meets Mathinna. Mathinna is treated like a trick pony by the governor’s wife and is miserable. She misses her people and is neglected by the governor’s wife. Hazel is kind to Mathinna and takes care of her when Mathinna becomes sick.
The book is told in alternating chapters. The Evangeline and Hazel chapters meld well together, but the Mathinna chapters do not. I understand the author’s decision to include Mathinna’s story in the book because of the horrible atrocities perpetuated on her people during this time period, but her storyline felt out of place. The inclusion felt forced and aimless, and towards the end kind of fizzled out and was not resolved. I had to take .5 stars off the book for his reason.
I haven’t read many historical fiction books about Australia, so it was fascinating to read this story. I really enjoyed this book and recommend you check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley and HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.