For a book that covers deeply distressing topics – the forced child migration between Britain and Australia that took place after WWII, and the Stolen Generations, Robert Dinsdale’s historical novel, Little Exiles, is strangely devoid of emotion.
I began expecting to become quickly invested in the characters, particularly given that story begins with an eight-year-old boy, Jon Heather, who is taken by his near-destitute mother to the Chapeltown Boys Home of the Children’s Crusade. Jon believes he is at the Crusade for only a few months however he soon realises that his mother is not returning. One by one, the boys at the Crusade are told their mothers are dead and that they are going to Australia to make a better life.
“…they were being sent to Australia, for sunshine, oranges, milk and honey…”
At the Crusade in Australia, Jon is abused, as are the other boys. The physical abuse is described in some detail, as well as the poor living conditions. Sexual abuse is alluded to, with references to the ‘honoured guests’ of the Crusade painting a sinister picture.
“…if there’s one thing you should know, it’s keep your head down. Don’t go with an honoured guest.’
‘I don’t know, Jon but isn’t it funny? A day out with ice cream and big fat steaks and all the lemonade a boy could drink…but once they’ve been, nobody ever wants to go again. Some things just aren’t what they promise.’ “
Eight-years-old and you’re told your mother is dead and you’re put on a boat to a foreign country. It’s heartbreaking. So why didn’t I read through constant tears…?
Early scenes where Jon is stoic but ever hopeful work best and good use is made of additional characters who have slightly different (but nevertheless traumatic) experiences at the Crusade. As John grows up, any vulnerabilities he showed in England were gone, and although he pushes on with life in Australia, he is driven by the desire to return ‘home’ (to England and his mother).
The latter parts of the book felt as though the story was being told through Jon’s head, not his heart. Was this deliberate on Dinsdale’s part? Perhaps. Maybe that’s how you have to be in order to survive such a childhood. I read from a mother’s perspective and to see such few chinks in Jon’s armour made it difficult to see how he would ever allow himself to be loved.
It’s worth mentioning my ‘prior knowledge’ before starting Little Exiles. Margaret Humphreys, a British social worker and whistle-blower on the forced migration scheme, wrote her story, Empty Cradles – I haven’t read it yet, but did see the 2010 film version, Oranges and Sunshine. And I cried from the beginning until the closing credits. I cried so much it gave me a migraine. And before that, was the film Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), which examines the Stolen Generations. Again, it was a migraine-inducing-hour-and-a-half-of crying.
3/5 Interesting from an historical perspective.
I received my copy of Little Exiles, from the publisher, Grove Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.