Title: Little Exiles
Author: Robert Dinsdale
Review: After World War II, around 3,300 children, most of them aged between three and 14, were shipped to Australia; some 1,000 more were forcibly dispatched to Rhodesia, New Zealand and Canada. Many were sent to start grim new lives on the other side of the world without their parents’ knowledge, let alone their permission. These statistics come from the Child Migrants Trust, a charity that is still helping to reunite divided families.
And this is the world in which Robert Dinsdale roots his superb novel about Jon Heather and a frightened group of other boys from a cold children’s home in Leeds who, longing for news of their mothers, are packed into tiny cabins on a ship for six weeks and told to be grateful for their new start with The Children’s Crusade.
Australia is not, however, the land of milk and honey that they have been promised. The new home in the outback is hard, ruled by Men in Black, and particularly the cruel figure of Judah Reed who forces bed-wetters to dig the stinking latrines.
Jon Heather, forced to slaughter goats in the baking sun, betray his friends, and fear the ‘honoured guests’ who come to take boys out for days of lemonade and steaks, is never more frightened than when he realises that his new home has no fences. Is there, he wonders, no other, better, world beyond?
Little Exiles is an emotionally intuitive and moving story about a young boy who refuses to abandon his determination to return home and reclaim his past and his lost family.
Jon Heather is nine when his mother, unable to cope after her husband fails to return home from the Second World War, entrusts Jon to the care of the Chapeltown Boys’ Home of the Children’s Crusade.
He expects her to return for him in two months, but several weeks later, he finds himself on a ship bound for Australia, ostensibly so that he and his companions will be given the chance of a better life in the colonies.
The harsh reality of life on this isolated children’s mission in the Australian bush is reflected in the hard work, strict discipline and stark conditions endured by the boys and girls who reside there.
The physical and sexual exploitation of many of these “inmates” is only hinted at in this compelling novel.
Jon and his younger companion, George, find themselves relying on the protection of the older and worldlier Peter when they embark from the boys’ home in Leeds on their voyage to Australia.
As the boys grow up and try to come to terms with their circumstances, their choices are not always understandable or predictable.
However, Jon is the one who is unwavering in his resolve to return to England and find his family. Will his quest be fulfilled and, if so, what will he be able to salvage of his lost past?
This fictionalised account of the forced migration of thousands of British children, is, at times, gruelling and poignant storytelling and is not for the faint hearted.
Convict transportation to Australia had ceased by the 1860s, but for the next century Britain sanctioned the exportation of another kind of human cargo across the seas: unwanted or disadvantaged children, ostensibly to give them better opportunities or turn them into farmers for the Empire. Only recently have the experiences of these child exiles and their families become more widely known and public apologies for the scheme issued by the nations concerned.
This novel takes up the chain and tells the story of Jon Heather from Leeds who, aged nine in 1949, is separated from his mother and sisters by The Children’s Crusade and sent to a remote desert mission in Western Australia, run by the sinister “men in black.” Most of the children are told that their parents are dead, even when this was often not the case.
This is a disturbing tale that is not just about control and child abuse but also about loss of identity and a search for belonging, and the main drive of the plot is Jon’s determination to find his way back home to England.
The illumination of the victims’ side of this story is graphic and uncompromising, including a pivotal sub-plot involving the similar abduction of Aboriginal children, but the narrative lacks clarity in places, and despite all that he endures, Jon remains difficult to grasp, or even like, with his peculiar combination of outrage and naiveté. The secondary characters, his friends Peter and George and girlfriend Megan, all seem more real. Greater exposition on what drove Judah Reed, the chief “child-snatcher,” could have broadened the novel’s power. Australian readers might spot a few anachronisms relating to their country during this era, but otherwise this is a notable addition to the literature on the child migrant experience.
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