The Exiles

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Unstated family warmth. Sense of honour and courtesy the girls show in public.

Cover of The Exiles

Author: Hilary McKay

Series: The Exiles

Publisher: Hodder

Published in: 1991

Age Range: Pre Teens

Period: Contemporary

Setting: Lincolnshire / Cumbria

Genres:  FamilyHumorous


  • Ruth Conroy is, at 13, the oldest of the book-loving Conroy sisters. With 11-year-old Naomi they are the Big Ones, while Rachel and Pheobe are the Little Ones, at 8 and 6 respectively.
  • Big Grandma is their ruthless and well-meaning grandmother who takes the Conroy girls into her Cumbria house while their parents are having their own house extended.


Mr & Mrs Conroy send their daughters to stay with their grandmother while they spend a modest windfall on having their house extended. The girls go with poor grace and their hearty grandmother is determined to do them good by denying them access to any kind of reading material and forcing them into outdoor activities. The sisters initially resent being sent into exile while their parents spend money they feel they should have had a share in, and do everything they can to get hold of things to read.

The girls and Big Grandma settle down into a position of mutual respect and indeed enjoyment, without either side retreating from their position on reading. When the girls are to return home, each finds it in her to give Big Grandma a leaving present. Only then does Phoebe discover a secret supply of books and things go horribly wrong.


General: I enjoy this series tremendously: the characters are both simple and interesting. The peripheral characters such as Graham, the local lad they meet, and his mother and his outspoken great-grandfather, have character even in the small scenes in which you encounter them. In their different ways the sisters are all batty, not in the frankly unbelievable way of Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpes, but rather as though all the qualities of your most imaginative and outspoken friends have been poured into them. Their moments of sanity, such as when they turn up for tea at Graham's house wet and dishevelled, or when they apologise to Big Grandma and tell her they'll take themselves away, are as a result quite believable and almost touching.

All by herself Phoebe had acquired a new hobby. It was her own invention, nobody had helped her, nobody but Phoebe would even have thought of it. You filled a bucket with water, tied a bit of string on the end of a stick, held the stick over the water, and there you were. Fishing in a bucket. The total hopelessness of the activity was very soothing. It was the perfect sport. The emotional stresses of success and failure being eliminated left one entirely free to enjoy the pleasures of the moment. The fisher in the bucket can take liberties that conventional fishermen only dream of. He can stir the water vigorously with his rod and produce no ill effects. He can carry his water to any more convenient site. As a last resort he can chuck the whole lot away, in favour of another bucketful. It is a good hobby, and cheap, and if people did it more often...

“I'm sorry we look a bit untidy,” Ruth said desperately (she didn't want anyone to think they didn't know what they looked like), “but we went swimming and Naomi's plaster got wet — we put plastic bags on it but it still did — and Rachel stood on Phoebe's dress and the sand was wet, and then it got a bit ripped when she put it on when her own dress blew away, and they had a bit of a quarrel, well a fight actually, and Naomi had to stop them with her plaster.”

The girls talked and talked. It was the first time in their lives that they had ever tried to be pleasant, on purpose. Graham was proud of them. And they ate nearly as much as he had prophesied they would. Mrs Brocklebank, in the pleasure of watching them enjoy her cooking, forgot that she had ever thought of sitting them on newspapers to save her chairs

Sunday 14th September 2003