Issue 108 |

rev. of Exiles by Ron Hansen


Exiles, a novel by Ron Hansen (FSG):  While Ron Hansen's forays into fiction have been so diverse as to seem disjointed—from the outlaws in Desperados and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to Hitler and his twisted obsessions in Hitler's Niece, to the young and unstable nun in Mariette in Ecstasy—all of Hansen's work is connected by the ways in which his characters are impassioned or haunted by their moral and spiritual responsibilities and shortcomings.

Hansen's latest novel, Exiles, is a fictional account of real-life nineteenth century poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins and the five German nuns whose deaths by drowning inspired Hopkins to write one of his most famous poems, "The Wreck of the Deutschland." This complex and intensely moving story would seem to be Hansen's most overtly religious book since Mariette, but the novel is not so much about religion as it is about vocation itself. Exiles is about the sacrifices and struggles that inevitably arise when one answers—or ignores—a calling, whether it be a calling to God or a calling to art.

In Exiles, Hansen intersperses the life of Hopkins—his studies at Oxford, his conversion to Catholicism and ordination as a Jesuit priest, and his start-and-stop toil as a poet—with the lives of the five Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis, nuns expelled from their home convent in Salzkotten thanks to laws designed to stamp out the Catholic church in Germany. Hopkins feels a kinship with the women because he too is an outcast, unable to teach or acquire a fellowship at Oxford because of his Catholicism, unable to prove to his family the worth of his vocation as they criticize his conversion and refuse to attend his ordination. All are exiles—the nuns who are driven from their homeland and Hopkins who is exiled within his.

Yet Hansen also writes of the joy Hopkins finds in his religious dedication and in the camaraderie of his Jesuit brothers when he is studying for the priesthood at Saint Bueno's School of Theology in Wales. Hansen's use of Hopkins' letters and journals seamlessly supplements the picture he paints of a man beloved by his fellow seminarians and enjoyed by the Jesuit fathers who all find him, by turns, studious, eccentric, self-deprecating, and above all sincere in his religious vocation. Hansen uses far more literary license in rounding out the lives of the sisters, about whom little is known, but he creates a similar kinship between the women despite constructing diverse personas that are not always compatible. He manufactures an entire history for each woman—complete with delightful details of each one's unique set of strengths and flaws—and traces the path of each to her calling.

As Hansen fleshes out these historical figures, he is careful to show that Hopkins and the nuns are devout, but they are not fanatics blindly committed to Catholicism. Hansen writes of Hopkins: "His was a faith that found hope and sturdiness even in the face of mystery, paradox, and philosophical difficulties." They are seekers, constantly evaluating their spiritual natures and the responsibilities their vocations entail while trying to serve a secular world that often is less than welcoming.

And that world is unwelcoming to Hopkins' poetry as well. Though Hopkins' work is much anthologized and lauded today—evidenced in part by the numerous volumes Hansen acknowledges in his source notes—Hansen shows Hopkins as misunderstood by his peers. Poets, friends, and editors who read "The Wreck" and other work Hopkins produces during his brief explosion of creative activity are mystified at Hopkins' apparent lack of meter or adherence to traditional forms. His work is rejected from magazines and the praise he receives from friends is befuddled or nonexistent. Yet as Hansen shows in this conversation Hopkins has with a fellow Jesuit, Hopkins remains devoted to his writing.

"Oh it's a wreck, this 'Wreck.' My rhymes carry over from one line to another, and there's a peculiar chiming inspired by Welsh poetry, and a great many more oddnesses that cannot but dismay an editor 's eyes. I shant publish it. The journals will think it barbarous."

Splaine asked, "Why write it then?"

In puzzlement, Hopkins replied, "Why pray?"

But Hopkins does stop writing, too exhausted and depressed after years of being shuttled from one school and parish to another—almost a dozen moves in half as many years—ending with a posting to Dublin, far from family or supportive colleagues, where he dies at forty-four, just weeks before he is to return home.

To read of Hopkins' death as a writer before his death as a man is devastating, and Hansen's depiction is both poignant and haunting. Hopkins stops sleeping, he is constantly ill, his letters to family and friends show he is depressed and lost. On his deathbed, Hopkins tells his confessor priest he regrets "shutting off the grace of inspiration by not paying enough attention to his poetic gift." The priest, a fellow Jesuit who knows him well, is surprised and confused.

"I didn't know you wrote poetry."

"I don't," Hopkins said. "But I did once."

Thus Hansen shows Hopkins as exiled from his own writing, a fate many writers of the twenty-first century, Hansen included, understand all too well. While Hansen 's attention to detail and historical accuracy is wonderfully descriptive and deft—he is able to succinctly sum up Victorian mores or seagoing vessels or the particulars of a nineteenth century ecclesiastical wardrobe—this multi-layered theme of exile is what really powers this book, beginning to end, and it is hardly a thing of the past. Hansen, like so many writers of today, surely struggles with the balance between the need to create and the demands of an outside world that has no empathy for such dedication to a vocation. To witness Hopkins' decline into despondency—which Hansen weaves with the story of the last hours of the nuns and other passengers on the Deutschland as they wait for rescue—is also to feel terribly sad about the fate of the modern artist.

However emotionally wrenching Exiles is, it also is a surprisingly hopeful book. Hopkins is desolate about his inability to write—as we are about his life cut too short—but it's clear despite his insecurities he never loses faith in his work or his God. And while the nuns perish along with many of the crew and passengers, there also are survivors on the Deutschland—and Hansen's amazing ability to efficiently flesh out so many of those fellow passengers leads us to genuinely rejoice at their rescue—we also can rejoice in the survival of Hopkins' poetry and his gradual ascendancy in the world of letters.

Exiles is a novel full of what-ifs—what if the nuns had not been exiled for their faith? How much more innovative and original work would Hopkins have produced had he been given more freedom to write? But more importantly, the book is a celebration of what is—the man's life as he lived it, the poetry he did produce, and the stories of the women who inspired him. —Kate Flaherty

Kate Flaherty's fiction and essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, Ascent, Fourth Genre and elsewhere, and she is editor, with Hilda Raz, of The Best of Prairie Schooner: Personal Essays (Nebraska).