By Ron Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374150976, 240pp.
Publication Date: May 13, 2008
With Exiles, Ron Hansen tells the story of a notorious shipwreck that prompted Gerard Manley Hopkins to break years of “elected silence” with an outpouring of dazzling poetry.In December 1875 the steamship Deutschland left Bremen, bound for England and then America. On board were five young nuns who, exiled by Bismarck’s laws against Catholic religious orders, were going to begin their lives anew in Missouri. Early one morning, the ship ran aground in the Thames and more than sixty lives were lost—including those of the five nuns. Hopkins was a Jesuit seminarian in Wales, and he was so moved by the news of the shipwreck that he wrote a grand poem about it, his first serious work since abandoning a literary career at Oxford to become a priest. He too would die young, an exile from the literary world. But as Hansen’s gorgeously written account of Hopkins’s life makes clear, he fulfilled his calling. Combining a thrilling tragedy at sea with the seeming shipwreck of Hopkins’s own life, Exiles joins Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy (called “an astonishingly deft and provocative novel” by The New York Times) as a novel that dramatizes the passionate inner search of religious life and makes it accessible to us in the way that only great art can.
Ron Hansen's seven novels include Desperadoes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mariette in Ecstasy, and Atticus, a finalist for the National Book Award. He teaches at Santa Clara University in Northern California.
In Exiles, Ron Hansen tells the story of the notorious shipwreck of the steamship Deutschland that prompted Gerard Manley Hopkins to break years of "elected silence" with an outpouring of poetry.
In December 1875, the Deutschland left Bremen, bound for England and then America. On board were five young nuns who, exiled by Bismarck’s laws against Catholic religious orders, were going to begin their lives anew in Missouri. Early one morning, the ship ran aground in the Thames and more than sixty lives were lost—including those of the five nuns.
Hopkins was a Jesuit seminarian in Wales, and he was so moved by the news of the shipwreck that he wrote a grand poem about it. It was his first serious work since abandoning a literary career at Oxford to become a priest. He too would die young, an exile from the literary world. But as Hansen’s fluidly written account of Hopkins’s life makes clear, the poet fulfilled his calling.
Combining a tragedy at sea with the seeming shipwreck of Hopkins’s own life, Exiles is a novel that dramatizes the passionate inner search of religious life and makes it accessible to scholars of religious and literary history.
"The great Sicilian mystery writer Leonardo Sciascia once quipped, 'A man who dies tragically is, at any moment of his life, a man who will die tragically.' For the historical novelist, this is a potent proposal—essentially, the dramatic key to a story in which the ending is predetermined and plot twists are not an option. In Ron Hansen's novel Exiles, the dramatic inevitable belongs to the five drowned German nuns to whose memory the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins dedicated perhaps his most important work, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland,' a poem that was neither understood during his lifetime nor terribly well-liked. Returning to the religious territory of his acclaimed 1991 book, Mariette in Ecstasy, Hansen tells the story of the poet-turned-Jesuit seminarian so moved by news of the 1875 shipwreck that he breaks a seven-year abstinence from writing to compose a tribute. Hansen's novel, like the poem it's based on, takes up the dramatic scene aboard the Deutschland, a grisly, slow-motion sequence in which 157 people die from exposure, drowning or battering waves after the German steamship ran aground on a sandbar in the North Sea . . . Hansen's portraits are sincere and affectionate."—Minna Proctor, Los Angeles Times
"Exiles by Santa Clara professor Ron Hansen, is the brave fictional account of the life of English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), and of his writing 'The Wreck of the Deutschland.' The fiction does not deviate from what is known about Hopkins' life, or the shipwreck (1875), but it adds the dimension of a fine novelist's interpretative art."—Michael D. Langan, The Buffalo News
“One cold night in December 1875, the German steamship Deutschland ran aground in the Thames estuary in England, and more than 60 people died, including five young nuns who, exiled by Bismarck’s laws against Catholic religious orders, were on their way to begin a new work in Missouri. This tragedy captured the imagination of a young Jesuit named Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he began working on a long poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland,’ that would help catapult him long after his death into the upper echelons of British poets. In Exiles (his seventh novel), Ron Hansen imagines the lives of the five nuns and Hopkins and draws on themes of faith and identity. He paints these characters as exiles in their different ways as they struggled to follow their vocations. As he did in his first two novels, Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James, Hansen combines meticulous historical research with his novelist's skill at creating character and drama. Clearly he is most absorbed with Hopkins, the sensitive and eccentric seminarian who abandoned his literary career to pursue the priesthood, to whom Hansen gives the most pages. Yet his accounts of the five nuns, about which ‘very little is know,’ he writes in ‘A Note on Sources,’ are where the novel comes most alive. As readers we are drawn to these obscure German women who come out of ordinary homes yet are drawn to the religious life. And we are moved as they face their deaths on the ship when 'forty-four passengers and twenty crew . . . died between five in the morning on December 6th and sunrise on December 7th' . . . Once another seminarian looks at the poem Hopkins is working on (‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’), and he fails to understand Hopkins’ elaborate use of meter. Hopkins says: 'I shan't publish it. The journals will think it barbarous.' The other asks, ‘Why write it then?’ and Hopkins replies, ‘Why pray?’ In that short scene, Hansen captures not only Hopkins’ struggle but the struggle of many artists who feel compelled to do what they do, even if no one acknowledges it. As is usual, Hansen's writing shines . . . By the end we grieve Hopkins’ short life and sense of exile as much as we do the nuns' deaths. And this novel sends us to the poems, to those pioneering works that altered our sense of language and its possibilities.”—Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
"'Imagine it otherwise.' That line from Ron Hansen’s new novel Exiles is a good departure point to discuss it. That’s because Exiles ultimately leaves readers wistful about the unfulfilled promise of lives tragically cut short. The aforementioned line is written about 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, but it could have just as easily been said of the novel’s other protagonists: five German Franciscan nuns who perished in 1875 when the ocean vessel the Deutschland was shipwrecked. The historical and spiritual have always figured pr