Ron Hansen

"Exiles"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 19, 2008)

"Just before entering the Society of Jesus in 1868, [Gerard Manley] Hopkins resolved to pen no more verse unless his religious superiors requested it….And that act of renunciation was confirmed for him when, as a novice Jesuit, he was urged to relinquish 'disordered attachments' that would impede his freedom and availability for a variety of ministries as well as tempt him to the sin of pride.  Since then he'd written only…joshing doggerel to entertain at picnics."

Exiles by Ron Hansen

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet almost unknown in his own lifetime, is the most experimental and most challenging of the Victorian writers.  Abandoning "the cloying poetry, sentimentality, and forced rhymes" of his contemporaries, in favor of the "sprung rhythms" of Anglo-Saxon poetry, Hopkins hoped to "recreate the native and natural stresses of speech."   He compressed images, used nouns as verbs and verb forms as adjectives, and carried his thoughts from one line to the next, avoiding end-line pauses. Ultimately, he created a new kind of poetry, unique for the age.   A convert to Catholicism, Hopkins joined the Society of Jesus in 1868, and he soon determined that he must give up writing poetry to avoid earthly distractions from his priestly duties. 

A signal event in December, 1875—the wreck of the Deutschland, a passenger vessel going from Germany to New York—and the death of five young nuns, exiled from Germany under the Falk Laws—moved him to write poetry again, a 35-stanza memorial which is among the most "modern" poems of the era.  Imagining their deaths by drowning in frigid waters off the coast of England, Hopkins recreates the religious torments of the nuns and the other passengers, including children, as their limbs freeze and they face their deaths in the roiling sea.  "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (included here as an Appendix), regarded as Hopkins's most important long poem, was never published in his lifetime, even in the Catholic journal to which he submitted it, and was almost lost to posterity.

Ron Hansen, an immensely versatile author examines the nature of faith, the need for love and acceptance, and the isolation of the exile as he develops two story lines and numerous characters.  Gerard Manley Hopkins, his family, Jesuit colleagues, and college friends are depicted from his earliest decision to leave the Church of England in favor of the Roman Catholic Church (into which he was welcomed by Cardinal John Henry Newman) until his death, roughly twenty years later, in 1889.  Hopkins's own feelings of exile, not just from his family but (during his depressions) from God and Paradise, make him an understanding chronicler of the fate of the young nuns, exiled from their families, country, and the world as they know it. 

The stories of the five nuns, which alternate with the sections on Hopkins, depict their childhoods and acceptance of their religious vocations, then expand to include their experience on the Deutschland.   The five have different personalities and different backgrounds, but on the Deutschland, they face the same challenges to their religious faith and the same fates.  One nun, seeking reassurance during the catastrophe, asks, "Christ was an exile, too, wasn't He?" 

Using some of the same techniques that make Hopkins's poetry so fascinating, Hansen's careful recreations, based on impeccable scholarship, take on life and power, and even the horrifying images of the foundering Deutschland reflect a kind of ghostly magnificence.  Imagery is compressed, as it is in Hopkins's poetry:  "Emigrants…were cattling up the gangway" of the Deutschland," while in Hopkins's life, "The May-mess of fruit tree petals" decorated the lawn.  Throughout the novel, the bitter cold and gale facing the Deutschland contrast starkly with the summer weather that Hopkins experiences as he writes and studies for his exams, but the crises of faith faced by the nuns and by Hopkins unite the novel and provide a universality of experience.

Lovers of poetry and of Hopkins will thrill to this character study of a priest who is also a poet.  Hansen takes care not to fictionalize Hopkins in ways that are inconsistent with the available scholarship, and he develops remarkable tension between Hopkins's creative urge and his sense of religious duty.  The nuns, too, become individuals, and their fates and those of their fellow passengers haunt the reader. 

Because the novel is based on real people and real events, there is little room for the imaginative Hansen to soar into his own creative realm without carrying along the baggage of history.  Many real characters and real events tie the novel to historical reality and limit the author's freedom to develop his own reality or to fantasize.  The author is dependent here on the innate fascination of the historical record—the wreck of the Deutschland, the biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the religious crises faced by the various characters--to sustain the novel's tension, and that fascination will differ according to the interests and backgrounds of the novel's various readers.

The religious intensity of the main characters is never in doubt, despite their own questions, and devoutly religious readers will probably identify more directly with these issues than will more agnostic readers.  Hansen is a remarkable writer who creates intensely dramatic scenes, however, and this novel, filled with vibrant detail and raw emotion, will satisfy many lovers of literary fiction and carefully developed historical characters and settings.

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

For Young Adults:

  • The Shadowmaker (1987)

Nonfiction:

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About the Author:

Ron HansenRon Hansen was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1947. He earned a B.A. degree in English from Creighton University and then spent two years as a lieutenant in the army during the Vietnam War. After leaving the army, Hansen earned his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where he was taught by John Irving and John Cheever. He earned an additional M.A. from Stanford University and earned a M.A. in Spirituality from Santa Clara University and and began a Master of Divinity degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hansen wrote two unpublished novels, and reasoned that working within a genre might help him get published. The genre Hansen chose was westerns, and in 1979 he published his first novel, Desperados. Critics praised Hansen's ability to work under the restrictions of genre while primarily writing quality fiction.

His novel Atticus was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1996.

Among his many honors are a Guggenheim Foundation grant, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a three-year fellowship from the Lyndhurst Foundation.

Hansen has taught fiction and screenwriting at such institutions as Stanford, Michigan, Cornell, Iowa, Arizona and is currently the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University where he teaches courses in writing and literature. He is also a Deacon at the Dicoses of San Jose.

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