Ron Hansen, Exiles (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), 227pp.
"This is a work of fiction based on fact," writes novelist Ron Hansen. On December 6, 1875 the passenger ship Deutschland ran aground on a sandbar in the mouth of the Thames River. Before its rescue the following day, 157 people died of exposure to the frigid waters and blizzard conditions. Among those who perished were five Franciscan nuns from Germany who were traveling to Missouri via New York City. The young Jesuit seminarian Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) was so moved by the tragedy that he memorialized the event in a 35-stanza poem called The Wreck of the Deutschland. In alternating chapters Hansen tells the stories of the nuns who died and the poet who commemorated them.
Very little is known about the five nuns, except that they were expelled from Germany because of Bismarck's anti-Catholic measures. They were exiles in the literal sense of the word, but also in the figurative sense of having left their homes and families for the cause of Christ. Like many exiles, they met a tragic end. Much more is known about Hopkins, the oldest of nine children who, under the influence of the famous Cardinal John Henry Newman, converted to Catholicism in 1866. And as if this was not enough to embitter his parents, he chose the Jesuits. Eleven years later his mother and father refused to attend his ordination to the priesthood.
Hopkins was not only "exiled" by his parents but also by the larger Anglican world at Oxford. An eccentric and over scrupulous man plagued by "black moods," Hopkins was also alienated from his own self. He abandoned poetry to pursue the priesthood, and even burned much of his early verse. The secular pursuit of poetry was no match for the spiritual vocation of a priesthood. Or was it? Hopkins remained deeply conflicted about this throughout his life. Close to his death, he made his confession, which included his regret for "shutting off the grace of inspiration by not paying enough attention to his poetic gift" (202). Hopkins was further exiled when he was sent by the Jesuits to Ireland, and also because of his highly experimental and complicated poetic style called "sprung rhythm," which was little understood or appreciated by his close friends and colleagues.
The famous shipwreck seemed to provoke Hopkins to a time of poetic creativity after a period of silence. Otherwise, these are two stories that proceed along parallel tracks that don't intersect, except for the broader themes of exile and fate. Hopkins was left to brood over the tragic fate of the five nuns, and over his own life which, as put it, was kicked around like "Fortune's football." Ultimately, Hopkins, the nuns, and all of us are exiles, "not from Germany, not from Europe, but from Paradise, from Heaven" (192).