Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
Exiles by Ron Hansen, published by Picador
In his book Exiles, author Ron Hansen tells the story of the shipwreck that inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins to write his most important long poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
In December 1875, five nuns from the religious congregation called the Sisters of Saint Francis, Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary left their convent in Salzkotten, Germany to come to America. Exiled by a government ban on religious orders, called the Falk Laws, they boarded the steamship Deutschland in Bremen, and planned to start fresh in Missouri. But their ship encountered a winter storm at the mouth of the Thames River and sank; all five women lost their lives.
Hansen’s book is a work of fiction, based on real characters and real events. However, he notes that the characters represented in the book are his own interpretation of real people. He weaves the stories of each of the nuns, and how they came to be passengers on the Deutschland, with the introspective life of Hopkins, who was deeply moved by what he considered the martyrdom of the five Franciscans.
Little is known about the lives of the five Franciscans nuns who perished in the shipwreck. To write the book, Hansen researched the memoirs of other European religious in the nineteenth century and built the fictional lives of the nuns in Exiles around his research.
Hopkins, a poet and Jesuit priest in mid-Victorian England, was born in 1844 and raised in the Anglican Church. As a young man he wanted to be a poet-painter and won a scholarship to Balliol College in Oxford, England.
He spent his college years discerning and seeking, coming under the influence of John Henry Newman, whom he considered a kindred spirit. (Newman had converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845.) Hopkins entered the Catholic Church in 1866. He graduated from Balliol with a degree in the classics in 1867.
After graduation, Hopkins entered the Society of Jesus and became a Jesuit priest. At that time, he believed that writing poetry was too self-indulgent for a Jesuit priest and he not only stopped writing poetry, but also burned his earlier poems.
The tragedy stirred him to take up poetry again in an attempt to tell of the loss but also to explain God’s higher purpose in the midst of misfortune. Exiles gives the reader some sense of Hopkins’ personal struggles, including depression and the alienation of his family. His innovative poetry was virtually unknown in his lifetime.
Much more is known about Hopkins and Hansen states that “care has been taken not to contradict biographical details or historical testimony.”
The book ends with the entire poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, which was finally published for the first time in 1918, long after Hopkins’ death in 1889.
Ron Hansen was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and graduated from Creighton University, a Jesuit institution. He furthered his higher education at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, Stanford University, and Santa Clara University. In 2007, he was ordained a permanent deacon in the Diocese of San Jose. He is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in California.