Exiles A Novel

Ron Hansen




Trade Paperback

240 Pages



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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.


Praise for Exiles

"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

"Dazzling and beautiful . . . Amazing . . . [It] kept me up after midnight three nights in a row."—The Washington Post Book World

"[An] Elegant, meditative novel . . . [In] the sublime Mariette in Ecstasy, Hansen deftly conveyed the intensity of religious experience that verged on insanity. Exiles, for all its storminess, is a quieter but equally affecting depiction of a spiritually and artistically transcendental life."—The Boston Globe

"Ron Hansen sketches a delicate portrait of Hopkins as he writes the poem, then juxtaposes it with a vigorous picture of the doomed ship's last hours. He brings his usual magic to the task."—Chicago Tribune

"In Exiles, Hansen returns to the spiritual realm, casting back to 1875 and an infamous shipwreck that took the lives of five exiled nuns en route to America—and compelled Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to break the vow of creative celibacy he'd taken when he abandoned literary life for the priesthood, and to write his monumental poem, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland.' Hansen's ability to sinuously inhabit the soul of Hopkins as he suffers to find his voice, and attempts to reconcile the world's suffering with the will of God, is nothing short of a miracle."—Vanity Fair

"A shifting, sympathetic depiction of piety and piety's torments . . . a brave meditation on religious experience."—The News and Observer (Raleigh)

"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 known,' 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

"In Exiles, novelist Ron Hansen imagines the collision of piety and passion, sensuality and asceticism, hope and despair that caused a revolutionary new poetic rhythm to break through the self-imposed silences of a Jesuit seminarian named Gerard Manley Hopkins. Obsessed by the drowning death of five shipwrecked Franciscan nuns in 1875, Hopkins produced his masterpiece, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland,' one of the holiest terrors in English poetry. Succumb to the poem's spiritual undertow, and ponder the dark uncertainties of faith."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"One of our finest novelists . . . Hansen conveys a man conflicted by his callings as both a spiritual vessel and a full-blooded artist."—Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A)

"[Exiles] bears all of the familiar earmarks of Hansen's style—deftly woven prose, wisely wrought characters, and a marked spiritual and theological sensitivity. Hansen's wisdom and skill as a writer are most apparent in the portraits of the five nuns—as women, as sisters, as exiles, and as brides of Christ journeying towards final consummation . . . The novel remains well-researched, well-written, and intriguing to the interested reader . . . The novel attempts to meld biography, fiction, and the intricacies of inspiration and creation. That the reader is left puzzled or yearning for more may prove more of a compliment than a criticism. In any case, readers now taking up the novel, and more as a biographical meditation wrought in fiction, and remain confident that you will value the novel more upon reflection, and be inspired to consider more deeply the vast subject to Hopkins and his fascinating poem."—Eleanor Bourg Donlon, St. Austin Review

"'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 prominently in Mr. Hansen's fiction. His historical novels have focused on the notorious: Jesse James and Adolf Hitler. And Mr. Hansen explored spiritual themes in Mariette in Ecstasy, which examined the fine line between madness and mysticism, and Atticus, a contemporary meditation on the Prodigal Son parable. Exiles, however, marries the historical and spiritual in Mr. Hansen's fiction more explicitly than previously. Exiled by Emperor Otto von Bismarck's edict banning Catholic religious orders in Germany, the Franciscans were on their way to Missouri when they were lost in the shipwreck. Their plight inspired Hopkins to write his poem 'The Wreck of the Deutschland.' Once a promising poetry student at Oxford University, Hopkins forsook poetry when he entered the Jesuits. But his rector convinced Hopkins to write the poem, and he eventually came to view poetry as prayer. Parallel narratives track Hopkins' struggles as a poet and priest and the young women's spiritual voyages to their vocations and their uncertain journey to a new life in a new world. Mr. Hansen's spot-on description of religious life is one of Exiles' principal charms. Anyone who knows Jesuits will nod and smile and laugh at the author's descriptions of their interactions. There are clever rejoinders such as this exchange between two seminarians about Hopkins: '"Eats like a parakeet," Cyprian Splaine had said just last night, and Rickaby joked, 'Eats like a single keet."' Then there's the pithy caustic wit the British Provincial displayed: 'Your last remark was singularly commonplace' . . . In prose that's graphic yet subtle, Mr. Hansen masterfully marries the brutal and tender, casual and dramatic, absurd and tragic in ways that hold readers fast . . . 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' is included as an appendix to the novel. When you read the poem, you will better appreciate Hopkins' artistry and Mr. Hansen's design. Reading both the poem and novel heightens readers' compassion for the protagonists. Whether it's the visceral dread felt for the young Franciscan sisters or the sublime pathos Hopkins evokes, Exiles compels readers to contemplate the ways they experience exile or being shipwrecked. Some may not want to go to that place, but those willing to dive into Exiles' deep end will ruminate about it long after they put the book down."—Chris Byrd, National Catholic Reporter

"An exquisite, elegiac novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins's composition of the poem 'The Wreck of the Deutschland,' as well as the five nuns whose death in the wreck inspired it. The novel opens at St. Beuno's School of Theology in northern Wales, where Hopkins is studying in the final years of his Jesuit training. He reads of the Deutschland maritime catastrophe in the London Times and almost immediately begins the struggle, after ten years of silence, to articulate the depth of his feeling about this event. The narrative focuses on Hopkins's production of the poem and on the nuns from Germany forced into exile by Bismarck's anti-Catholic laws barring religious orders. While little is known historically about the lives of the Franciscan nuns, Hansen constructs plausible life stories in loving detail. In flashbacks we also learn of Hopkins's initial crisis of faith, his conversion to Catholicism (which Hopkins saw as a corrective to 'the triviality of this life') and his subsequent estrangement from his family. Along the way Hansen uses excerpts from Hopkins's letters and journals and also cleverly inserts into the novel images from Hopkins's poetry—the 'gear and tackle and trim' of the transatlantic steamer, for example, or a Rhine Valley landscape that is 'plotted and pieced' with farms . . . The title refers not just to the status of the nuns but also to Hopkins himself, exiled from ever feeling fully at home in this world. A glorious work about tragedy, creativity and literal and metaphorical shipwrecks."—Kirkus Reviews

"Hansen brilliantly, if soberly, weaves two interrelated storylines into a riveting novel."—Booklist

"Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote some of the most beautiful and innovative poetry in English of the late 19th century. In Hansen's vivid fiction, Hopkins is a promising Oxford graduate who writes verse throughout college, converts to Roman Catholicism in his early 20s and takes church orders. Those acts ostracize him from his family and silence his poetry. In parallel with Hopkins's story, Hansen explores the event that jolts Hopkins back into writing in 1875: the sinking of the Deutschland—whose victims include five Catholic nuns exiled from Germany by Bismarck—at the mouth of the Thames. Delivering a deft blend of literary biography and disaster tale, Hansen wrings a white-knuckled drama out of the lives of the poet/priest and five extraordinary German women, who were headed to St. Louis, Missouri, to lead the American branch of their order. As for Hopkins, his poetry is poorly received for its unconventionality, and his Jesuit superiors punish him for his 'oddities' (Hansen steers clear of Hopkins's sexuality). Hansen finds in the difficult paths of six remarkable people the pursuit of 'a tranquil, soothing God of intimacy and tolerance and unquenchable love.' Fans of Hopkins's verse will cherish the chance to revisit the astonishing 280-line 'The Wreck of the Deutschland,' reprinted as a coda."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Ron Hansen

  • Ron Hansen's 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.

  • Ron Hansen Charles Barry