A discussion with a friend about the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins brought to my attention Ron Hansen’s exploration of the intersection of spirituality and creativity, Exiles. Hansen’s book is a fictional memoir of both the noted Jesuit poet Hopkins who died in 1889 at the age of 55, and of five German nuns, who died along with a number of other emigrants when their ship the Deutschland was sunk off the English coast in 1875.
Hopkins had abandoned writing poetry after entering the Jesuits, but the foundering of the ship and in particular the death of the five nuns spurred him to resume writing, and the subsequent poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is one of Hopkins’s finest and most challenging pieces. The novel alternates between Hansen’s fictional account of Hopkins’s life as a Jesuit, which sticks close to the historical biography, and his telling of the lives of each of the five nuns, building in this case from a sparse historical record. In both instances, the reader comes to appreciate the sense of being outsiders that all of these characters felt. They were all truly exiles in one way or another.
Hansen writes about spiritual issues without ever becoming mawkish or saccharine. He has a gift for language as well, and the voices of the English and Irish Jesuits and the German nuns ring with equal verisimilitude. Hansen also has a deep understanding of and an obvious affection for Hopkins’s sometimes thorny poetry. The heart of the book is an examination of the challenge of choosing to go where you are called, whether this means leaving your place of birth for a new land, as with the nuns, or leaving your faith and family as Hopkins did in converting to Roman Catholicism. Readers who enjoy the nonfiction of writers such as Kathleen Norris (Cloister Walk) or Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) might also enjoy Hansen’s richly spiritual fiction.
Check the WRL catalog for Exiles