Exiles from heaven

by Chris Byrd

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By Ron Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $23

“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.”

The Franciscans weren’t nearly so sophisticated. The five nuns ranged in age from 23 to 32, and they felt unprepared to leave the only country they had known, to travel across an ocean to a strange land where people didn’t speak their language. Circumstances compelled their 28-year-old superior, Sister Henrica, to grow quickly into her new role. Nonetheless, she learned to manage the all-too-human qualities of the other sisters that Mr. Hansen adroitly depicts and their lapses from discipline: giggling when they break the Great Silence, the illicit joy of perusing popular magazines or being admonished not to use the word “hate” when complaining about the weather.

As inexorable fate threatened them, morning psalms and evening vespers recollected the sisters, but their faith couldn’t rescue them or the others who drowned. 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 prosaic turned irretrievably consequential for all, as the following moment best illustrates. A sailor casually introduced himself to a female passenger. Then Mr. Hansen writes, “And just when Anna was inquiring what the Swiss man was doing in China, he lost hold of the ropes, and with scared eyes fell backward, yelling unintelligibly as he tumbled and jounced down the rigging and smacked hard into the North Sea, where he died.”

Mr. Hansen goes on to describe the sisters’ plight. One sister prayed the “Hail, Holy Queen” before she died: “O most gracious advocate, turn thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile … ” The sisters, Mr. Hansen writes, were exiles from heaven, their true home.

In more subtle yet profound and tragic ways, Hopkins also believed himself an exile from heaven. He mystified his parents when he converted from Anglicanism. Only one of his poems was published in his lifetime. Worse, his Jesuit career was less than distinguished. He flitted from assignment to assignment, and his provincial described his behavior as “undignified and freakish.”

Melancholic and sickly, Hopkins saw himself as a stranger among strangers and viewed his life as wretched. Although briefly reunited with his parents at the end, Hopkins was only 44 when he died in Dublin, Ireland, a town he detested. Only when dying could he say, “I am so happy.”

“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 lives and writes in Washington, D.C.

National Catholic Reporter August 1, 2008

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