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Exiles

by Ron Hansen
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publishing date: 23/06/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780312428341
  • ISBN: 0312428340

Synopsis

In December 1875 the steamship Deutschland left Bremen, Germany, bound for America. On board were five nuns, exiled by a ban on religious orders, bound to begin their lives anew in Missouri. Their journey would end when the Deutschland ran aground at the mouth of the Thames and all five drowned. Ron Hansen tells their harrowing story, but also that of the poet and seminarian Gerard Manly Hopkins, and how the shipwreck moved him to write a grand poem, a revelatory work read throughout the world today. Combining a thrilling tragedy at sea, with the seeming shipwreck of Hopkins's own life, "Hansen brilliantly, if soberly, weaves two interrelated story lines into a riveting novel" (Booklist).

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.

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.

"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

"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 know,’ 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 no


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  • The Storms of this World
    From Amazon

    EXILES by Ron Hansen is a novel which examines the mystical ties between the challenges experienced by poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins and the deaths of five German nuns in sea disaster. Hopkins' poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" is woven into the narrative. The first chapters of the book I found riveting for the realistic descriptions of Hopkins' life with the Jesuit scholastics; it was so beautifully written that every line needed to be savored. However, as the book progressed, other than the harrowing scenes of the sinking ship, it became more like a biography of Hopkins and less like historical fiction. Perhaps the author was trying to convey the sense of dryness and desolation of Hopkins' soul, I do not know. The nuns are introduced in what resembled colorful Wikipedia entries so that the five women sort of ran together for me. The sisters are endearing, nevertheless; they are taken away from us just as we are really getting acquainted with them. They reminded me of nuns whom I have known in my own life. However, my dear nun friends would not quite approve of a sister looking at herself naked in the mirror, as Sister Henrica does in one rather odd scene. Not that the body is bad or shameful, but nuns are not supposed to be preoccupied with themselves, and looking at oneself naked in the mirror conjures up all kinds of thoughts, "I'm too fat, I'm too thin, I'm ugly, I'm beautiful" and most of the old-fashioned nuns were striving to be beyond all that. Perhaps European nuns in the nineteenth century had a different view of things, but I doubt it. It is also out of place in Catholic art or literature for a nun to be shown nude, simply out of respect for the vocation of the bride of Christ. Our Lady, female saints, and nuns are generally not depicted in their nakedness, with a some exceptions, such as Eve, of course. The description in Exiles was in no way lewd or erotic; maybe the author wanted to demonstrate the sister unknowingly preparing for her baptism of pain and death. It was just one short paragraph, but a strange one. The novel delves into the heart of self-offering to God and the utter immolation that is the result. The sisters die a violent death; Hopkins' death is slower but, like the nuns' final end, is caused indirectly by his consecration of himself in the religious life. One wonders if in the mysterious spiritual order of things, the sacrifice of the nuns obtained for Fr. Hopkins the grace to persevere in his vocation, to endure the contradictions of community life, the rejection by his parents, and the misunderstandings of his peers. Hopkins the poet was moved by the news of the passing of five women whom he had never met, moved enough to write a poem about them. Surely from Heaven they prayed for their spiritual brother, so that like them he died giving after giving his all. Hopkins was solitary but not alone, his sisters mystically stood at his side, even as Our Lady and the holy women stood at the foot of the cross of Christ. In spite of its unevenness and quirks, Exiles conveys the reality of the Communion of Saints, a reality which lies hidden behind the storms and sorrows of this world.

  • Hopkins Said it Better
    From Amazon

    I so wanted to enjoy this book. I have often been inspired by books about the religious life such as most recently GILEAD and HOME by Marilynne Robinson. The story of five young German nuns, exiled from their country only to be drowned in a shipwreck off the English coast in 1875, could not fail to be moving. And "The Wreck of the Deutschland," Gerard Manley Hopkins' great elegy on the disaster is not only one of the greatest religious poems ever written, but also the first in which his astounding poetic invention emerged full-blown, in incandescent lines such as these: "I did say yes | O at the lightning and lashed rod; | Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess | Thy terror, O Christ, O God." But what can the novelist add to the words of a writer who made language his sword? He can tell the story in more understandable terms, and in this Hansen certainly succeeds. He can place the poem in the context of Hopkins' life as a scholastic studying to become a Jesuit priest, but there are numerous biographies of Hopkins already. He can invent personalities and back-stories for the nuns, of whom little but their names are known, and here he is more truly the novelist. But the sequence of back-to-back character sketches near the beginning of the book is too expository, too compressed. The nuns appear as admirable young women, likeably human, but there is no time for them to emerge as memorable individuals before tragedy engulfs them. Still less can Hansen convey the all-compelling, irresistible power of a religious vocation -- at least not to compare with Hopkins' own confession: "The frown of his face | Before me, the hurtle of hell | Behind, where, where was a, where was a place? | I whirled out wings that spell | And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host." My complaint is not so much that Hansen spends so much time in exposition, but that he is so obvious about it. He cannot have Hopkins open a copy of The Times without listing all the advertisements to be found on its first page. He has Hopkins talk for an entire paragraph about his former tutor at Oxford, Benjamin Jowett, solely to introduce a humorous bit of doggerel that would surely have been known to all his listeners. No sooner have the nuns gone on board than he has one of them is explain the origin of the English word "posh" (Port Out, Starboard Home), even though it makes no sense whatever in German! He does occasionally manage to convey something of Hopkins' feeling for landscape in passages like the following: "The air smelled cleansed; the leaden sky was topped with clouds; a blue bloom seemed to have spread upon the distant south, enclosed by a basin of hills. And again he felt the charm and instress of Wales." Beautiful -- but the use of the Hopkins-coined word "instress" without any explanation immediately makes the rest seem self-conscious and artificial. Hopkins did not personally know the nuns; when they died, he was "Away in the loveable west | On a pastoral forehead in Wales." So it is important for the author to link them spiritually if not in fact. Other reviewers have suggested that Hopkins also saw himself as something of a spiritual exile. This is something that Hansen will develop later, but he does not go into the reasons for the nun's exile at the time, and he shows Hopkins flying high, the holder of a first-class Oxford degree, poised for success in the Jesuit order. A more likely reason for Hopkins' interest would be the question that, if the five women (and he himself) had given up everything for God, why does God appear to let them down? The point of belief that Hopkins proclaims with such struggle in this and many of his later poems, is the absolute mastery of God -- ESPECIALLY when He wields "the lightning and lashed rod." Two-thirds of the way through the book, however, Hansen draws the two stories together, paradoxically by telling them in two different time-frames. He parallels the two-day ordeal of the nuns on the doomed ship with the twelve-year decline in Hopkins' fortunes until he died of enteric fever in Dublin in 1889. Now he is clearly an exile, barred from higher office as a priest, completely unknown as a poet, reduced to teaching Latin to fractious schoolboys in a distant land. The last fifty pages of Hansen's book are quite moving and attempt something that only a novelist can do. But they do not approach the power of Hopkins' own writing from these years: "O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall | Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap | May who ne'er hung there...." Once again, Hopkins said it better.

  • (3.5) "Little birds must fly."
    From Amazon

    Exiles is a story of tragedy, five nuns on their way to America, excited about the possibilities of their unknown futures when they step onto the ill-fated Deutschland in 1875. In 1870, Chancellor Otto Bismarck began a dedicated a purge of Roman Catholic influence from the Second Reich, a unified Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Wurttemberg and twenty other states. Sent from the security of their convent in Salzhotten, the five sisters, Barbara Hultenschmidt, thirty-two, Norberta Reinkober, thirty, Henrica Fassbender, twenty-eight, Brigetta Dammhorst, twenty-seven, and Aurea Badziura, twenty-three, practice the awkward sounds of a new language they must master to be effective in their new positions, thrilled to be traveling second class to avoid the certain improprieties of steerage. The Deutschland is impressive, with a number of iron lifeboats, cork life vests and ample supplies for a successful voyage; none have anticipated the terrible storm that will send many of the travelers to their deaths. Soon after the Deutschland's disaster, off course and helpless before the storm, other vessels unable to come to the ship's aid until the weather abates, a young Jesuit in Wales (Gerald Manley Hopkins) is captivated by the newspaper accounts he reads, beginning a long, unpublished poem that will commemorate the sisters' treacherous journey. The story is revealed through the lives of the Jesuit, Gerard Hopkins (who will himself die prematurely) and the five nuns. Hewing closely to fact, Hansen tends to rely on historical detail to the detriment of emotional impact; yet the story is so profoundly sad and dramatic by its very nature, that the weight of the tragedy is inescapable. Segueing from Hopkins' struggles with his writing and spiritual obedience to the early lives and vocations of the nuns, there is a strong sense of the commitment of the religious life and the willingness of these five women to trust in their faith for guidance. Each sister is unique, drawn to their vocations with complete certitude, the five women reveling in an adventure that becomes a nightmare. As the snow swirls around the storm-tossed ship, sending it thirty miles off course and certain of disaster, passengers and crew cling to hopes of survival, throwing themselves into efforts to maintain the ship against the monstrous waves that sweep helpless people over the side to their watery graves. Some climb the rigging, only to die from exposure; forty-four passengers and twenty crew members are lost from December 6-7, 1875. Sister Henrica is the first of the nuns to go, washed out to sea, the others clinging one to another as the cold saps them of life. The tale is harrowing, the agonized screams of mothers separated from children, the relentless, churning maw of the sea swallowing its victims, who cling to any surface with hopes of deliverance. The sisters quietly accept God's judgment, hands entwined, as one by one they slip away, the short chapters of their lives closed, Hopkins soon to follow in their wake. Luan Gaines/ 2008.

  • A non-fiction novel
    From Amazon

    The German steamship Deutschland sank off the coast of England on December 8, 1875. Five German nuns, bound for America to escape the anti-Catholic legislation of their homeland, lost their lives. Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English convert to Roman Catholicism, was a Jesuit seminarian in Wales at the time, who read about the shipwreck in the newspapers. Over the next several days, he wrote a long, elegaic poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland," which like a great deal of his highly original and imaginative poetry, was not published in his lifetime. After a career as a priest and teacher marred by poor health, he died in 1889 at age 45, his youthful promise apparently unfulfilled. From these improbable facts, Ron Hansen has skilfully constructed what he calls "a work of fiction based on fact"; the more appropriate literary term is probably "non-fiction novel." Like a film director cross-cutting among related stories, Hansen gives us alternating scenes that portray the back stories of the five German nuns; daily life at the Jesuit seminary in 1875; Hopkins' later career and agonizing death; and, in vivid detail, the final hours of Deutschland as its passengers and crew come to terms with imminent death. Although beautifully written, this work never really comes to life. Hansen's previous novels, especially Mariette in Ecstasy, demonstrate an ability to create believable characters and imagine their interior lives, but he seems reluctant in this case to go beyond the incontrovertible biographical facts. He creates dialogue for the nuns and their fellow passengers, but puts in Hopkins' mouth only the words of his own letters. This is unfortunate, because Hopkins the man, like the unusual metrical structure and mystical sensibility of his verse, is probably more accessible to the modern reader than to his Victorian contemporaries. What is really missing here is drama; if only Hansen had been a little more daring!

  • A Peek Under The Habit
    From Amazon

    Ron Hansen's blend of biography and novel makes for an interesting read that opens up a little-known (at least to me) tragedy peopled with fascinating characters. The people, of course, make the book worth reading, especially the five German Franciscan nuns who were exiled to America but died in a horrible shipwreck before they could get there. Their individual personalities shine from beneath their austere habits in ways that could indeed inspire poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to pen a 35-stanza ode to their death based on newspaper accounts of the disaster. Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds: A Novel of Scandal, Love and Death in the Congo

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