“We sometimes seem God’s playthings. The dice he rolls. But even though he can seem the source of our miseries, our faith tells us that God is good. Always.”
That’s the central tension in Ron Hansen’s Exiles, which portrays the fate of five nuns on board the shipwrecked Deutschland and the life of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who composed one of his most famous poems in their honor. Via parallel narratives, the novel explores the idea of expatriation in the lives of its central characters: five Sisters of St. Francis, Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, exiled from Germany under persecution, and Hopkins, a convert to Catholicism who became a Jesuit priest.
Hansen shows how each of the women came to find a home among the sisters, given new names and roles within the convent according to their individual abilities. “Banned from the land of their birth,” as Hopkins wrote, the sisters left Germany in order to serve in the United States. We see them enjoying the luxury of the first-class accommodations on board and the camaraderie with fellow passengers, cautious as they were to observe propriety, and then we read with mounting dread of the circumstances that led to their death.
Hansen has much more biographical material to draw upon in portraying the life of Hopkins, which means we get snippets of details that tell us what Hopkins must have been like – “Hiding in the Rector’s closet to scare him with a ‘Boo.” Other so-called practical jokes, such as disrupting a private committee meeting by fluting snuff through the keyhole…” We see some of Hopkins’ interior struggles – his desire to grow as an artist as opposed to his Jesuit vocation, pain at his family’s disapproval of his conversion.
Hopkins’ words upon his deathbed echo Sr. Barbara’s realization at the moment of her own death that we all are “exiles, then, not from Germany…but from Paradise, from Heaven.” And yet the novel does not flinch at portraying the terrifying circumstances of the passengers’ deaths aboard the Deutschland. Hansen foreshadows these deaths earlier in the novel as certain characters are introduced, and we know that the tragedy is coming, but it is still very difficult to read about the relentless campaign of the sea to claim the lives of the passengers, fewer than half of whom survived.
The book reads neither like a novel nor like a work of history, and at times it seems like Hansen is slipping into “documentary” mode, with attention to biographical detail at the expense of insight into the character of the people he describes. But it makes an impact upon the reader as a meditation upon our own mortality. It also provides an interesting comparison of the Jesuits and the Sisters of St. Francis. I finished the novel feeling that I had put myself in the place of the sisters but still did not know Hopkins as well as I would like. Still, I would definitely recommend this book and found it more rewarding the second time through.
You can purchase this book here.