Below, Ellyn von Huben introduces this month’s Word on Fire Book Club selection, Ron Hansen’s Exiles. Pick up a copy of the book, read Ellyn’s introduction, and join in the discussion.
We’re All Exiles Here
It may be my own melancholy streak that has led me to a special fondness for Gerard Manley Hopkins. I must admit that I find some of his poetry to be too “deep,” too artful for my rigid, literal mind to decifer. The exquisite ‘sprung rhythm’ of his verse makes it a joy to read aloud but often too much work for me to absorb. The much loved “Pied Beauty”— with its delicious: “For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow; / For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;” It’s best read aloud but comprehended as a wave to wash over one’s mind.
It was on a typically melancholy Saturday a couple of years ago when I sat down with Exiles by Ron Hansen. More readers may be familiar with Hansen, a scholar and permanent deacon of the Catholic Church, for his stories about the American West or his mystical masterpiece Mariette in Ecstasy. Unlike the expansive Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Paul Mariani’s enlightening biography which almost drowns a reader in a sea of too much information, the historical fiction of Exiles illuminates the life of Hopkins while weaving it together with a fictionalized account of the back story of his masterpiece, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844 to prosperous High Church Anglican parents. A gifted and inquisitive student, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1866, having been greatly influenced by Blessed John Henry Newman. This was not an easy conversion, causing a rift between him and his family and friends. In 1868, Hopkins joined the Society of Jesus. In an adamant quest to detach himself from any ambition, he burned his written works and vowed only to write when under direction of his superiors.
Hopkins’ life in the Jesuits was not what could be called particularly successful. Besides having set himself apart from his family by his conversion, he was beset by what armchair analysts would now consider to be clinical depression—not only depression, but a spiritual life burdened by the suffering of the perception that he was cut off from God. As he progressed from the exhausting work of a parish priest to that of a professor of classical languages, his doubt persisted.
Though Hopkins began writing again after a seven year hiatus, only a few small pieces of his work were published during his lifetime. It was the tragic drowning of 157 people in the Thames estuary of the North Sea (I found it helpful to read Exiles with an atlas close by; not necessary, but good for those of us whose basic grasp of geography may be slipping away due to lack of use) that jogged him back into writing. Of special interest to him was the loss of 5 German nuns, persecuted and exiled from their homeland and headed to be teachers at the edge of the American west.
It is Ron Hansen’s beautiful knitting of the story of Hopkins and those nuns that shines a light on the poet’s life and his spiritual and literary legacy. It is often quoted that Hopkins last words at the time of his death—in 1889, at a youthful 44—were “I am so happy.” To the casual observer there is a paradox; the facts of his life total up to little that looks happy. There is a quote near the end of Exiles in which Hopkins’ longtime friend writes “That dear Gerard was overworked, unhappy & would never have done anything great seems to give no solace….He seems to have been entirely lost & destroyed by those Jesuits.” That is a most superficial and cold reading of the ‘facts’ of Hopkins life.
What Hansen does in his novel is give color and texture and draws for us a picture of why, despite the grim facts, Hopkins could die with the word “happy” on his lips. Through a fictionalized account of the five exiles and their fate he illustrates the journey of another exile. And for all of us exiles, cast out from the garden which was our home, we can find direction here.