Thursday, July 24, 2008

Exiles: Historical Fiction With More Than Story - Martin

Yesterday, I finished reading an intriguing new novel by Ron Hansen, entitled Exiles. Having read other Hansen novels — including the exceptional little book Mariette in Ecstasy — I was looking forward to this book. This was especially so, because American poet (and recent Gerard Manley Hopkins biographer) Paul Mariani had excitedly told me Exiles would soon be published, when I met him back in April.

Exiles is two stories: Hansen’s well-researched telling of the story of the five German nuns who drowned off the English coast aboard the ship Deutschland in 1875, and the surrounding story of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the writing of his famous poem “The Wreck Of The Deutschland”.

Hansen is a major literary novelist who is unafraid of being labelled a genre writer. His first two novels Desperadoes, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (the latter recently turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt) are westerns, and many of his other novels, such as the gripping Hitler’s Niece, are historical fiction.

Both stories within Exiles are thought-provoking in terms of God’s call on our lives. The nuns had been exiled because of German persecution of Catholics, and had been anticipating years of service in the United States — which never happened. Hopkins had been sent by church authorities to Ireland, into conditions where his talents were unable to flourish and where his health deteriorated — leading to his premature death.

As we wonder about five young women tragically lost even though they’ve dedicated their lives to God’s service, Hansen has one of the doomed nuns speak of how strangely some prayers are answered while others are not; another simply responds, “prayer is not like money”.

Similarly we wonder along with Hansen about what Hopkins could have accomplished if he had lived and his talent been nurtured. Hopkins only had two original poems published in his lifetime, and was far overshadowed by his friend Robert Bridges who later became Britain’s poet laureate. Ironically (and the Kingdom is often ironic) Hopkins today is the one considered the great poet, while Bridges’ work is all but forgotten.

“Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions...” Hopkins wrote, and, “that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as he should see fit.” We have seen the outcome to these prayers.

Exiles is an engaging novel in its own right, yet should also inspire readers to carefully consider the spiritual, insightful and often difficult poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Exiles is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2008)

D.S. Martin is Music Critic for Christian Week; his poetry chapbook So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed is available at
His full-length poetry book, Poiema (Wipf & Stock), will be available in September.

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