Exiles

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Article Reviews

By Ron Hansen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

The pivotal moment in Ron Hansen's Exiles comes almost exactly midway through the 225-page book.

A fellow Jesuit seminarian scans a poem that Gerard Manley Hopkins is writing about the 1875 shipwreck of the German passenger ship the Deutschland and expresses befuddlement at its odd rhymes and rhythms. Yes, Hopkins says, those are so odd that poetry magazines will never publish the work.

"Why write it, then?" the other seminarian asks.

To which Hopkins responds: "Why pray?"

Exiles is Hansen's seventh novel and his third with a specifically religious theme. It features three intertwining stories.

One focuses on five nuns-exiled from Germany and heading to new ministries in the United States-who lose their lives when their ship runs aground in a storm. Another centers on the efforts of Hopkins to write a poem about their deaths, a poem that, like all of his great works, wasn't published until after his death.

The third and most important thread is Hansen's tale of Hopkins' life as a Jesuit priest little valued by his religious superiors and as a brilliant poet laboring in absolute obscurity, with no readers except himself, a couple friends, and his God.

In the world's eyes it was a wasted life. Hopkins never found encouragement or won recognition for his poetry. When acclaim came, the poet had been dead for nearly 30 years.

Yet, in Hansen's hands, these life stories aren't tragedies. He's drawn vibrant characters leading rich existences. It's their faith that gives their days focus and tang, even in the face of exile, obscurity, and death. Faith, in Hansen's telling, allows Hopkins to write poetry that as far as he knows no one else will ever see. He stretches and strains to create because God has given him a genius. By following that genius, he is answering God's call.

For him, the writing of poetry, the creating of art, is praying. So is the living of life.