Exiles: A Novel

Exiles: A Novel

by Ron Hansen

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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 on Exiles).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312428341
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 06/23/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 251,469
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

RON HANSEN's several novels include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Atticus, a finalist for the National Book Award.

Read an Excerpt


By Ron Hansen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 Ron Hansen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4143-3



Wednesday, December 8th, 1875. A soft confetti of snow-flakes was fluttering down upon Wales. The higher windowpanes were gardens of frost. His right hand still twined a rosary, its anesthetic routine of prayers his nightly defense against sleeplessness. Lying in bed in his nightshirt and black woolen stockings, Hopkins recited his Morning Offering, then stood to use the chamber pot. The scuttle contained only a scarcity of coals and he would want those for his studies, so he gashed the fireplace embers with an iron poker and held his hands over their golden, waning heat. He lit and chimneyed one gas retort on the wall.

Washing with Castile soap and icy water, he worried over his scrawniness, his spindle shins, the green yarns of vein in his forearms, his face so thin that his zygomatic bones and jaw shaped harps underneath his ginger-brown, one-inch beard and mustache. His high school nickname was Skin, and even now at age thirty-one he weighed hardly a hundred pounds, with a jockey's height of five foot four. "Eats like a parakeet," Cyprian Splaine had said just last night, and Rickaby joked, "Eats like a single keet."

Yesterday's long underwear would do, Hopkins thought, and then a jersey that the Jesuit Theologate's laundress had shrunk. Over them he buttoned a cuff-frayed and graying black cassock with its faint stink of him, waisted it with a hand-wide black cincture, snapped on a starched white Roman collar, and laced on his ankle-high black walking shoes. And then he dipped a horsehair toothbrush in a yellow box of bicarbonate of soda and assaulted his grimace in the spotted mirror hanging over the washstand, amusing himself by rhyming: Gerardus M. Hopkins, S.J. / Auditor Theologiae./Here at Saint Beuno's./Far too long, my nose.

Because December 8th was the Catholic solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, classes were canceled and the forty-one seminarians and ten professors at Saint Beuno's School of Theology could while away the wide hours of morning and afternoon in holy obedience to hobbies and exercise in the glens and pastures of northern Wales.

Eight played football on a slanted pitch, in jerseys and cardigans, their hands shoved deep into their woolen trouser pockets due to the rawness of wind and cold. Bill Dubberley and three others went down to the green River Elwy with rods and reels "to do," as they announced at breakfast, "evil things to the fish." A professor of ecclesiology strolled outside in his derby, overcoat, cassock, and calabash pipe, reading his breviary. Edward Reeve stayed inside and tried to teach parlor tricks to his snappish pet ferret with white crumbles of Yorkshire cheese. Three Brothers worked noisily in the kitchen, preparing the one p.m. dinner, as Frank Scoles, a newly ordained priest, baked an angel food cake. Clement Barraud scowled with the world's own confusion as he read a gift copy of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Gustave Flaubert, that the Rector had given him permission to keep. A pianist of exemplary patience was in the sacristy practicing Johann Sebastian Bach's minuets on the grunting harmonium there. And Hopkins invited with him on a ramble to the city of Saint Asaph, three miles north, Joseph Rickaby, a very smart runt with an M.A. in philosophy who was the son of the butler to Lord Herries, and Albert Wagner, the "t" not sounded, a shy, smiling man from the Province of Lyons in France whose seniority in the Society of Jesus would cause him to be the first in their second-year class to be ordained a priest.

Strolling to Saint Asaph, Rickaby mentioned a variety of writing projects that he wanted to tackle once examinations were concluded and was particularly keen on getting started on an index to the works of John Henry Newman. Wagner was a sterling linguist who said his post-examination project was to learn Coptic as a prelude to the study of Egyptian. Whereas Hopkins claimed he had no grand ambitions for the holidays; that the pursuit of holiness was enough.

Rickaby said, "But I'm scandalized you would lie so flagrantly on one of Our Lady's feasts! You're a hobbyist if I've ever seen one. Always learning Welsh, hunting etymologies, sketching cloud formations ..."

"... enduring contradictions."

"But hobbies are excellent things!" Rickaby said. "A project is like a sponge that sucks up all your attention and keeps you from brooding over whatever displeases you. Some overriding interest is the great preservative against quarreling and mutinous thoughts."

Hopkins smiled. "I'm having a mutinous thought just now."

Rickaby turned to Wagner. "Restless as a weevil, our gentle Hop is. Don't think he won't fill his hours with something."

The theologians carried sandwiches but no coins, and the city of Saint Asaph was without great fascination, so they simply visited the once-Catholic cathedral to see the restoration of the intricately wood-carved choir stalls that Oliver Cromwell tried to destroy by using them as cattle pens. And then the three walked back to Saint Beuno's in the sifting snow, edifying each other by praying the five glorious mysteries of the Rosary on the way, and then goading the scholastics fishing the Elwy until Bill Dubberley caught a trout and fell waist deep in the river while hauling it in.

Hopkins shouted, "Has it dampened your enthusiasm, Bill?"

A jubilant Dubberley hoisted his trout.

To his father, Hopkins would write that on the Elwy "there is good fishing for those who do not see that after bad fishing the next worst thing is good fishing."

At six the whole school went to the main chapel in their cassocks and birettas for the singing of Vespers and for the Benediction and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Rector James Jones, the celebrant, incensing the congregation and the Host, leading them in the Eucharistic hymn "Tantum Ergo," and blessing them with the ceremonial monstrance, in which the Host seemed the core of golden rays of sunlight.

And then, to honor the solemnity at the evening supper, a quart decanter of claret was on each refectory table in addition to the usual pitcher of ale. Conversation in English was allowed, so there was a good deal of laughter, and the priests and scholastics lingered until Brother Fogherty shouted, "Are you all still dithering here?" and shooed them out so he could stack the Windsor chairs and wet-mop the oak floor.

Exiting the room, Reverend Josef Floeck of Germany, a professor of dogmatic theology who had recently been ostracized with other Jesuits by Otto von Bismarck, asked Hopkins, "Haff you read about za Deutschland und za fife German nuns?"

Hopkins went to a scholastics' recreation room that was as large and high-ceilinged as some village churches, but furnished like a run-down gentlemen's club, with a variety of Irish Georgian wingback chairs surrounding a great fireplace, two walnut secretaries for writing, each with something wrong with it, hand-me-down upholstered sofas and library chairs, a green felt billiards table, and card tables for whist or the game that Americans called checkers, the English called draughts, and Albert Wagner called le jeu plaisant de dames.

Wednesday morning's London Times was still cool from its afternoon journey from Rhyl as Hopkins carried it to a sofa underneath a sconced gas retort. The front page, as always, was filled with three-and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall's-End coal, Bailey's elastic stockings, ladies' abdominal belts, Pulvermacher's Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and "Want Places" appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each willing to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities. Other pages reported the meteorological data for the month of November, and news from Berlin about Britain's shrewd purchase of shares in the Suez Canal. Writing from Rome was an "occasional correspondent" who noted Italy's sarcastic response to the contempt for Catholicism of Britain's former Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who'd written that the Jesuits in particular were "the deadliest foes that mental and moral liberty have ever known." Old news for Hopkins, and he lost interest in the article after the first paragraph. But on page 5, next to a dull column on President Ulysses S. Grant's address to the Congress of the United States, was a headline, LOSS OF THE DEUTSCHLAND.

"Wrecks and Casualties" was a regular department in each issue of The Times — sixteen accidents were recorded on December 8th — and among the Victorians there was a general fascination with tales of great tragedies at sea. But more than that, Hopkins's father was the author of A Handbook of Average and A Manual of Marine Insurance, both standard reference books for negotiating, averaging, and adjusting the liabilities to insurance underwriters of cargo losses and shipwrecks, so Hopkins grew up in a world wet with marine accidents and was especially attentive to them.

In this instance, telegrams from Sheerness, Harwich, and the Lords of the Admiralty were pieced together with a Press Association report, each duplicating or elaborating on the news that the North German Lloyd steamer Deutschland, heading to New York from the port of Bremen in a heavy gale, ran aground on a sandbank near the mouth of the Thames River at five in the morning on December 6th. "She afterwards knocked over the sand, and is now lying in 4/2 fathoms, apparently broken amidships. Estimated number of passengers and crew lost, 50; remainder landed and under the care of the German Consul at Harwich." Steerage passengers who were missing were not listed, but among those lost from the first-or second-class cabins were five exiled nuns, whose misspelled names were given as "Barbara Hilkenschmidt, Henrico Tassbander, Lorbela Reenkober, Aurea Radjura, and Brigella Dambard."

Frederick Hopkins, a medical doctor who had entered the Novitiate with Gerard in 1868, and whose suave manner had earned him the nickname of "the genteel Hop," sat on the sofa cushion next to his and glanced at the page. "Are you reading about the Deutschland?"

"Very sad, isn't it?"

Thirty-three years later, Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, "Well, the sea can be very wild."

Edward Reeve was playing billiards with Cyprian Splaine of Liverpool, a swashbuckling scholastic who was good at whatever game he took on. Reeve tried to distract him by saying, "I can still see our evening menu on your beard, Sib."

Without looking up from his shot, Splaine said, "The front of your cassock displays what we ate last week."

There was general laughter, and as Hopkins got up from the sofa, he wryly misquoted Tertullian's praise for Christian love. "Look," Hopkins said, "how they shove one another."

Walking to the main chapel, Hopkins heard a sneering wind outside and he thought of it as sea-roaring Deutschland weather, carried there as if by the Royal Mail. But in the darkened chapel it was so silent he could hear the faint sweet sibilance as knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles. He genuflected and sank onto a kneeler six pews back from Christ in the tabernacle and noticed off to his right Brother McKeon saying his Rosary. Reverend William Hayden, an Englishman just three months a priest, was in front of McKeon and tilting toward the ruby glow of the sanctuary light in order to read his breviary.

Casting back on his day in his nightly examination of conscience, Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who'd died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.

Thursday it was colder and again snowing, and there were, as usual on Thursdays, no classes, but Hopkins still rose at five-thirty so he could meditate for an hour before the school's seven o'clock Mass.

Sitting with Jerome's Latin Vulgate version of the Bible in his room, Hopkins made the sign of the cross and whispered, "Lord God, grant me the grace that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be directed purely to the service and praise of Thy Divine Majesty." And then he asked for the grace he wanted, which was to surrender his own predilections in order to become a perfect instrument of God's holy will, and to give up whatever was getting in the way of the pleasing sacrifice of Abel: the firstlings of his flock. Reading over the fourth chapter of Genesis, Hopkins agonized that he'd too frequently been like Cain, scrounging fruit fallen onto the ground and presenting that as his lame offering to God and then, justly ignored, and with hurt feelings and envy, slaying a brother with his curt judgments and tart wit. Language his bloody knife. And what were his firstlings? Loyalty, yes, and discipline, education, talent. These I offer Thee, Hopkins prayed. But then for the next thirty minutes of meditation there was nothing like a striking insight or a welling up of emotion. Rather than the Scripture passage, his reveries continued hiving around some verses of Milton's Samson Agonistes:

Retiring from the popular noise, I seek
This unfrequented place to find some ease,
Ease to the body some, none to the mind
From restless thoughts, that like a deadly swarm
Of Hornets arm'd, no sooner found alone,
But rush upon me thronging, and present
Times past, what once I was, and what am now.

And then he saw it was time for Mass.

Cyprian Splaine recruited Hopkins for a peripatetic, as he called it, to Denbigh. Splaine was the big, bluff, confident, manly sort that Hopkins found attractive, and Hopkins was vigilant in his vow of chastity, so he obeyed the Rector's rule of "companies" on such hikes — nunquam duo, semper tres: never two, always three — a requirement meant to discourage conflicts or particular friendships. Inveigling Billy Splaine, Cyprian's kid brother, to join them, Cyprian advertised Denbigh as a "picturesque town," and Hopkins joked that because of its popularity with tourists Denbigh was even more a "taking pictures-esque town."

As they were slogging southward in their black suits and overcoats on a highway now inches deep with snow, Billy gave an excited account of Captain Matthew Webb's heroic suffering during his twenty-two-hour swim of the English Channel, from Dover to Calais, the first to accomplish it, his body slimed with porpoise grease to fend off the murderous cold, his only nourishment cod-liver oil, brandy, beef tea, and strong old ale poured through funnels by friends in dinghies alongside him.

Cyprian smirked. "And now shall we expect you to challenge his speed?"

Billy replied with solemnity, "I'll have to request permission from Father Rector."

Quoting from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Hopkins recited: "'As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.'"

Cyprian scowled as he interpreted his friend's meaning and asked, "Are you still studying the Welsh language, Gerard?"

"Rarely," Hopkins said, and then confided to Billy, "I did consult Father Rector about it."

"Oh, the Governor's all right."

"Wants us focused on the one holy thing," Cyprian said. "Wants uniformity."

The limekiln under a quarried cliff sent out yellow smoke that dimmed the distance and made the stack of Denbigh Hill a dead, mealy gray, but the sun was sparkling through gaps in the raveled clouds and Hopkins, who noticed architecture, noticed aloud how the castle ruins that crowned the hill were "punched out in bright breaks and eyelets of daylight."

Cyprian was, as always, amused by him. "Sees things," he stage-whispered to his kid brother.

Entrance into the castle required a penny admission charge and they'd scrounged no money from Father Minister, so they instead ate sack lunches by a stone stile under a snowcapped outer wall overgrown with ivy, bramble, and some graceful herb with glossy lush green sprays that were something like celery. Billy had forgotten the Latin for celery, and Cyprian, the finest Hebrew and Latin scholar in the school, took only seconds to answer, "Apium graveolens," and was surprised by their laughter, saying, as Hopkins sat, "Surely a prize student of Jowett knows such things?"


Excerpted from Exiles by Ron Hansen. Copyright © 2008 Ron Hansen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Author's Note,
Appendix "The Wreck of the Deutschland",
A Note on Sources,

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Exiles 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
librarianbryan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This could have been great, instead Hansen can't decide if he writing a novel or a nonfiction essay. Regardless, it's a sad story, and I like those. Anyone who has ever felt called to religious order will appreciate the text a lot more.
ChazzW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ron Hansen's Exiles combines the story of the Winter of 1875 shipwreck of the Deutschland and the life of English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a young, budding poet who abandoned his art to become a Jesuit priest. It was the news of the shipwreck, with the loss of many lives, including those of five nuns, which jolted Hopkins creative juices back to life. The incident inspired his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland.At the time there was a wave of religious intolerance toward Catholics in Germany, and the nuns were being 'exiled' to continue their work in America (see The May or Falk Laws). Hansen's hook is that Hopkins felt a connection to them beyond their co-religiosity. To Hansen at least, Hopkins was an 'exile; of sorts from his creative self.Well. I don't recall what prompted me to read this book. It probably came to my attention from a review. I;m not a reader of shipwreck fiction, but I am partial to fictional biographies - and I believe I was reading Fall of Frost, the fictional-hybrid account of the life of Robert Frost at the time. Both poet's dontcha know.The book did not impel me to delve into Manley's poetry - mea culpa but not my cuppa from the snippets in the book (and my attempt to actually tread the poem itself, which was never published in his lifetime). The theology of the book held little interest for me either. I must say though, that the shipwreck itself (once it happened) was gripping reading and included some memorable scenes. A squalling child was left behind and was knocked flat by the sea. With the next swell, Carl Dietrich Meyer thought, she would be gone. But then a gymnastic seaman rappelled down the steep cliff of the rigging, as agile and unafraid as a chimpanzee, and he was just twenty feet above the little girl when his foot caught in a lanyard and he plummeted headfirst. The sailor was secured to the yardarm by a legging, and in the sway of the mast he soared out over the sea upside down, and then gravity asked him back again in a glorious swing that ended when his neck struck a taut guy wire and his head was sliced off. The sea took the head as its own, but his body hung by its leg rope throughout the night, spilling blood and tolling the hours.Whew! One or two other such gruesome scenes, but the way Hansen handled the deaths of the nuns was surely the best part of the book. And he does a creditable job of delineating the characters of the five sisters in the alternating sections of the book. Each is given a brief introduction to include some early biographical information and their decisions to dedicate their lives to the Church. On the other side, he closes out their lives individually in affecting prose.For me though, this novel took far too long to takeoff, but finished off rather nicely.
BibliophileBubba on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I adored this book; it's a truly remarkable work. I enjoyed every page of it, wished it were longer, and was sad to see it end. It's an odd book, made up of two separate stories--the first that of five emigre German nuns en route to the US who are killed in a shipwreck and the second that of poet Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.--that are unified only in the priest's writing of a poem about the nuns. Their stories are small but oddly heroic. And Hansen recounts them in a way that is deeply respectful and moving and yet does not fail to acknowledge the question that was constantly on my mind at least: what they're all doing with their lives in the first place. This book is a true gem.
idiotgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A novel based on history. About Gerard M Hopkins. Focuses on his writing of the poem about the wreck of the Deutschland. So the novel ends up telling the story of both Hopkins and 5 nuns who died on the ship. An interesting premise. Learned about Hopkins. Some nice passages. Not sure this book will linger in my memory. But it did make me want to go back to Hopkins's poetry.
judithrs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Exiles: a Novel. Ron Hansen. 2008. This fascinating novel is based on the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his composition of the poem, ¿The Wreck of the Deutschland,¿ which was based on real ship wreck that occurred in 1875 in which 5 German nuns were among the people who did not survive. Hopkins was in a Jesuit seminary when the wreck occurred. The author moves back and forth between Hopkins life, the lives of the nuns, and the wreck and presents a fascinating portrait of Germany and England in the late 1800s. Hansen is a marvelous writer. I plan to re-read Mariette in Ecstasy and get some more of his books to read.
davedonelson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a truly remarkable book. I enjoyed every page of it, wished it were longer, and was sad to see it end. It's an odd book, made up of two separate stories--the first that of five emigre German nuns en route to the US who are killed in a shipwreck and the second that of poet Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.--that are unified only in the priest's writing of a poem about the nuns. Their stories are small but oddly heroic. And Hansen recounts them in a way that is deeply respectful and moving and yet does not fail to acknowledge the question that was constantly on my mind at least: what they're all doing with their lives in the first place. This book is a true gem.