Ron Hansen’s beautiful and sad Exiles (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23) is a fictional account of two historically-based stories: the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s effort to discipline his creative spirit and live a more obedient life, and a shipwreck that occurred off the coast of England in 1875. Most of the Deutschland’s passengers and crew were finally saved, but 64 died, among them five Franciscan nuns on their way to America. Hopkins had been a brilliant student at Oxford; influenced by Cardinal Newman, he converted to Catholicism and became a priest. In order to conform to the demands of his superiors, he gave up writing poetry, but the shipwreck loosened something in him. Hopkins was so moved by the victims’ deaths that he wrote a long poem (included in the back of the book). His poetry was not recognized while he was alive and only became appreciated decades after his death, when it was rediscovered by Virginia Woolf and the modernists.
My favorites of Ron Hansen’s novels are about the challenges of faith. (Mariette in Ecstasy is another.) The Exiles (Picador, $14) of the title are the great British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, banished to Ireland, and five Franciscan nuns who were sent to America to work. Hopkins, from a well-off family, was a university student at Oxford when he converted to Catholicism. A brilliant and original mind, he was out of step with the demands of strict obedience. For a long time he gave up poetry, but an 1875 freak shipwreck on the Thames that killed 44 passengers, including five nuns from Germany, loosened something in him and he wrote a long poem in honor of the lost sisters (included in the book). Two years later he wrote “a clutch of poems that were so original and are now so esteemed.” This arresting book is about the creative spirit that disturbs ordinary men.