Exploring a Novel: Ron Hansen's "Exiles"

A note from Jamie Howison:  This past fall, I discovered the novels of Ron Hansen, a writer and Roman Catholic deacon whose fiction stands as a powerful antidote to much of what is written in the name of “Christian fiction.”  I asked Michael Boyce, Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Booth College, if he would take some time to say a thing or two about Hansen’s work.


h. Christ! Christ, Come Quickly:  Ron Hansen’s Exiles

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along

W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”


exiles.jpgI came across a passage about the role of the Catholic writer in Archbishop Rowan Williams’s Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love that gave me pause. In describing Flannery O’Connor’s opinion on the role of faith and art, Williams writes, “the Catholic writer is precisely someone who cannot rule out any subject matter; belief adds a dimension to what is seen, it does not take anything away” (95). When people learn that I teach English literature they tend to quiz me about my own reading habits and preferred titles; some, if they are readers themselves, take the opportunity to recommend titles to me. In Christian circles, this typically means well meaning individuals asking my opinion about novels from the relatively new world of Christian literature.

Honestly, I find most works of Christian literature to be heavy-handed, preachy and sentimental. And, while I can’t discount the possibility that there might be some fine Christian lit out there, the majority I’ve seen fail to tackle the hard topics and to reflect what O’Connor or Williams argue about belief adding to what is seen. When subtly or ambiguity is reduced to blatant, heavy-handed moralizing, there is little room for interpretation or questions, which is the hallmark of real art. I usually find more spiritual substance for reflection in writers who write about faith without a proclaimed Christian agenda: Jeanette Winterson, Timothy Findley, Umberto Eco; or Christians writers whose faith infuses their work in unexpected and interesting ways:  P.D. James and, a recent discovery, Ron Hansen.

Ron Hansen is likely best known for his 1999 novel (and 2007 film) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Hansen uses the story of James’s death to explore contemporary ideas of celebrity and fame. A devout Christian and an ordained deacon in the Catholic church, Hansen fuses his art with his faith. His faith gives him an added perspective to his subject, however roguish – Jesse James; vile – Adolph Hitler in Hitler’s Niece (1999); or devout – Gerard Manley Hopkins in Exiles (2007).

All three of the above titles are excellent, but I found Exiles to be a book that engaged matters of faith and devotion in such interesting and profound ways that I found myself contemplating the material days after I had finished the novel. When Jamie asked me if I’d consider writing something for the website, I immediately offered to write about Exiles. Not only does Hansen include a thoughtful subtext about liturgy providing a simple structure to these characters’ lives, he makes some insightful observations about being an exile, suggesting that the life of a Christian is a life in exile not only from the world but from our own identities.

In telling the story of English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the composition of his poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Ron Hansen shows a deep understanding of Hopkins’s isolation, that quiet loneliness that often accompanies the devout Christian life. Hansen counters Hopkins’s narrative and the narrative of five German nuns whose death in a shipwreck inspired Hopkins to resume writing poetry, which he gave up when he joined the Jesuits.. All six main characters are literal and figurative exiles, isolated from friends and family because of their decision to lead lives of Christian devotion.

Though anti-Catholic legislation and sentiment, which had been so strong in England for centuries, had begun to relax, Hopkins felt the sting of persecution after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1866 and throughout his life as a Jesuit. His faith exiled from his family (his parents never forgave him for converting) and effectively ended his promising academic career at Oxford, as his fellow students and professors did not know what to make of the bright young student’s defection to Rome. Even among the Jesuits, Hansen represents Hopkins as a bit of an outsider, part of the group, but not wholly part of it, struggling to balance his personal identity with the corporate body of Jesuits. In arguing against an official Jesuit interpretation during a formal exam, for example, Hopkins fails and loses an opportunity to study an extra year that would have ensured a prominent teaching position in a Catholic school. In fact, the poem Hopkins writes to commemorate the deaths of the five German nuns is met with ambivalence and confusion. One editor of the Jesuit magazine to which Hopkins submitted the poem complained that “The Wreck of the Deutschland” induced a headache. Like most of his poem, the difficult but astounding poem was not published in Hopkins’s life time. His poetic experiments in what he called “sprung rhythm” isolated him from the Victorian literary community.

It’s the story of the five nuns, whose deaths moved Hopkins to write, that I found especially profound. Having studied Hopkins’s poetry, I knew much of his “exile.” Called “the most modern of Victorians” by twentieth century scholars, Hopkins’s poetry was largely unknown until nearly thirty years after his death. While his exile is more personal – loss of friends and estrangement from family – the exile of the five nuns is more institutional, though just as personal. As the formal persecution of Catholics in England was coming to an end in the late-nineteenth century, such persecution was just beginning in Germany. Bismarck’s kulturkempf (culture struggle) “intended to quash the political power of the country’s Catholic minority” (Hansen 19). The Reich took control Catholic education. The five nuns, from the Sisters of St Francis, Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary order, who leave Germany to establish their order in America and work in hospitals and orphanages in Missouri, perished in the shipwreck.  Their submission of identity seems much more complete. Upon entering the order, the sisters abandon their Christian names for other names, often feminized forms of names of male saints. On the Deutschland they treated contemptuously by the passengers on the Deutschland, eating along and enduring the stares of others. In leaving Germany for America they abandon everything they know and hold dear: the security of their order, the familiarity of their culture and language.

While Hopkins’s poetic tribute fails to give the nuns individual identities, treating them as a fairly homogenous group, Hansen intensifies their unique personalities, in order, I think, to create a greater sense of compassion in the reader for their submission of that identity to the order. Contemplating of the death of five nameless nuns doesn’t carry the emotional weight of the deaths of five individuals, with individual likes and dislikes, quirks and ideas. For Hansen, though these five women made a choice to be identified with a particular order, each of these nuns has a story, a past that is worth sharing. Perhaps, through his lengthy reflection on these exiles, Hansen is suggesting that people of faith are always exiles: commitment to Christ, joining a church and identifying oneself with a body of believers, necessitates exiling oneself from things this world makes important, particularly individual recognition. Rather than tritely arguing that the rewards of such sacrifice outshine the hardships, Hansen’s characters struggle with this sort of exile they have willingly chosen.

Submitting our own identity to a larger identity is a part of the Christian experience and addressed throughout the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters. In Phil 2, Paul writes, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” In 2 Cor 5:17, Paul claims, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Not only are we called to assume Christ’s mind, thinking and acting as he does, we are called to fit into the larger identity known as the body of Christ. Hansen isn’t suggesting that submitting our identities to a larger Christian identity (or, to use Paul’s words, “the mind of Christ”) is wrong – far from it. He does suggest, through the narrative of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the five German nuns who lost their lives, that such submission is difficult, a constant balancing act.

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