REVIEW by Willard Manus
A famous shipwreck, five nuns and a Jesuit priest are the main characters in Ron Hansen's latest novel, EXILES (Picador ppbk, $14). Hansen, the well-regarded author of six previous novels, including The Assasination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, has fictionalized the true story of the sinking of the steamship Deutschland off the British coast in December, 1875. The ten-year-old vessel was the bellwether of the North German Lloyd Company, ferrying passengers in luxury and comfort (except for the proles in steerage) between Bremershaven and New York, a journey of some nine days.
The Deutschland had recently been inspected in drydock and given high marks, especially its two "direct-action steam engines, each as large as a toolshed, delivering a surface speed of fourteen knots." With such power at its disposal, the ship was considered one of the swiftest and safest liners on the transatlantic route. But, much like the supposedly impregnable and unsinkable Titanic, the Deutschsland had its hidden flaws, beginning with its "screw," a single cast-iron propellor (ships with multiple screws were still on the drawing board). Prone to breaking apart on reefs--and to engineering defects--single propellors often failed, which was why a steamship like the Deutschland was also fitted out with a network of masts and sails.
An even more major, and eventually fatal, weakness was the Captain, Eduard Brickenstein. The stolid, experienced and highly-regarded naval officer tragically miscalculated the force of the storm that struck the German seacoast just as the Deutschland set off on her journey. Instead of sheltering in safe waters until the storm blew itself out, Capt. Brickenstein ordered the ship to proceed. He soon ran into not just a snowstorm but a hurricane.
With visibility nil and savage waves pounding the Deutschland relentlessly, Capt. Brickenstein didn't realize that his ship was drifting close to the sandbars off the English coast (southeast of Harwich).
Then came "the ship's first jolt...and a mysterious scraping, screaming noise of the keel riding an underwater sand dune. And then there was a sudden, crunching, hull-booming halt to their motion."
Because "the lone screw propellor had sheared off while digging into the sea floor," the Deutschland could not free itself from its trapped position. Canvas could not help either, owing to the monumental force of the hurricane. So the Deutschland lay helplessly on her side, while the sea kept assaulting her. Soon the ship began to break apart.
Much of EXILES will remind readers of the many books and films about the Titanic. It's another disaster story, with many familiar scenes unspooling in horrific fashion: seawater flooding into the engine room; corridors and stairways filling with terrified passengers, "some shrieking with each crash of a wave," and so on.
What makes EXILES special are the portraits of the five nuns who serve as the book's main characters, and the parallel story about the Jesuit seminarian Gerald Manley Hopkins, who (soon after the accident) wrote the famous and heartbreaking poem, The Wreck of the Deutschsland.
EXILES is suffused with Hansen's love for Hopkins and his poetic masterpiece. His portrait of this gentle, deep-thinking, highly devout Catholic--he was something of a saint, really--is quite remarkable. Equally impressive is the way Hansen dramatizes Hopkins' struggle to reconcile his need to write with the hold the church had over him. What to be, priest or poet?
Hopkins' internal battle was a ferocious one. On top of that, he was a modernist and an innovator where poetry was concerned. The Wreck of the Deutschland, Hansen points out, "was written in a meter Hopkins called 'sprung rhythm,' to be scanned, he explained to a friend, 'by accents of stress alone, without counting the number of syllables. There was a great number of pecuiliar rhymes and other oddnesses.'"
Most 19th-century literary critics attacked The Wreck for its "artistic wantonness," "its definite faults of style" and "its disconcerting lack of literary attributes." But eventually The Wreck and all of Hopkins' other poems were recognized for what they were, classics of English literature.
Hopkins dedicated The Wreck to "the happy memory of the five Franciscan nuns...who drowned between midnight and morning of December 7, 1875."
Much is known about Hopkins' life, little about the nuns. Hansen employed all his novelistic skills to bring the five of them to life. Each of these young German members of the
Sisters of St. Francis becomes a rich, fully-dimensional character during the course of the novel. They are presented without sentimentality or cuteness.
EXILES is a dark, painful book. Forty-four passengers and twenty crew died on the Deutschsland (with sixty-nine passengers and eighty-six crew rescued). Hopkins' life was something of a shipwreck as well. But Hansen provides bursts of color and illumination along the way, spiritual and poetic fireworks that light up the stormy sky.