How Fiction Fails

Ron Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23, 227 pp.

The figurative “exile” of religious believers—their status as unsettled pilgrims in a hostile world—was a literal condition for many Catholics in nineteenth-century Protestant Europe. In Germany, religious orders were disbanded under the Falk Laws, enacted to restrict the activities and influence of the church. Many sent their members to serve abroad. Thus five Franciscan nuns were aboard the Deutschland, en route to America, when the ship ran aground off England’s rocky coast in December 1875. They and fifty-nine other passengers lost their lives. Above the storm, newspapers reported, one sister was heard calling, “Christ, come quickly!”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, then a Jesuit novice, was well aware of the German Kulturkampf: the Society of Jesus had been expelled from the country outright, and many of his religious brothers had immigrated to the UK. He was also privately acquainted with ostracism, having scandalized his Anglican family first by converting and then by abandoning a promising academic career for the priesthood. When news of the shipwreck and its victims reached Hopkins in Wales, he responded by renewing his pursuit of poetry. In “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” an astonishing 280-line elegy, Hopkins hears the doomed nun’s desperate appeal to “her master and mine” and raises his own voice to the one he calls

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About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.