KSRK: Exiles by Ron Hansen, chapter 1, "Hopkins in Wales"

A few jotted thoughts:

Not a bad opening chapter, but a little too reeking of research–to the detriment of story. I’m not sure I can pin down from whence the reek arises, but I smelled it wafting through the entire chapter: things that Hansen the researcher kept inserting against the better angels of Hansen the storyteller. Just enough of a whiff of it, like a skunk outside one’s bedroom window, to intrude on the proceedings. Perhaps it’s partly a matter of not anchoring us firmly enough in Hopkins’ point of view. We are anchored there much of the time, privy to Hopkins’ thoughts and perceptions, but then Hansen the researcher intrudes like a documentary voice-over and enforces our awareness that we are in a fictional world “based on fact.”

Hansen pulls off some very fine Hopkinsesque descriptions of clouds and such. For example: “The air smelled cleansed; the leaden sky was roped with cloud; a blue bloom seemed to have spread upon the distant south, enclosed by a basin of hills. And again he felt the charm and instress of Wales” (20). Nice use of Hopkins’ trademark “instress” there, too.

And he offers up plenty of erudite banter and wit in the English style. All good. (And yet we’ve seen these scenes so many times before.) The nickname “Hop” is an interesting detail, as against the other Hopkins who is dubbed “the genteel Hop” (9). And yet this sort of detail plays into that reek of research I’m talking about, maybe.

Then there’s the offhand suggestion that Hopkins is gay (11). Here I’m forced to wonder once again, in a different way, about the research. I’m forced to question whether there is evidence to support a gay Hopkins or whether this is idle speculation, based on … what? And how much will our knowing that Hopkins is attracted to “big, bluff, confident, manly sorts” advance the story? Maybe it will, but, again, it’s the oblique way Hansen introduces this detail that falls flat for me. OK, you’re going to advance the thesis that Hopkins was gay. Fine. Take the ball and run with it. Show us Hopkins’ view of it interiorly. We get a hint of that here–“Hopkins was vigilant in his vow of chastity”–but it’s the exterior narrative voice-over again.

So in sum: I’m not entirely pleased with how Hansen is handling his material in this opening chapter. It’s a pleasant enough read, as material for a documentary. But I think as a novelist Hansen should be a bit braver and make the leap into Hopkins’ skin a bit more profoundly, anchor the story in Hopkins himself as a fictional character–even if that fictional Hopkins is a gay Hopkins.

I wonder if Hansen will prove braver and less bound to his sources in his treatment of the German nuns in the next chapter–since there is far less material to be bound by.


  1. angelmeg says

    Give a girl a chance. I had a devil of a time finding a copy here in “paradise” and had to order it online. As per my usual MO when it comes to the book Klub, I will be catching up.

    I thought this year with no gradual school reading to be done I would actually be able to be right with everyone.

    Oh well, then I suppose I wouldn’t be me.

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    You see, this is the problem with you web-loggers. We professional writers *ahem* let the world know that we will be sharing our rarefied wisdom on a given subject, and then *you* have the unmitigated gall to not only tag along, but jump the gun, and not only jump the gun, but offer all sorts of unprofessional (as in, you’re not getting paid to share them) opinions on the matter at hand, opinions which, unless everyone is very careful, may actually come across as more insightful and interesting than OURS. And people wonder why I post a sinking ship as a Self Portrait…

    Grand to have you along, old boy.

  3. Rufus McCain says

    Don’t worry, angelmeg, you’re ahead of the KSRK pack. We specialize in being out of sync. Despite the fact that I’m enjoying the book (more so as I near the end of chapter two) I’m fully capable of setting the book down somewhere amid the chaos of my household and forgetting about it for a month or two. Especially now that we obtained a puppy (a cute little crapping machine) that has turned our chaos-level up a notch.

    Matthew, my head is swelling a bit. I feel like quitting while I’m ahead. Thanks. “Forgive me, author…” indeed.

  4. angelmeg says

    I odn’t think one has to read the incident on page 11 as suggesting that Hopkins is gay so much as just an indication of the rule against “particular friendships” and the fact that he himself wanted to assure that he wasn’t giving scandal. At least that is how I inferred the incident.

  5. Rufus McCain says

    angelmeg, I think it’s pretty clear Hansen is suggesting Hopkins is attracted to males. It becomes even clearer later. “Gay” may not be the right word, because I think Hansen is suggesting Hopkins doesn’t really let the impulse gain ground as far as even coming close to acting on it. In Chapter 3 Hansen does a better job of giving a more interior view of this facet of Hopkins formation.

    I’m really liking the book a lot more after reading Chs. 2-3. Some beautiful depictions of the nuns and how they’re vocations variously arose, seguing nicely into a similar treatment of Hopkins. I hope to give these two chapters a full-fledged post soon.

  6. Rufus McCain says

    delete: they’re
    insert: their

  7. Rufus McCain says

    I’m supposed to be mowing the lawn right now.

  8. Rufus McCain says

    But the Lord spoke to my heart and saidst go ahead and bloggeth.

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