3.5 Exiles is a story of tragedy, five nuns on their way to America, excited about the possibilities of their unknown futures when they step onto the ill-fated Deutschland in 1875. In 1870, Chancellor Otto Bismarck began a dedicated a purge of Roman Catholic influence from the Second Reich, a unified Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Wurttemberg and twenty other states. Sent from the security of their convent in Salzhotten, the five sisters, Barbara Hultenschmidt, thirty-two, Norberta Reinkober, thirty, Henrica Fassbender, twenty-eight, Brigetta Dammhorst, twenty-seven, and Aurea Badziura, twenty-three, practice the awkward sounds of a new language they must master to be effective in their new positions, thrilled to be traveling second class to avoid the certain improprieties of steerage. The Deutschland is impressive, with a number of iron lifeboats, cork life vests and ample supplies for a successful voyage; none have anticipated the terrible storm that will send many of the travelers to their deaths.
Soon after the Deutschland's disaster, off course and helpless before the storm, other vessels unable to come to the ship's aid until the weather abates, a young Jesuit in Wales (Gerald Manley Hopkins) is captivated by the newspaper accounts he reads, beginning a long, unpublished poem that will commemorate the sisters' treacherous journey. The story is revealed through the lives of the Jesuit, Gerard Hopkins (who will himself die prematurely) and the five nuns. Hewing closely to fact, Hansen tends to rely on historical detail to the detriment of emotional impact; yet the story is so profoundly sad and dramatic by its very nature, that the weight of the tragedy is inescapable. Segueing from Hopkins' struggles with his writing and spiritual obedience to the early lives and vocations of the nuns, there is a strong sense of the commitment of the religious life and the willingness of these five women to trust in their faith for guidance.
Each sister is unique, drawn to their vocations with complete certitude, the five women reveling in an adventure that becomes a nightmare. As the snow swirls around the storm-tossed ship, sending it thirty miles off course and certain of disaster, passengers and crew cling to hopes of survival, throwing themselves into efforts to maintain the ship against the monstrous waves that sweep helpless people over the side to their watery graves. Some climb the rigging, only to die from exposure; forty-four passengers and twenty crew members are lost from December 6-7, 1875. Sister Henrica is the first of the nuns to go, washed out to sea, the others clinging one to another as the cold saps them of life. The tale is harrowing, the agonized screams of mothers separated from children, the relentless, churning maw of the sea swallowing its victims, who cling to any surface with hopes of deliverance. The sisters quietly accept God's judgment, hands entwined, as one by one they slip away, the short chapters of their lives closed, Hopkins soon to follow in their wake. Luan Gaines/ 2008.
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