Novelist Ron Hansen, who has read from his work several times at Collegium colloquies and is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor at Santa Clara, has gathered a number of essays that previously appeared in different collections. While some of the essays will already be familiar to some of his fans, as they were to me, the sum effect of the collection makes this new volume worthwhile. Together they are valuable not only to for the individual topics each essay addresses, but also for the insight they give on the author and his world. We can learn from this collection about the craft of writing, the wonder of good fiction, and the power of stories. We also are invited to glimpse ways in which the power of his fiction is connected -- sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes as the outcome of deliberate reflection -- to the stories of his own life and to his spiritual formation.
Some essays, like his reflection on one of my favorite prayers, the Anima Christi, seemed too didactic and much less powerful than the subject taken on. I learned much more from Hansen's skillful interweaving of stories and autobiography into other essays. An essay on the story of Cain and Abel included some rich historical allusions, but was particularly enriched by the disarming honesty of Ron's remembrance of the ways growing up that he was Cain to his twin brother Rob.
Hansen showed me about good teaching through his vivid recollection of the ways John Gardner's prodigal words of praise made a huge difference to him as a novice writer. His brief biography of St. Ignatius Loyola, reprinted here, is the best and most vivid short account I've ever seen on Ignatius. Collegium alumni/ae may appreciate his essay on Babette's Feast. An essay on stigmata, deriving from the theme of his masterful Mariette in Ecstasy, speaks to the power that the wounds of holy men and madmen from Francis of Assisi through Padre Pio have had on those who encounter them. Here, his storytelling skills surpass his ability to summarize their significance, but the former still make the essay worthwhile.
Early on, he addresses directly the dilemma of a Christian novelist: to avoid "homilectics, shoehorning in of religious belief, forcing one's characters to perform the role of mouthpieces, or reduction into formula." The ability to communicate some truth while avoiding this trap, it seems evident now, is among the greatest possibilities of storytelling, and one thing that essays can't always do as well. These essays help us to understand Ron Hansen, writing, and Christian faith more deeply, but I'll always be most grateful for the stories that are the very best of his work. -- Thomas M. Landy