The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Part One)

896841Fiction — print. Villard, 1996. 408 pgs. Library copy.

I read twenty-five pages of The Sparrow and then nominated the book as a possible selection for my book club’s October meeting. Yes, it really is that good and if I had not been fighting a cold this past week, I probably would have stayed up all night to read the whole thing in one sitting.

I went into reading this book knowing nothing about the topic or the content, and I think the best summary actually comes from the prologue to the book (quoted below). By the end of the first half of the book, the group of friends have landed on the newly discovered planet of Rakhat and begun to try the flora and fauna in the search of food.

“The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuit have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.” (pg. 3)

The book switches back and forth between the past and present so the only survivor of the journey, Father Emilio Sandoz, has returned to Earth near death after being found maimed in a brothel in Rakhat and unable – or, unwilling – to tell investigators from the United Nations and the Vatican what happened during their missions. There is also great speculation as to what happened to the group who followed Emilio, Anne, George, D.W., Sofia, Alan, and Jimmy to Rakhat but, so far, there have been few clues to either mystery. The excitement surrounding Trish’s announcement of the readalong and the number of people calling this book their favorite in the comments made it impossible for me to resist joining in. It would be hard to say I didn’t have high expectations because of those comments, but so far the book has met them and I’ve really enjoyed the first half of the book.

I particularly like how Russell switches the narrative back and forth between the past (the year 2019) and the present (2059-2060). It took me some time to become accustomed to the style, but Russell does a wonderful job of introducing tidbits of information, which adds to the intriguing of the story, without randomly dropping new characters that have not been previously introduced into the “past” narrative.

The five main characters of the book – Emilio, Anne, George, Jimmy, and Sofia – constitute the core friendship and I like each of them for each entirely different reasons. Sofia and Emilio, though, are the most intriguing characters to me because both of them are grappling with their pasts and their religious views. They along with Jimmy are the “intellectuals” of the bunch, although I would not discount the intelligence of either Anne or George, and I enjoy the dynamic of how society tries to abuse their intellect and in some way pits Sofia and Emilio against one another.

“You know what? I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they’re religious. I do what I do,’ Anne said, biting off each word. ‘without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently, thank you very much.” (pg. 110)

I also like the balance Anne, George, and their relationship brings to the group because both Emilio and Sofia lost their family units at a young age and had to find an alternative means of survival. While Anne and George didn’t experience the same loss, they discovered after several years of marriage that they are unable to have children and that loss appears to make them more willing to open their doors and accept Emilio, Sofia, and Jimmy into their family.

“The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.” (pg. 201)

I was not expecting religion to be such a large aspect of the novel, and the interview with Russell I found tucked into the pages of this book by a previous borrower from the library stated that she was in the process of bringing religion back into her life while writing this book. She was raised Catholic but eventually converted to Judaism. Both religions take a central focus in her book and she covers a range of relationships to both religions from serving as a priest and taking a vow of celibacy to internalizing the history of a religion without continuously practicing to appearing to have no relationship to religion whatsoever.

Yet in no way is Russell preachy or suggestive about how religion should play a role in the life of her readers. She makes it clear why adoption of religion or certain aspects of Catholicism work for each of the characters and allows the characters to debate those aspects about themselves and others. It is a very refreshing take on religion in a fictional novel and I, for one, cannot wait to read more and finally solve the mystery of what happened on Rakhat.

Others’ Thoughts:


  1. Your thoughts echo a lot of the thoughts that I have in my head Christina. I’m glad you’re enjoying the book and like you I haven’t felt let down at all by all of the extreme hype I heard going into the story. I love the mystery and the intrigue, even though I’m bracing myself for the eventual sh– hitting the fan. Interesting about Russell’s own religious background. I was afraid of the religion going into the book but I love the way that she is handling it.


  2. Pingback: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Part Two) | Ardent Reader

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