The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Part Two)

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

Within the final two pages of the novel, Russell finally informs the reader as to the source of the title for her novel (quoted below) offering up the closing thought on religion in this science fiction novel. I stated in my thoughts on the first half of the novel that Russell is “in no way is Russell preachy or suggestive about how religion should play a role in the life of her readers” making it clear how and why religion does, or does not, work for each of her characters.

While overall I still think this to be true, there is something about the manner in which the novel ends that struck me as contrary to this previous assessment and left me slightly unsettled. I’ll save spoilers on the ending for discussion on Trish’s readalong wrap-up post, but I will say the internalized judgment on the part of Emilio follows an aspect of religion I, personally, reject and I am still unclear as to what Russell was trying to say on the topic.

“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. “No one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father know it.’ ‘But the sparrow still falls,’ Felipe said.” (pg. 401)

That said, I greatly enjoyed the ethical and, yes, spiritual journey provided by this book. It was a more challenging read than I anticipated it being – even after I reached the halfway point – but Russell’s beautiful writing and the ease of her transitions from the past (the year 2019) and the present (2059-2060) made it stylistically an easy one to follow.

“Do you think so, John? Was it your God?’ he asked with terrifying gentleness. ‘You see, that is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances,’ he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, ‘is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of heating God.” (pg. 394)

The greatest mystery at the end of the first half of the novel was what exactly happened to Emilio, Anne, George, Jimmy, Sofia, Alan, and D.W. that would leave Emilio the only survivor from the journey to the planet. To be honest, I expected there to be more, for lack of a better word, Hollywood-esque explanations for each character’s fate but this is not that kind of book and I found myself loving it more because of that fact. (Hollywood optioned the rights for the film in 2006 but, apparently, Russell revoked them “believing that Hollywood cannot and will not make a film version of The Sparrow that is faithful to the book”. A sentiment I agree with. There is talk of making the book into a series on AMC, though.)

In the midst of the second half, however, the larger mystery becomes the structure of the society these explorers find on the planet. The Runa, a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, are the first to interact with the group, and they are the ones to set up the flow of communication by assigning the child, Askama, to learn English and teach Emilio the Runa’s language. The group is eventually introduced to the Jana’ata, another species on the planet that is similar to the Runa appearance-wise but are also more similar to the human visitors (i.e. they eat meat, live in cities, are “higher” intellectuals than the Runa, produce the music that first alerted alerted Earth to Rakhat’s existence in the universe) through the merchant Supaari VaGayjur.

The group’s growing friendship with Supaari and their attempt to introduce the Runa to agriculture sets of a chain of events that kept me turning the pages in fascination and surprise. Answers are teased out slowly, but the sheer wealth of details and the questions raised by the characters during the present time within the novel makes the rather slow pace worthwhile. No doubt, I missed more than a few details in her technical descriptions of the science behind the inter-stellar space journey and the planet of Rakhat. I can see why people reread this book again and again.

Will I read the sequel? I am still undecided, although I have added it to my to-read list for the time being. The ending left me unsettled enough that I’m curious, but I also doubt that I will get the answers I am hoping for given the interview with Russell I found tucked into my library copy of the novel. She sums up the sequel as “Emilio Sandoz goes back to Rakhat, but only because he has no choice. God is not done with him yet” and says the moral of The Sparrow is “even if you do the best you can, you still get screwed”. Hasn’t Emilio been through enough?

The interview also summarizes the novel as “a parable about faith – the search for God, in others as well as Out There”. Such description is one I whole-heartedly agree with. A beautifully written book filled with questions that challenged me, that made my enjoyment of this science fiction tale.

Others’ Thoughts:


  1. Ti

    It’s strange because it’s very much about faith and religion if you think about it, but it’s not “in your face” with what it’s saying. I do agree that I am not sure Russell even knows what she is saying at the end. It’s all rather vague. Emilio’s lack of faith is troublesome even if you don’t consider yourself to be religious. Priests aren’t perfect. I know this, but why be a priest if you haven’t any faith?

    I enjoyed the bits about the new race, how they live, how the humans had to adapt. I thought there would be more to the illness that overtook the one character but it sort of petered out but remained a possible threat to others down the line. My main problem with the book, and I think maybe two problems, is my detachment when it comes to the characters and the extreme build-up before you are finally given the details of what happened. I felt “played” for lack of a better term.

    And the sparrow comment. Still pondering it. I suppose it means that we can all fall in grace but that it doesn’t go unnoticed?? So what are the repercussions in that?


    • I, too, was expecting a more extreme conclusion because of the build-up. My expectations were very high and that maybe why I was slightly disappointed by the conclusion.

      I agree — I think the sparrow comment means that we are seen when we fall. After a few days of pondering the ending more, I wonder if the final message is that the only way to learn is to fall. After all, sparrows learn how to fly by being kicked out of the nest.


  2. Agree with both you and Ti about the end message. Perhaps our own views of faith individually inform what we take away from the story? I do think that there was a little shard of hope at the end after Emilio had “confessed”–it seemed as though he was able to move on a little and open his eyes to the future?

    Still so incredibly heart-shattering! Glad you read along with us Christina!


    • As I commented on your post, Trish, the shred of hope after confession is very in line with the teachings of Catholicism so it would make sense that Emilio as a Jesuit priest would feel that he can move on after confessing. Thank you again for hosting!


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