The Sparrow

TheSparrowIn 2059, Father Emilio Sandoz returns to earth physically and emotionally disfigured, the apparent only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat in Alpha Centauri.  What happened?  The people of earth demand to know, as does the Father General of the Society of Jesus, who bears the potentially-polar burdens of ministering to a shattered man responsible for the Society’s shattered reputation.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is stunning:  delicate and brutal, heartwarming and chilling.  I credit this mostly to her deeply rich characterization.  Their fears, desires, and humor make every one of the characters (including the non-humans) as believable as your next-door neighbor.  She has created an entire planet in full—ecosystems, sentient creatures of varying races, languages, social structures, architecture—as authentically as she anticipates the technology and sociology of earth five decades future.  (For more about her creation of Rakhat, I highly recommend an excellent interview with Russell by Speaking of Faith’s Krista Tippett on “The Novelist as God.”)  The narrative revolves smoothly between the literary present (2059) and the  years leading up to and during the disastrous mission, revealing just enough to maintain a perfect suspense.  The ending is utterly devastating, but with a barely-there sliver of hope that provides for the sequel, The Children of God.

 Most captivating of all is the way Russell handles her theme: theodicy, or the problem of evil.  The mission crew is prepared for the worst-case scenario, but what they discover to their horror is a reality far worse than they imagined:

Not madness but the mathematics of eternity drove them.  To save souls…no burdens was too heavy, no price too steep.…  Yes, he thought, Jesuits are well prepared for martyrdom.  Survival, on the other hand, could be an intractable problem.

 Russell’s agnostic scientists and Rabbi-quoting Jesuit priests are united in mission but struggle with the individuality of each other’s perspectives.  When you can’t see the end of a journey, how can you evaluate a particular step as being either in the “right” or “wrong” direction?  Is a project coming together evidence that it is “meant to be,” or is it just the result of pattern-seeking people wishing it so?  When all hell breaks loose, is it God’s fault for sending them there, or their fault for seeing God in it at all? 

‘There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality.  But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist.  So he breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists’

‘So God just leaves?’ John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate.  ‘Abandons creation?  You’re on your own, apes.  Good luck!”

‘No. He watches.  He rejoices.  He weeps.  He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us and remembering.’

‘Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,’ Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly.  ‘”Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”’

‘But the sparrow still falls,’ Felipe said.

 Russell ultimately refuses a tidy solution, forcing the reader to consider each character’s point of view—not because everyone is “equally right” but in acknowledgement that there can be no simple resolution to the deepest question humanity has ever pondered. 

If you often consider this question, you’ll be moved by the author’s humanity and authenticity.  And if you don’t often consider this question, this book will force you to.  I dare you to read the one-page prologue and then put down this novel!


Mary Doria Russell has a PhD in Biological Anthropology and is retired from the faculty of Case Western Reserve University.  She is known is the scientific community for her research challenging claims of Neanderthal cannibalism and arguing instead that the evidence supports “secondary burial.”  The Sparrow, published in 1996, was her first novel; the sequel, Children of God, followed two years later.  She has since published two historical novels, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day, and is working on a third.  Most importantly for the purposes of my epilogue, she lives in Cleveland, in my home state of Ohio—which makes this review an Ohio stop on the Literary Road Trip sponsored by Michelle at Galleysmith!

11. September 2009 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 9 comments

Comments (9)

  1. So glad you loved The Sparrow. For most who read it they either love it or hate it. There’s no in-between. But it is not only how Russell handles theodicy that is fascinating, it’s also her way of making each of us search for the divine– in the book, but also in ourselves.

    Great review!

  2. Thanks, M.D. I did love it. For anyone who hasn’t read it because they think they don’t like sci-fi, I say read it anyway and find out that you do! Good sci-fi is like good any-other-subgenre—it makes the reader care about the characters, and emphasizes their humanity no matter what alternate universe or history provides the particular context.

  3. I loved this one – and the sequel – and Thread of Grace, though in a different way. Great review.

  4. Fabulous review of a novel that sounds extremely thought provoking and entertaining at the same time.


  5. Mindy, I’m not sure I knew you were in OH–I grew up mostly in Granville. I read this book years ago at the recommendation of a coworker at a used bookstore. I too was blown away by its honesty and brutality.

    If you’re not familiar with the tale of Jephthah’s daughter from the Bible, it’s the basis for a key part of the book.

    Also, I was interested to learn that Russell is a convert to Judaism, from Catholicism, I think. Knowing that made the interactions between Emilio and the Jewish woman whose name I forget more intriguing, because there seemed to be a lot of Christian/Judaic tension in the book.

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  7. Carrie, thanks! I’m really looking forward to reading her other books. From her website, it sounds like she’s really interested now in writing historical novels like A Thread of Grace. Glad to know you liked that one, too.

    Sherry, I had a feeling we’d be of the same mind about this one! Looking forward to reading your review–thanks for the link.

    Michelle, it is and I hope you’ll read it one of these days.

    Girl, yep, Ohio born and bred, outside the Toledo area. I hadn’t caught the Jephthah connection, but now that you mention it, YEAH! And you’re right about Russell’s conversion. She talks a lot about that in the Speaking of Faith interview that I mentioned in my post, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. I, too, felt that knowing about her background made the character’s relationships even richer. The Jewish faith is so permeated with theodicy and the tradition of asking God for answers, and so the Jewish connections in the book made a lot of sense in light of what happens on Rakhat. It’s a great read whether or not you’re familiar with religious history, but for those who are, it has a great deal of interest at an additional level.

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