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The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.

November 9, 2012

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell .  Ballantine Books1997.   Paperback, 408 pages.

An imaginative novel in which four Jesuits and four secular individuals (one Catholic, one Jew, and two agnostics) make the first contact on an inhabited planet and only one survives to tell their story.

Despite its science fiction aspects, the story that Russell tells is a very human one of men and women confronted by inhuman forces and asking moral questions.  She tells it well through alternating narratives.  One narrative traces events before and during the exploration of the new planet as friendships build and obstacles are overcome.   While all goes “miraculously” well for a time, the group faces unimaginable evils.  The second narrative focuses on a small group of Jesuits trying to discover what happened and help the priest who survives and returns to earth broken physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Russell began conceptualizing the plot of her story during the bicentennial of Columbus in 1992 when people were talking about the impact of the “first contact” of the New World.  With no new land to explore, she realized a new first-contact story would have to be inter-planetary.  As she explains, Jesuits were deeply involved in our early age of exploration and so she makes them central her story.  She portrays the Jesuits as a varied group with good intentions, if not always the actions readers would approve.

I seldom read religious fiction because all too often it is trite and simplistic.  In contrast, Russell’s book is wise and troubling.  Her characters wrestle with the perennial problem of Christianity; how can a good and omniscient God tolerate, or even be said to cause, suffering.  Father Emilio Sanchez praised God for the joy he found in his work as a linguist on the new planet.   But then his seemingly innocent actions brought about pain for those he loves and himself.  He returned to earth humiliated and disgraced, and continually bothered by the thought that evil as well as the good came from God.  The book’s ending is compelling and, appropriately, leaves open the questions raised.

The interplanetary aspect of Russell’s book is weaker than her characters.  Having watched the Mars Rover explore a new planet, I found it hard to believe the casualness with which her characters take off into space.  Their lack of technology we use today made the book seem dated. Her new land is plausible enough to fill the needs of her plot, which is never really about the new world.  The visitors from off planet are not potential oppressors and lack the strength to be, but the native people belong to two separate races, one of which controls the other in ways that mimic and outdo colonizers on earth.

My initial curiosity about this book came from Alex’s comment that like Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, the child and the outsider simultaneously teach and learn each others’ languages.   Father Sanchez is a linguist, but Grenville’s account takes a much larger importance than the lessons do here.  The result here, however, is even grimmer than the one in Australia.

I recommend this book, especially for those interested in religious behavior or those touched by theological angst.

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