In December of 1998, my husband and I, who were living in Atlanta at the time, flew back to the west coast to attend a family wedding. One evening, my oldest and dearest friend from high school chauffeured me into downtown Portland. We’d been running errands – perhaps we’d been shopping, perhaps we’d had dinner; I don’t really remember – and on our way back to the car we saw a bookstore and decided to pop in.
In some ways, my friend and I were an odd couple. She was physically tiny, and was the most gregarious person I’d ever met – I towered almost a foot over her, and was painfully shy. But we had important things in common: we both played the piano, and sang; we loved to laugh; we were devoted to church; we both loved to read. She and I had often spent entire vacation days side by side on chaise lounges, soaking up the sun and silently working our way through stacks of books and magazines.
By the time we reached the store that winter evening, it had been dark for hours, and it was raining. I remember our wet shoes squeaking on the wood floor as we walked over to the “new releases” table and started browsing. After shaking out my umbrella, I jammed it under my arm, leaving one hand free to flip through books. My friend looked at a couple of titles and then glanced up.
“Oh!” she said. “I just read this great book, called The Sparrow – have you read it?”
I shook my head. “Nope. Never heard of it.”
“Oh, you’ve got to read it. I’m going to find it for you.” She disappeared. I kept wandering around the tables near the front. I was getting hot in my heavy wool coat, but taking it off would have meant having one more thing to stuff under my arm. I kept it on. A minute or two later my friend was back, holding a paperback book, which she thrust at me. “Here. This is so good.”
The Sparrow was written by Mary Doria Russell. The cover was prettily illustrated with what looked like an old painting. Across the top was printed a blurb from The New York Times Book Review that said, “A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.” The New York Times is almost always a sure bet. They employ the best reviewers in the business.
“What’s it about?” I asked, turning it over to look at the back cover.
“Well, it’s about a priest, and he goes, well, he goes up to…” She broke off, then started again. “Well, it’s science fiction, but…”
I interrupted, shaking my head. “I don’t read science fiction.”
“But, no, I know, but just listen, it’s…”
I tried to hand the book back to her. “No, I don’t read science fiction. I don’t. I’m not interested.”
She wouldn’t take the book, so I laid it on the table. We then embarked upon a bit of stubborn back-and-forthing: she’d shove the book at me and insist, using her most charming whine (and if you don’t think a whine can be charming, then you never heard her do it); I’d cheerfully shove it back and started walking the other way.
I should explain. My friend and I, as two hard-headed girls who’d spent a lot of time together, often amused ourselves with this sort of fake-arguing. But in truth, I never had read science fiction, not since I’d enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle’s famous books as a child. I had no real quarrel with the genre; I simply had no adult interest in it.
My friend finally snatched the book up from where I’d laid it on the table. “Fine,” she said. “I’m buying it for you, then. You will love it.” And with that, she marched off to the cashier.
Since I really did trust my friend’s taste, I was now curious; and of course, I would never refuse a free book. She returned and handed over her purchase. I started reading it that night…and couldn’t put it down. I read it in snatches between wedding activities; I read it on the plane ride home.
Mary Doria Russell’s writing is so good, it’s almost shocking. It is nearly impossible to believe that before writing this novel, Russell had only published scientific articles and technical manuals. Russell, you see, holds a PhD in Biological Anthropology. She was a highly-trained scientist, and she brings that level of discipline and detail to her writing. But she also writes with the lyricism of a poet. By the time I read The Sparrow, it had already won a slew of awards.
I don’t want to give away the plot, because it’s a doozy, and part of the great pleasure of reading this book is in the I-can’t-imagine-what’s-coming-next-and-can’t-stop-turning-the-pages sensation. I will say this: the “hero” is a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, and the book begins after he has returned, alone, from a mission that he and a group of colleagues made to a newly discovered planet. He is disfigured and emotionally shattered. The rest of the book explains what went so terribly wrong, as it alternates between a “present-day” interrogation of the priest by the Jesuit order, and the actual narrative of the mission.
At the heart of the book is the spiritual struggle of Father Sandoz. Before he went on the mission, his faith was so strong that his superiors were thinking of canonizing him. When he returned, battered and alone, his faith was as damaged as his hands (about which I will say no more.) The title of the book refers to a biblical passage. Here, three fellow priests talk together, immediately after hearing Sandoz’s story.
“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.
After publication, some critics argued that the book should not have been classified as science fiction, largely because the plot does not focus on futuristic technology – the technology in the book is beside the point. The book revolves around the characters, and their relationships and spiritual journeys. It is full of intelligent philosophical arguments, beautifully framed. It is fantastically smart. (As, I have come to learn, the best science fiction is.)
Russell wrote a sequel to this book, titled Children of God. Since then, she has only published two other books, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer. Her fourth book was published while I was busy having my second baby – I am reading it now. To me, her subsequent books have not quite reached the quality of The Sparrow; but she is still good enough to make me automatically read whatever she writes.
Postscript. My great friend passed away unexpectedly last year. Every time I finish a good book I think of her, and wish I had the chance to call and tell her about it. We shared a love of literature, and a long history, and it is fitting that this wonderful book, which holds a top spot among my personal favorites, was her gift to me. I treasure it, and her.