I cannot remember the first time I read Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow. It was surely in association with my work as a teacher in a Jesuit high school. I was immediately drawn to its premise – the idea that the Jesuit order would, of course, send a party to investigate if life were ever found elsewhere in the universe. It would be a party made up, primarily, of Jesuits, each with a distinct skill set making them indispensable to the mission. But the party would also include companions, members of the laity who also possessed talents that would make their inclusion in such an expedition logical. And the story would end in tragedy and hope.
As Lent approached this year, I considered “reading” (I put that in quotation marks because I actually listened to the novel while running) a spiritual book, something with some depth, something religious. I thought about a prayer-book or a book on current thoughts on faith or even a book about Pope Francis, but selected The Sparrow because I hadn’t read it in quite a while, because we’ve used it as a reading with our newer teachers at my school for many years and because I like stories that take my mind other places while I run.
The Sparrow certainly took my mind other places.
The plot of the novel is very good: a specialist, Jimmy Quinn, who works at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico picks up a transmission from space which appears close and appears to be singing. Quinn shares the information with his close friend, Father Emilio Sandoz, SJ – a brilliant linguist. Sandoz, surprised himself by the possibility that God has created other creatures in the universe who might worship God the way humans do, is inspired by a new-found fervor and faithfulness to suggest an expedition to Rakhat, the planet from which the signal has come.
Sandoz is the protagonist of the novel and it is his story that holds it together. Told in two interlocking narratives, one dealing with the events leading up to the mission to Rakhat at the mission itself and the other detailing the fallout from events following Sandoz’s return to earth, The Sparrow keeps the reader well engaged. Just when the story of the returned Sandoz, a tortured, broken shell of a man, becomes a bit tiresome, Doria Russell shifts back to events on Rakhat. When the reader begins to wonder how events on the planet impacted the Sandoz who returned home, the perspective whips back to earth. It’s a very taut structure and one that pleases.
As it turns out, Sandoz’s closest friends, Jesuit and non-Jesuit alike, accompany him on the mission. Their fates become almost as important to the reader as Sandoz’s own. The fact that his friends are allowed to come with him would seem all too pat and all too convenient if Doria Russell didn’t address the coincidence head on suggesting that one either believes that God inspires the world or one doesn’t. If one believes, then the idea that Father Sandoz and his friends are the perfect team to head off world for first contact seems like God’s will. If one does not, then much of what occurs in The Sparrow seems like a string of increasingly implausible events.
I don’t know science particularly well. Doria Russell does. Or she makes the reader believe she does. She never spends too much time or detail on the aspects of the mission that deal with space travel or engineering which is a good thing. As a reader of a novel, I don’t need to see how the sausage is made. Even when she takes on The Theory of Relativity, she does so in a manner that holds together for her purposes and dwells not one sentence longer on the concept than she must.
What she does know is linguistics and the acquisition of language is a very important part of the novel. It has to do with singing, with communication and with prayer. Understanding one another’s motives and one another’s stories is a central idea in the novel. It is the most central idea that isn’t faith.
Because faith is the actual center of the book. The story of Emilio Sandoz, his love of God and the fate that befalls him on Rakhat is the foundation on which the rest of the story is built. His colleagues think he might be a saint. He believes, alternately, that he is loved by God and despised by God. He believes that there is no God. Then he is convinced there is. His faith journey made the book a perfect Lenten read. His physical journey, especially its conclusion, makes the book seem more like a tragedy.
Doria Russell has created characters (with the notable exception of Sandoz) who are pleasant enough and relatively engaging, but who rarely rise about stereotype. I think that’s by design. Because they are stereotypes, they are familiar. The unfamiliar then – Sandoz, the aliens, the planet Rakhat itself – seem all the more fantastic and vivid.
Sandoz is a compelling character. He is very well drawn and it is clear that Doria Russell spent much of her energy on his creation. I cared about him and, through him, the characters around him. I found his struggles with faith very realistic even though the situations that Doria Russell put him in were not. He’s a complex character in the best sense of the word: he has many facets. What makes him so good is that none of those facets seem out of place or out of left field. I liked the book so much mainly because I liked Sandoz so much.
Sandoz’s story is the story of many Jesuit (and non-Jesuit) missionaries. Sure that his work is blessed by God, Sandoz presses forward into a society which he feels he understands, but really does not. Most of his choices seem inspired by God, and he believes that they are so, when he makes a bad choice – when he makes a colossal mistake – was that choice inspired by God, too?
Therein is the crux of The Sparrow. It tells the story of one man’s journey to God, away from God and back again.
Reading it as parable, the reader finds a novel which can be profound. Reading it as science fiction, the reader finds a very good book. Reading it as a character study is unfair. It’s not meant to be that. Short and brisk, The Sparrow is a story which is meant to inspire questions that resonate not in the head but in the soul. If that’s your sort of thing, you’ll enjoy The Sparrow.
AMC Television hopes that you might, because they are considering a television series based upon it. You can read a story about its production HERE.
I hope it sees air. We could use some more big questions on television. We could use some more questions about faith.
We could use a world that pays attention to the fall of a sparrow.