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  • Writer's pictureSusan Edsall

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

This book is on my Sacred Texts shelf.

The basic plot: In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be "human."

That's the plot, but that's not what it's about. Russell deals with big questions about God, faith, humanity, religion, morality, love, and justice. The stuff of the best literature. Everything about it is exquisite—the writing, the characters, the believable world she creates, the plot, the themes, and most of all the bravery. This book broke my heart. And, best of all, Russell didn't lose her nerve in writing the ending. It is unforgettable. The whole book is.

Here are a few quotes that illustrate the quality of her writing and the depth of the questions she deals with:

[God] observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering." “Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." “But the sparrow still falls.” 

Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.” 

Feelings are facts. Look straight at 'em and deal with 'em. Work it through, as honestly as you can. If God is anything like a middle-class white chick from the suburbs, which I admit is a long shot, it's what you do about what you feel that matters.” 

The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time. Like most colossal disasters.” 

Have you ever thought about a Twelve Step program for people who talk too much? You could call it On and On Anon.” 

Until you get the measure of your own soul, Jim, don't be quick to condemn a priest, or anyone else for that matter. I'm not scolding you, sweetheart," she said hurriedly. "It's just that, until you've been there, you can't know what it's like to hold yourself to promises you made in good faith a long time ago. Do you hang in there, or cut your losses? Soldier on, or admit defeat and try to make the best of things?" She'd looked a little sheepish then and admitted, "You know, I used to be a real hardass about stuff like this. No retreat, no surrender! But now? Jimmy, I honestly don't know if the world would be better or worse if we all held ourselves to the vows of our youth.” 

You can buy The Sparrow at your local bookstore. If they don't have it in stock, order it from them. Waiting five or six days to support your local bookstore is a small price to support that community resource. If, inexplicably, you have no local bookstore, and you don't have it in you to start one, you can order it online at Indiebound and Amazon.


About Susan Edsall

Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >




“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.”

E.M. Forster

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