The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell

The sole survivor of humankind’s first trip to space is a ruined, broken Jesuit priest, for whom the encounter with alien life brought him both divinely inspired rapture and despair.

When humanity finally hears a voice from space, it’s music, and thanks to a bold young scientist the first mission to the source of the transmission is financed by the Jesuits, completely under the radar of the rest of the world. However, something has gone horribly wrong, and no one has survived the mission except for Father Emilio Sandoz, returned to Earth with his hands maimed and tarred by accusations that he has committed the blackest acts of which the mind can conceive.

The Sparrow takes its name from Jesus’s words in Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” Often, these words are taken as a comfort–think of the famous hymn “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.” But the verse comes within the larger context of Jesus telling his disciples that if they follow him, they will find pain and suffering, and the words end up seeming like cold comfort. God sees the sparrow falling yet does nothing about it. What kind of God is that?

The theology of suffering is the central concern of The Sparrow, and Mary Doria Russell explores every facet of it with a certain fearlessness that’s quite rare in contemporary discourse about the meaning of pain. She doesn’t let the reality of suffering and the perceived silence of God default into atheism, nor is she content to have her characters mouth platitudes about God’s lovingkindness. She comes quite close to espousing a Calvinist view of the sovereignty of God, without letting that become a convenient way to close off the line of questioning.

The nearest thing to an answer that she provides comes near the end, after Emilio has told the full story of what happened up there. Emilio is shattered, and the only faith he has is in a God who was content to abandon him to evil. After leaving him, one character says to another:

“He’s the genuine article, Reyes. He has been all along. He is still held fast in the formless stone, but he’s closer to God right now than I have ever been in my life. And I don’t even have the courage to envy him.”

Note the terror inherent in that last line. And think again of that other famous sparrow quote, from Hamlet:

“Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t to leave betimes, let be.”

Let be. The figure will emerge from the stone. The suffering will be redeemed. Hamlet is speaking of the inevitability of death, but we can’t ignore that he brings providence into it was well. Perhaps he’s also saying that meaning will come, if we are patient, and that we must be ready to accept the meaning that we are given. That’s the path that Russell leaves Emilio walking upon. He stays alive, despite his will to die, because he can’t accept that he’s discovered the truth just yet. It’s a hopefulness that isn’t ignorant of the pain of the journey. It’s that thing about time, and healing wounds.


PS: Check out Laura Morefield’s blog for another look at sparrows… linking to an article I wrote ages ago about Donnie Darko.

6 thoughts on “The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell”

  1. I read this last summer, in preparation for a college freshman class that I was TAing. The ending made me sob uncontrollably (not the part w/ what happens to Emilio, but what happens to his alien friend…trying to be vague to avoid spoilers). That being said, I felt that the dialogue was too glib-it seemed to always pull me out of myself. It was a neat plot, with neat characters, asking good questions. But none of it felt real, or raw, if you know what I mean. I still planning on reading the sequel at some point though!

  2. I read this book earlier this year and blogged about it here: I had been very ill for some months and not really able to engage with anything I was reading. This was the book that quite literally bought me back to life. I have to say, though, that I wasn’t as convinced by the sequel, although glad that I’d read it.

  3. The Sparrow is one of my favorite! books! ever! I actually didn’t like the sequel (Children of God) as well, but mostly because the ending wasn’t at all how I would have written it. (A bit hypocritical, since I doubt I could have written the almost two whole books that came before it!)

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