Whoo-ie! I love me a good book-related rant, especially when it’s something as unusual and truly inspiring as Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow.
I’m actually reading this book for my transfer Christianity course, and given how the class has gone thus far, I see why. See – it’s a piece of fiction. It’s Sci-Fi at its core. It’s got cursing; it’s got questioning; it’s got secular material. And yet it simultaneously taps into Christian theology – no, more than that, the true struggles, heartache, dark nights, and swells of belief of a faith journey. In that regard…it’s absolutely, perfectly “my cup of tea.”
The prose is beautiful and the emotional clarity and authenticity of the cast is impossible to miss. Every emotional breakthrough, downfall and struggle that the cast experiences grips me completely. The main character, the glue that holds the whole story together, is Emilio Sandoz. I’m totally taken by him. He’s this small Puerto Rican priest with a messy past (Andrew Stillwater, anyone? Well, you know…without the Spanish accent) whose eyes smile for him. The range of women depicted is also stunning. You’ve got an older woman named Anne Edwards, whose agnosticism is tested and who swears like a sailor while possessing a ginormous heart that causes her to fix strangers their ethnic “comfort foods” in her home. On the other end of the spectrum there’s Sofia Mendes, whose stony exterior hides a sharply intelligent, injured, vulnerable young woman.
MMM! I am liking it so much.
To give you a sample of Russell’s wonderful prose, feast upon this:
He [Emilio Sandoz] was aware of his agnosticism, and patient with it. Rather than deny the existence of something he couldn’t perceive himself, he acknowledged the authenticity of his uncertainty and carried on, praying in the face of his doubt.
That really struck me because I just…I understand that feeling. It’s the kind of reassurance I definitely needed. And this line is from Sandoz’ past, not the Sandoz we know he develops into being (a priest that is sensitive enough to befriend those who are antagonistic towards religion), which is also reassuring.
Russell also does not go about this story without humor. Example:
… John had no talent for the game and so he was nearly home before he got it, at the very moment he managed to step into a fresh pile of dog droppings.
Crap, he thought, in observation and in commentary. He stood there in the rain, contemplating his shoe and its adornment and his own guileless good nature.
From what I’ve learned about Augsburg and especially its approach to spiritual things, “The Sparrow” is a sensible choice for one of the staples of their religious courses. It might approach Christianity without the usual hostility of many works of fiction, but while it embraces it, Russell also presents characters whose faith walks are all over the place. Sandoz is the vision of a pious believer and yet we know from Russell’s narration that he’s not always certain. Anne is moral without religion but questions if Sandoz’ conviction might be onto something. Sofia broke from the religion of her childhood but revisits it for its comforting qualities. Some of Sandoz’ superiors, the priests, are definite dogmatics (Johannes Voelker D: D:).
Just the whole tone of her treatment of Christianity and how she grasps the individual’s struggle with their convictions is so raw and authentic and absolutely something I strive for in my writing.
Now, the only trouble I’m left with is getting through another 90 pages by Monday. But when I put it that way – what do I have to worry about? 🙂