Updated: Jul 22, 2019
If world-building required a resume, Mary Doria Russell would be the most qualified candidate I’ve ever read. Russell studied cultural & social anthropology before earning her PhD in biological anthropology. She went on to write many scientific articles & technical manuals, including one for a nuclear magnetic resonance scanner before she left academia for some novelty (and novel writing). So, when she writes a novel about first contact with a sentient alien species & the mission through space to get there, you know she knows what she’s talking about. The first time I read The Sparrow, I was blown away by the anthropological aspect of it, and I, at age 12, promptly decided to become an anthropologist.
Re-reading (for the third time) this book, which details the Jesuit mission to the earth-like planet Rakhat, I am drawn more now to what qualifies Russell as an astounding writer, one astoundingly adroit at speaking on the motivations and feeling behind faith. After her Catholic education, Russell converted to Judaism, but she understands the sociological purpose of religion as well and the outlook this may give an agnostic. The characters in The Sparrow are as well built as the world they are flying toward, & the journey of Emilio Sandoz, priest, linguist, & protagonist, toward (& after) being truly vulnerable before God will have every reader facing their own faith, & quite possibly losing it. I have underlined at least one paragraph in every chapter of this book, &, despite the sobbing mess it leaves me in, without fail, every time I read it, I keep reading it. & I keep loaning it out. To every person who has struggled with their faith, or is too set in it, to every person dealing with trauma & hopelessness, to those facing despair & those needing an opportunity to understand it, I recommend this book. Prepare to learn to love the world you see with new eyes, & prepare to “know devastation fully.”