Often the books that affect me most deeply are the ones in which I struggle to frame why the book was so impactful and why it should be devoured, posthaste, by everyone. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is one such book, which, if you've heard of the book at all, you'll know is both a relevant and ridiculous goal. Relevant in that it is a book written to be impactful and to make you think about life's tougher questions, topics that are tackled over and over again in self-help books and spiritual tomes.
Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the will of God in a world full of hateful acts and immense suffering?
Ridiculousness in that the book has hardly gone unnoticed. Since it was published in 1996, it has won several awards and generated plenty of reviews. Of course, when you find yourself thinking about a book with tears streaming down your cheeks as you drive to a meeting in Annapolis, you kind of don't care about all of those other articles and just need to work through it on screen for yourself.
I realize I've probably painted a picture of this dark, preachy novel, but it's not that at all. The story is told through the discovery of life in another galaxy (the planet Rakhat) and the Jesuit priest, Father Emilio Sanchez, who mounts an expedition to meet and learn more about this alien race. He's joined by a diverse cast of characters (agnostic, atheist and Jesuit alike) who have been his family for years. It flashes back and forth between the discovery in 2019 and 2059/2060, when Sanchez has arrived back on Earth. As the only survivor of this expedition, he has returned an incredibly broken man (both physically and spiritually) and is being asked to account for what happened while on Rakhat. Those who rescued him reported back that he was found acting as a prostitute and had killed a child.
Over the course of the novel, we learn of the great beauty and depravity experienced on the expedition. It touches on issues of faith and fate and intent, and provides a glimpse into the anthropological study of cultures. There are even parallels to be drawn to atrocities like slavery we've seen in our own culture.
A couple of days after I finished The Sparrow, I found myself reading a post on Sojourners by Catherine Woodiwiss called A New Normal: Ten Things I've Learned About Trauma and found myself drawing parallels between Woodiwiss's advice and the Jesuit priests who ministered to and, at times, interrogated Father Sanchez upon his return. Because, let's be frank, trauma is probably the kindest way to describe some of what happened on that trip.
The Sparrow is a page-turner that gives you plenty of weighty issues to chew on, but maybe that's just me. I definitely recommend it. Let me know if you read it so that I can put together a Sparrow drinking party discussion club.