Saturday, November 20, 2010

Children of God

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 1998
Trade Paperback , 454 pages
ISBN-13: 9780449004838
Sequel to The Sparrow
very highly recommended - reread

From the Publisher
Mary Doria Russell's debut novel, The Sparrow, took us on a journey to a distant planet and into the center of the human soul.... Now, in Children of God, Russell further establishes herself as one of the most innovative, entertaining and philosophically provocative novelists writing today.
The only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth, Father Emilio Sandoz has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus calls upon him for help in preparing for another mission to Alpha Centauri. Despite his objections and fear, he cannot escape his past or the future.
Old friends, new discoveries and difficult questions await Emilio as he struggles for inner peace and understanding in a moral universe whose boundaries now extend beyond the solar system and whose future lies with children born in a faraway place.
Strikingly original, richly plotted, replete with memorable characters and filled with humanity and humor, Children of God is an unforgettable and uplifting novel that is a potent successor to The Sparrow and a startlingly imaginative adventure for newcomers to Mary Doria Russell's special literary magic.

My Thoughts:

Essentially, Children of God and The Sparrow are one story separated into two volumes. While I count The Sparrow as one of my favorite books, in reality my appreciation encompasses both books and they must be read (and reread) together. On the surface, they are science fiction, but on a deeper level together they examine faith under fire and why God allows evil to occur in the universe. There won't be any spoilers about the plot in this review. Both my copies of The Sparrow and Children of God included an interview with the author and a readers guide.

Mary Doria Russell says: "The Sparrow was about the role of religion in the lives of many people, from atheist to mystic, and about the role of religion in history, from the Age of Discovery to the Space Age. I suppose that Children of God is about the aftermath of irreversible tragedy, about the many ways that we struggle to make sense of tragedy. It's about the stories we tell ourselves, and the ways we justify our decisions, to bring ourselves to some kind of peace. And I guess it's about the way time reveals significance, strips away self-serving excuses, lays truth bare, and both blunts pain and sharpens insight. (pg. 441, in Children of God, "A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell")

The title, Children of God, refers to the concept that we are all children of God and needed to complete God's plan. Each individual is valued and part of the plan, whether they know it or not. But the title also literally refers to the effect of children on society and, over time, their role in God's plan. Russell's science fiction format allows one character, Emilio Sandoz, to experience how much our perceptions of events and actions can change and evolve over time. She meant time itself to be a character.

When asked if there is a moral to the story, Mary Doria Russell says, "Don't be so damned quick to judge! The less we know about someone, the easier we find it to make a snap decision, to condemn or sneer or believe the worst. The closer you get, the more you know about the person or the situation in question, the harder it gets to be sure of your opinion, so remember that, and try to cut people a little slack. Like Emilio says, 'Everything we thought we understood--that was what we were most wrong about.' So the moral of the story is to be suspicious of your own certainty. Doubt is good." (pg. 447, in "A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell")

My rereads have only confirm how much I appreciate both of these novels. While The Sparrow has a greater emotional impact, Children of God completes the story.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


Sweating and nauseated, father Emilio Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left of his hands. opening

It's one thing to know the truth, he thought. To live with it is altogether something else. pg. 4

Sandoz had fought them every step of the way: no priest, no matter how desperate, wishes to undermine another's faith. But Vincenzo Giuliani had been serenely confident that he could analyze error and correct it, understand failure and forgive it, hear sin and absolve it.
What he had been unprepared for was innocence. pg. 4

What is it in humans that makes us so eager to believe ill of one another? Giuliani asked himself that night. What makes us so hungry for it? Failed idealism, he suspected. We disappoint ourselves and then look around for other failures to convince ourselves: it's not just me. pg. 5

Celestina Giuliani learned the word "slander" at her cousin's baptism. That is what she remembered about the party, mostly, aside from the man who cried. pg. 6

It had taken four priests eight months of relentless pressure to get Emilio Sandoz to reveal what Celestina had learned in two minutes. Evidently, the Father General observed wryly, the best man for the job can sometimes be a four-year-old girl. pg. 10

"You are doing the work ad majorem Dei gloriam, as far as I am concerned," Giuliani said lightly. "If the greater glory of God no longer motivates you, you may consider that you are working out your room and board, provided gratis by the Society of Jesus, along with round-the-clock security, sound-analysis systems and research assistance. The engineering that went into those braces was not cheap, Emilio. We've paid out over a million six in hospital bills and medical fees alone. That's money we don't have anymore—the Society is all but bankrupt. I have tried to protect you from these concerns, but things have changed for the worse since you left." pg. 13

"The Society has a monopoly on two Rakhati languages. You want me to train interpreters." pg. 14

"I won't go back." He was almost asleep. The drug always knocked him out when administered by injection. No one knew why; his physiological status was still not normal. "God," he mumbled, "don' do this to me again. Kids and babies. Don' do this to me again . . ."
Brother Edward's eyes met the Father General's. "That was prayer," he said firmly a few minutes later.
"Yes," Vincenzo Giuliani agreed. He beckoned now to the Camorristi and stood back as one of them gathered up the limbs and lifted the light, limp body, carrying Sandoz back to the car. "Yes," he admitted, "I'm afraid it was." pg. 14

It was absurd in hindsight—the very idea that a handful of humans might have been able to do everything right the first time. Even the closest of friends can misunderstand one another, he reminded himself. First contact—by definition—takes place in a state of radical ignorance, where nothing is known about the ecology, biology, languages, culture and economy of the Other. On Rakhat, that ignorance proved catastrophic.
You couldn't have known, Vincenzo Giuliani thought, hearing his own pacing, but remembering Emilio's. It wasn't your fault.
Tell that to the dead, Emilio would have answered. pg. 21

No one was deliberately evil. We all did the best we could. Even so, what a mess we made of everything... pg. 143

"But the children of Abraham? They look God straight in the face. Praise. Argue! Dicker, complain. Takes a lot of guts to deal with the Almighty like that." pg. 144

About a millennium ago, Maimonides wrote that whenever anything in the universe strikes us as stupid, or ugly, or absurd, it's because our breadth of knowledge is too narrow and our depth of understanding is too shallow for us to perceive God's intent. That was the theology I was drawing on in Children of God. To me, it meant that God works on a vast canvas, and He paints with time. It's only with hindsight, sometimes many generations after an event, that we see the significance of some tragedy or the importance of some obscure turning point in history. pg. 441, in "A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell"


samantha.1020 said...

These are two books that I have had on my TBR list for some time now. I've heard such good things about The Sparrow and really feel that I need to take the time to read these. I'm glad to hear that you liked them so much. Maybe I'll finally remember to grab them when I'm at the library next!

Lori L said...

They would be on any list I made of all time favorite books, Samantha. They are that good.

Jeanne said...

I like the way you put this--even though Children of God isn't as wonderful, it does complete the story, and there's satisfaction in that.

Lori L said...

Thank you, Jeanne. The aftermath and recovery after any huge, traumatic event rarely emotionally impact people as much as the event, but are necessary to completely tell the story.