82 pages 2 hours read

Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, is a science-fiction novel that follows the life of Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, and his friends, as they prepare for and then embark on a journey to the planet Rakhat. Defying conventional linear storytelling, each chapter shifts from past to present, with the entirety of the novel spanning from 2019 to 2060 and taking place between Earth and Rakhat. The protagonist of the novel is Father Emilio Sandoz; however, the novel is in the omniscient third-person point of view, and each of the many characters becomes an intimate part of Emilio’s story, with the reader having access to the thoughts and feelings of not only those characters but also the sentientcreatures on Rakhat.

The story opens in Rome, in the year 2059. Father Emilio Sandoz is introduced as being so ill that he can’t speak or uncurl from the fetal position. It’s made clear that he is the sole survivor of a Jesuit mission trip to Rakhat, a planet in Alpha Centauri. The Father General of the Society of Jesus, Vincent Giuliani, and two other priests look after Emilio as he slowly heals mentally, physically, and emotionally from the trauma he experienced on Rakhat. The novel jumps back and forth in space and time, and consists of Emilio’s present condition, while being nursed by the priests, and his flashbacks to how he met his friends and what happened to them on Rakhat. The primary tension and driving force behind the plot is the Father General’s interrogations into what happened to Sandoz. Early in the novel, it’s revealed that two men from the U.N. rescued Sandoz on the alien planet. These men sent reports back to Earth stating that when they found Sandoz, he had murdered a Rakhat child and been prostituting himself. This information was leaked to the public, causing a scandal for the Jesuits. To this end, while the Father General genuinely cares for Emilio by nursing him back to health, he also has an ulterior motive for secretly housing him in Naples and hiring men to look after him: he wants Emilio to be well enough to talk about what really happened on Rakhat.

For most of the novel, Emilio is too shaken and sick to talk about what happened on Rakhat. However, the more he heals, the more details are given. The novel, which is predominantly a work of science fiction, is also a highly philosophical, contemplative inquiry into what it means to have faith and belief in God, and the price of that belief.