Mary Doria Russell, author of several books including the sci-fi duo The Sparrow and Children of God, was in Lombard this weekend to receive a key to the village (insert colloquial joke here), speak with local high school students about writing, and sell some books. I got to attend her presentation at the Helen Plum Memorial Library, where she worked as a page while growing up, and get her to sign some books for my parents. I've read The Sparrow and am reading Children of God; I wanted to meet this woman who has done the seemingly impossible: written two novels that both my parents would read and enjoy.
The pitch for The Sparrow is brilliantly simple: "Missionaries in Space." Intelligent life is discovered in another solar system; the Jesuits lay down enough money to fund a mission. Calamity ensues. It's a sad and very human portrayal of what happens when worlds collide, when inadvertent error and mixed motives overshadow the better angels of our nature. Mom and Dad loved it; I loved it; my boss loved it; one of the authors I edit loved it. Who knows? Maybe you'd love it.
Russell has written a couple of other novels since these two; not being much for fiction, I'm frankly unlikely to read them. But I did enjoy her presentation. She waxed nostalgic about growing up as a reader, exploiting the addictive quality of reading. She characterized Dr. Seuss books as "a gateway drug" and Nancy Drew as "the tobacco of books": "You look like a smart little girl; I'll bet you'd like Nancy Drew. It'll make you look more mature--it has chapters." And on and on until Russell hit age forty-two and "started cooking up my own crystal meth," switching irrevocably from writing journal articles in her field of anthropology to writing deeply human novels. She says that they're in a second or third round of discussion for a film version of The Sparrow, and--news flash--Brad Pitt is doing a treatment in the hopes that the film will be his Hollywood swan song. Well, well, well . . .
Russell grew up Roman Catholic, attending mass at the church just down the street from the library. "I switched from Catholicism," she told us, "to anthropology, quite frankly," when she was fifteen--a kind of protest against trends she observed in Vatican II, which seems to amount to her preference for old hymns and Latin masses. She didn't go into detail, but she alluded as much. When she became a mother at age thirty-five, however, "cultural relativism became not terribly helpful." By then the notion of the incarnation--God taking on flesh and dwelling among his people (in other words, the divinity of Jesus)--was untenable to her, but Catholicism became a springboard to its own roots for her. "I went deeper, to the faith Jesus practiced." In Judaism she found a faith system that satisfied her intellectually and gave her an ethical foothold for making her way in the world as a woman, a mother, a whatever: "At the heart of Judaism is the question, How do we raise children who want to be good?"
That's a good question. Doesn't do much for me, as an adult with no children, but underneath it is the idea that we live and move and have our being in a real world that extends both before and after us, and the prime directive for us as a species, particularly if we're wired to self-propagate, is to trick our self-interest into being constrained by a moral and ethical compass. I'd argue that with the incarnation Christianity does that more completely: Whereas the Old Testament tells us of the good life, the life lived under God, the New Testament shows it to us, while simultaneously showing us that we are undergirded with a divine love practiced in defiance of our own fickleness. The God who dictates morality and ethics to us also loves us at the cost of his own comfort, his own existence. In the incarnation Jesus shows us that we are rooted and established in love--which is a pretty good first lesson in raising children to want to be good.
The incarnation is what we commemorate with Christmas, what we anticipate with Advent. We're a little early to start talking about that now--not that you'd know from the displays at the megastores--but it's on my mind, thanks to this wry and sassy, deeply human author. You might consider The Sparrow and Children of God as Christmas presents for the thinking reader in your life this year; they're not simple, but they're pretty brilliant.