Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Children of God

Sipaj, readers! Someone almost started crying in a Tires Plus this morning. That's how good this book is.

Children of God is Mary Doria Russell's sequel to The Sparrow (which I loved) and she continues the stories started in that first book expertly.

Father Emilio Sandoz is still trying to come to grips with what happened to him on the planet Rakhat. He's broken physically, emotionally, and especially spiritually. This Jesuit priest has given up on his faith, much to the consternation of his superiors. They can only come to one conclusion: Sandoz must return to Rakhat. Of course, given what happened to Sandoz, that's not exaclty an easy sell (and no, I won't say what happened to him. Read The Sparrow and find out for yourself!).

In the meantime, life on Rakhat is undergoing a number of radical changes thanks to the Jesuit mission. Without realizing it, Sandoz and his compatriots set off a massive shift in VaRakhati society, tipping the balance between the Runa and the Jana'ata forever.

You know that Sandoz will eventually go back to Rakhat. But what and who will be waiting for him when he returns?

Once again, Russell employs a time-jumping narrative structure. One minute, we're in Naples in 2060. The next, we're back on Rakhat in 2042, shortly after the first Jesuit mission fell apart. Then we're at a point beyond the ending of the book, catching glimpses of what's about to come yet never truly seeing what Russell has up her sleeve. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Russell employs the scheme masterfully.

Once again, my only gripe is with Russell's take on certain matters of faith. I seem to recall reading that Russell was an atheist who converted to Judaism mostly so her children would have a moral up-bringing. It's this background that maddened me when I read The Sparrow, since the Jesuits sounded more like Jewish rabbis than Catholic priests. She does a bit better in Children of God but not by much.

As a result, I'm not certain I'm happy with the conclusions she draws at the end of the books. She seems to be asking the question, "Does God find us in the ashes?" And her answer would appear to be, "Who knows if He's even there out of the ashes?" Naturally I'm not too taken with that.

But what almost redeems her effort is what almost got me crying in a Tires Plus, a statement that Father John Candotti makes at the very end of the book regarding Exodus 33:17-23. I won't go into details about it. I'd rather you discover it for yourself. But I will say this: regardless of Russell's faith (or lack thereof), that thought alone gave me much to mull over.

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