When you open a novel by Mary Doria Russell, there’s no way to prepare yourself. Her books are so vibrant, so varied, you can never know what to expect. All you can rely on is that each book will be compelling, animated by ideas and gripping plots as well as by the human hunger for connection.
Creatures of God
The Sparrow, Russell’s first novel (and my favorite), was published in 1998 and takes place in the near future. The Jesuits send into space a mission team composed of a handful of priests, a scientist, a Jewish intellectual who has just escaped a lifetime of indentured servitude, and a doctor and engineer who are married to one another. Scientists have heard music being broadcast from a distant planet, and somehow the Jesuits get the jump on international governments and send their team of linguists, artists and clerics to meet the other creatures of God. Decades later, the lone survivor of the journey, a Puerto Rican priest who speaks a dozen languages, finally tells the Church hierarchy what happened on the planet, when humans first encountered extraterrestrial beings and God broke all their hearts.
Resonance for our own time
In 2008, Russell published Dreamers of the Day, a beautifully written historical novel with deep resonance for our own time. The book is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a Cleveland woman who has spent her life serving and obeying others. When she loses her entire family in the influenza epidemic of 1919, she decides to take a long trip to Egypt. There she falls in with such historical figure as Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill. Agnes – who informs readers that she is telling us this story from beyond the grave – is a minor observer of the Cairo Peace Conference in 1919, in which the colonial powers, notably Britain, carved up the Middle East and created a new state called Iraq. Agnes is a memorable personality, and the Middle East history is fascinating and tragic because we know how it all turns out – and we learn from this novel that it didn’t need to be that way.
If I didn’t already trust Mary Doria Russell as a writer, I would never have picked up her 2011 novel Doc – and that would have been too bad. I have no interest in Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, or the milieu of the American West they personify. But this book was completely engrossing, thanks to the skill and warmth of the author and her narrative voice. The real-life characters Russell presents in this deeply researched novel are nothing like the mythic characters we’ve seen in a hundred movies, and the book is all the more fascinating for that. Her latest novel, Epitaph, builds on Doc and is already collecting strong reviews although it won’t be published until March 2015.
Who is she?
So who is this protean writer? She’s a Ph.D. with degrees in cultural, social and biological anthropology. She’s written six novels, won armloads of literary awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer prize – and had an asteroid named in tribute to one of her novels, an honor few authors can claim. Right now Mary Doria Russell is working on a book about the early days of the American labor movement. I can’t wait to read it.