Ambassador of Books ~ Book Club Madam ~ Blogger Gal

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Children of God

by Mary Doria Russell
436 pages

"If I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God's will too and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. [...] But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions.  The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances, is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God." - Fr. Emilio Sandoz speaking, on page 5

Children of God (Ballantine Reader's Circle)*** About the Book ***

In this follow-up to her incredibly powerful book THE SPARROW, Mary Doria Russell returns to the character of Father Emilio Sandoz and his struggle to reconcile his experiences on the planet Rahkat.

In the previous book Sandoz believed he was called by God to make contact with the inhabitants of a newly discovered planet.  After living there in peace with the two alien species for a long time, Sandoz realizes that all is not as it seems.  Tragedy strikes,  and a mentally and physically broken Sandoz is the only member of the expedition to make it back to Earth.

Now Sandoz has begun to heal in mind and body but his faith in a loving God has been shattered.  In a strange twist of events Sandoz travels back to Rahkat - despite his vow never to return - only to find life there completely different than when he left.

This is much more than a "genre novel."  Russell uses the scifi elements in this book to help us examine the big questions in life: Do good intentions matter if the result is bad? Does the end justify the means? Is there really a God or is it the concept of belief itself that is important? 

*** Why I Read It ***

After our successful read-a-long of THE SPARROW, Florinda and I decided to continue on and read the next book together as well.  Both books were re-reads for us but we felt there was a lot to be discussed in them and that not enough people have read these amazing books.

*** My Thoughts ***

This was one of the first books I reviewed when I started this blog.  Here's a bit of what I had to say back then:
While I sometimes got frustrated with [THE SPARROW] I never did with this book. It goes more deeply into the characters, both human and “alien”. The culture is much more prevalent that in the first book as well. [... I think of THE SPARROW] as the background to the real story in this book.
After reading it again I still stand by what I said, but of course I have much more to add now. (You're not really surprised, are you?)

I love this book.  I loved the first book, but I love this one even more.  In my review of THE SPARROW I talked about the thing that bothered me in regard to Emilio's outlook on life.  Here's a bit of what I said then:
All along Sandoz has marveled that God has been working through many, many years to bring His plan to fruition. He believes that the whole purpose of God’s plan was to make contact with this alien race. But what if that was NOT the purpose of the plan? What if God is still enacting the beginning part of His plan, and this is only a step in the right direction? THAT is what I think Sandoz is missing – he is making God’s plan all about him, rather than trying to see himself as part of an even larger plan.
CHILDREN OF GOD (CoG) provides the rest of the story, allowing the reader to see the big picture.  That is the essence of why I love this book so much more than the previous one.  This quote from the book illustrates my point:
If I am to sustain my belief in a good and loving deity, in a God who is not arbitrary and capricious and vicious, I must believe that some higher purpose is served by all this. And I must believe that the greatest service I can do Emilio Sandoz is to make it possible for him to discover what that purpose may have been. - page 156
For me CoG is like the second, more important, half of the story - without it, the first part doesn't mean anything.

Reading THE SPARROW was a nerve-wracking process for me; there was so much foreshadowing of the "awful event" that it made me physically anxious.  Reading CoG was an easier and less intense experience.   There are some horrible things that happen in CoG but the affect on the reader is, in my opinion, much less intense.

As a side note, my re-read of CoG was unexpectedly enhanced by several other books I read recently.  I detailed the connections in another post, in case you want to check it out.

I highly, HIGHLY recommend these two books by Mary Doria Russell.  They give the reader so much to think about - they'd be fantastic book club selections!

*** Answering the Discussion Questions ***

As part of the read-a-long I posted discussion questions for participants to answer.  Below are my thoughts on a few of the questions.  Be warned: this section WILL include spoilers.
Over and over in this book (and in THE SPARROW) characters reiterate that they did not mean to do harm, or they did things with the best intentions.  Do their good intentions make them less responsible for the outcome of their actions?  Do intentions mean anything in the long run?  
Intentions are VERY important.  Unintended consequences are an unfortunate part of life; there is only so much you can do to prepare for possible eventualities before you finally have to act.  For me, this goes back to a conversation in THE SPARROW about the difference between "responsibility" and "culpability" in relation to an unexpected consequence. This does not excuse you from trying to fix any problems resulting from your actions, but your original intentions are vitally important regardless of the outcome.
On page 219 Danny thinks to himself: "if you believe in God's sovereignty and if you believe in God's goodness, then what happened to Sandoz must be part of a larger plan; and if that is so, you can help this one soul and serve God by returning with him to Rakhat." Later he uses this as justification for kidnapping Sandoz.  In your opinion, does the end justify the means?  Do you think that is what the author is saying though the actions of Danny, Vicenzo Guiliani, and the Pope?  Was it right for Sandoz to be taken against his will, given how the second mission turns out? 
I can't say that the end justifies the means but I can certainly understand feeling that way.  And I can't say what I would be capable of if the end result involved, say, keeping Kiddo safe.  That said, I don't think it was right to bring Sandoz back to Rakhat against his will despite how things turned out in the end.  (As an aside, did anyone else's book have the author interview in the back where she addressed this specific question? I found that entire interview fascinating but especially this part.)
History and religious literature are both packed with examples indicating that God's favor brings not wealth and happiness, but agony and torture. How could Sandoz, a Jesuit priest inculcated with stories of martyred saints, feel so betrayed by God? Is there a difference between what happened to Sandoz and what happened to martyred saints throughout history?

This was really my biggest issue with Emilio's character.  Not just that he reacted the way he did to his abuse - that, to me, is a wholly understandable result of being human.  But his attitude toward God even after his body and mind began to heal was completely beyond my comprehension.  The way I see it, there are two kinds of evil in the world: one is that caused by people who have free will, and the other is the result of living in a imperfect world (tidal waves, hurricanes, etc - natural events that aren't the caused by people).  Just because you are doing what you believe God wants you to do, there is no guarantee that either kind of evil won't affect you.  That is just the way the world works, and it boggles my mind that Emilio doesn't GET that.

*** In the end ... ***

I could write and talk on and on about this book - there is just so much packed in there worth discussing! I'm glad to know that there are others out there reading and reviewing it this month and you can bet I'll be commenting as soon as I see posts go up.

If you haven't read this, what the heck are you waiting for?! Get a copy of THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD then prepare to have your worldview questioned and to reevaluate what you believe, because that's what these books will do.


Unknown said...

Yes, ma'am I am going to pick up The Sparrow and Children of God. Thanks for putting these books on my radar!

Have a great week!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Alison - YAY! I can't wait to see what you think of them!

Beth F said...

So the verdict is to add these to the wish list? If you insist. :)

Florinda said...

I'm so glad to be re-reading this with you, and I think I'm getting more out of it the second time around! But since I'm still in the midst of it, I won't say too much else right now...

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Beth F - YES that IS the verdict. And you have tell me what you think when you eventually read them.

Florina - Thanks so much for agreeing to co-host with me! I can't wait to see what you have to say when you finish.

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