Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell received her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois-Urbana, her M.A. in Social Anthropology from Northeastern University, and her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. In the process of earning her degrees, Russell studied linguistics, genetics, anatomy, archaeology, and geology--all of which have found their way into her critically acclaimed debut novel.

Prior to her first novel, The Sparrow, Russell had only written scientific articles—on subjects ranging from bone biology to cannibalism—and technical manuals for medical equipment as complex as nuclear magnetic resonance scanners. In her own words, she admits, "I had a great time, published a lot of stuff, won a bunch of awards and grants, but eventually got fed up with academia and quit." Making the transition from scientific and technical writing to fiction wasn't easy. Russell estimates, however, that "only about twenty-two anthropologists, world-wide, read my academic publications and nobody reads computer manuals, so I figured that if even just my friends read my novel, I'd be way ahead in terms of readership because I have a lot of friends."

A convert to Judaism, Russell has nevertheless maintained a strong connection with the Catholic education of her childhood. Asked why she created such a detailed look at faith in a higher power and religion in her debut novel, Russell explains, "I wanted to evaluate, as an adult, issues that had lain dormant for me since adolescence, to study the religion of my youth, to revisit the source of my values and ethics. That's why I chose to write about men who are collectively among the most admirable and best educated of Catholic priests, the Jesuits. Writing The Sparrow allowed me to weigh the risks and the benefits of a belief in God, to examine the role of religion in the lives of many people."

Doc

A Novel

Ballantine Books, 2012

Born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday arrives on the Texas frontier hoping that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Soon, with few job prospects, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally with his partner, Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung, classically educated Hungarian whore. In search of high-stakes poker, the couple hits the saloons of Dodge City. And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and a fearless lawman named Wyatt Earp begins— before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology—when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.


Dreamers of the Day

A Novel

Random House, 2008

"I suppose I ought to warn you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: My little story has become your history. You won't really understand your times until you understand mine."

So begins the account of Agnes Shanklin, the charmingly diffident narrator of Mary Doria Russell's compelling new novel, Dreamers of the Day. And what is Miss Shanklin's "little story?" Nothing less than the creation of the modern Middle East at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell met to decide the fate of the Arab world—and of our own.

A forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio still reeling from the tragedies of the Great War and the influenza epidemic, Agnes has come into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel just as the Peace Conference convenes, Agnes, with her plainspoken American opinions–and a small, noisy dachshund named Rosie–enters into the company of the historic luminaries who will, in the space of a few days at a hotel in Cairo, invent the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Neither a pawn nor a participant at the conference, Agnes is ostensibly insignificant, and that makes her a welcome sounding board for Churchill, Lawrence, and Bell. It also makes her unexpectedly attractive to the charismatic German spy Karl Weilbacher. As Agnes observes the tumultuous inner workings of nation-building, she is drawn more and more deeply into geopolitical intrigue and toward a personal awakening.

With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates today's headlines. As enlightening as it is entertaining, Dreamers of the Day is a memorable, passionate, gorgeously written novel.


A Thread of Grace

A Novel

Random House, 2005

It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen-year-old Claudette Blum is learning Italian with a suitcase in her hand. She and her father are among the thousands of Jewish refugees scrambling over the Alps toward Italy, where they hope to be safe at last, now that the Italians have broken with Germany and made a separate peace with the Allies. The Blums will soon discover that Italy is anything but peaceful, as it becomes overnight an open battleground among the Nazis, the Allies, resistance fighters, Jews in hiding, and ordinary Italian civilians trying to survive.

Mary Doria Russell sets her first historical novel against this dramatic background, tracing the lives of a handful of fascinating characters. Through them, she tells the little-known but true story of the network of Italian citizens who saved the lives of forty-three thousand Jews during the war's final phase. The result of five years of meticulous research, A Thread of Grace is an ambitious, engrossing novel of ideas, history, and marvelous characters that will please Russell's many fans and earn her even more.


Children of God

A Novel

Ballantine Books, 1999

Mary Doria Russell's debut novel, The Sparrow, took us on a journey to a distant planet and into the center of the human soul. A critically acclaimed bestseller, The Sparrow was chosen as one of Entertainment Weekly's Ten Best Books of the Year, a finalist for the Book-of-the-Month Club's First Fiction Prize and the winner of the James M. Tiptree Memorial Award. Now, in Children of God, Russell further establishes herself as one of the most innovative, entertaining and philosophically provocative novelists writing today.

The only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth, Father Emilio Sandoz has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus calls upon him for help in preparing for another mission to Alpha Centauri. Despite his objections and fear, he cannot escape his past or the future.

Old friends, new discoveries and difficult questions await Emilio as he struggles for inner peace and understanding in a moral universe whose boundaries now extend beyond the solar system and whose future lies with children born in a faraway place.

Strikingly original, richly plotted, replete with memorable characters and filled with humanity and humor, Children of God is an unforgettable and uplifting novel that is a potent successor to The Sparrow and a startlingly imaginative adventure for newcomers to Mary Doria Russell's special literary magic.


The Sparrow

A Novel

Ballantine Books, 1997

The novel begins in the year 2019, when the SETI program, at the Arecibo Observatory, picks up radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Jesuitorder.

Only one of the crew, Father Emilio Sandoz, a priest, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told in framed flashback, with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Sandoz' interrogation by the Jesuit order's inquest, set up in 2059 to find the truth. Sandoz' return has sparked great controversy – not just because the Jesuits sent the mission independent of United Nations oversight, but also because the mission ended disastrously. Contact with the UN mission, which sent Sandoz back to Earth alone in the Jesuit ship, has since been lost.

From the beginning, Sandoz, a talented Taino linguist born in a Puerto Rican slum, had believed the mission to Rakhat was divinely inspired. Several of his close friends and co-workers, people with a variety of unique skills and talents, had seemingly coincidental connections to Arecibo and one of them, a gifted young technician, was the first to hear the transmissions. In Sandoz's mind, only God's will could bring this group of people with the perfect combination of knowledge and experience together at the moment when the alien signal was detected. These were the people who, with three other Jesuit priests, were chosen by the Society of Jesus to travel to the planet, using an interstellar vessel made out of a small asteroid.

Sandoz tells about how the asteroid flew to the planet Rakhat, and how the crew tried to acclimatize themselves to the new world, experimenting with eating local flora and fauna, then making contact with a rural village – a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, the Runa, clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts. Still, welcomed as 'foreigners', they settle among the natives and begin to learn their language and culture, transmitting all their findings via computer uplink to the asteroid-ship now orbiting above the planet. An emergency use of fuel for their landing craft leaves them stranded on the planet.

When they do meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions, he proves to be of a different species from the rural natives, a Jana'ata. An ambitious merchant named Supaari, he sees in the visitors a possibility to improve his status, while the crew hopes to find an alternative source of fuel in Supaari's city, Gayjur. Meanwhile, the crew begins to grow their own food, introducing the concept of agriculture to the villagers. These seemingly innocent actions and accompanying cultural misunderstandings set into motion the events which lead to the murder of all but Sandoz and one other Earthling, and Sandoz' capture and degradation which is a central mystery in the plot. It is revealed that Sandoz is made a slave of a famed poet/songwriter, whose broadcasts first alerted Earth to Rakhat's existence. Sandoz is physically disfigured. In that culture, it is considered an honour to be dependent upon another, and likewise to have a dependent, so the flesh between Sandoz's metacarpals is cut away to make it seem that he has long elegant fingers which start at his wrists, and with which he cannot even feed himself. Sandoz is routinely forced to sexually satisfy the musician, along with his friends and colleagues, and it is later revealed the songs which Sandoz had originally considered to be a divine revelation are in fact a kind of ballad pornography, relating the songwriter's sexual exploits on broadcast to the populace.

When Sandoz returns to Earth, his friends are dead and gone and his faith, once considered worthy of actual canonization by his superiors, is merely an extension of his bitter anger with the God who sent him to Rakhat. Due to relativistic space-time effects, decades had passed while he has been gone, during which popular outrage at the UN's initial and highly out-of-context report on the mission, and especially Sandoz's role in the tragedy, had left the Society shattered and nearly extinct. As Sandoz painfully explains what really happened, his personal healing can begin, but only time will prove whether the same is true of the Society.


Doc

"If I had a six-shooter, I'd be firing it off in celebration of Doc . . . a deeply sympathetic, aggressively researched and wonderfully entertaining story."—The Washington Post

"A magnificent read . . . filled with action and humor yet philosophically rich and deeply moving . . . more realistic yet more riveting than any movie or TV western . . . Doc Holliday is the tragic hero in this terrific bio-epic. . . . Losing their mythic, heroic sheen, figures like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson become more captivating for their complexity."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Intense, individual characters, so fully realized that readers can almost physically touch them, fill the novel's pages . . . Doc's restrained but magnificent struggle to rise above the indignities of his disease and of life in Dodge . . . is one of the delights of this surprisingly luminous and elegant novel."—The Oregonian

"Fascinating . . . Russell's women are a match for any of the men in Dodge, and their presence at the center of Doc gives the novel an unforced verisimilitude."—The Plain Dealer

"Intoxicating . . . Doc reads like a movie you can't wait to watch."—The Seattle Times

"Grabs us from the opening sentence . . . Russell makes the narrative hum and the characters come alive."—Chicago Tribune

"Well-written and provocative, Doc is a book that will haunt you."—Historical Novels Review

 


Dreamers of the Day

Russell's enjoyable latest historical is told in the exuberant, posthumous voice (yes, it's narrated from the afterlife) of Agnes Shanklin, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Cedar Glen, a town near Cleveland, Ohio. After the influenza epidemic of 1919 strikes down Agnes's family, a childless and unmarried Agnes settles the family estate, acquires financial independence and adopts an affable dachshund named Rosie. Accompanied by Rosie, Agnes travels to Cairo during the Cairo Peace Conference, where she befriends Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia among other historical heavy hitters. She also falls in love with the charismatic Karl Weilbacher, a German spy whose interest in Agnes may have less to do with romance than Agnes will allow herself to believe. Agnes's travelogues, while marvelously detailed, distract from the increasingly tense romantic play between Agnes and Karl. When a more worldly-wise Agnes returns home, her life—first as an investor wrecked by the Depression and then a librarian until her death in 1957—remains low-keyed. Though the bizarre, whimsical ending doesn't quite gel, Russell has created an instantly likable heroine whose unlikely adventures will keep readers hooked to the end.

 


A Thread of Grace

Starred Review. Busy, noisy and heartfelt, this sprawling novel by Russell—a striking departure from her previous two acclaimed SF thrillers, The Sparrow and Children of God—chronicles the Italian resistance to the Germans during the last two years of WWII. Three cultures mingle uneasily in Porto Sant'Andrea on the Ligurian coast of northwest Italy—the Italian Jews of the village, headed by the chief rabbi Iacopo Soncini; the Italian Catholics, like Sant'Andrea's priest Don Osvaldo Tomitz, who befriend and shelter the Jews; and the occupying Germans invited by Mussolini's crumbling regime. In the last camp is the drunken, tubercular Nazi deserter, Doktor Schramm, a broken man who confesses to Don Osvaldo that while working in state hospitals and Auschwitz, he was responsible for murdering 91,867 people. Meanwhile, Jewish refugees in southern France, including Albert Blum and his teenage daughter, Claudette, are fleeing across the Alps to Italy, hoping to find sanctuary there. Russell pursues numerous narrative threads, including the Blums' perilous flight over the mountains; Italian Jew Renzo Leoni's personal coming to terms with his participation in the Dolo hospital bombing during the Abyssinian campaign in 1935; the dangerous frenzy of the Italian partisans; and the bloody-mindedness of German officers resolved to carry out Hitler's murderous racial policy despite mounting evidence of its futility. The action moves swiftly, with impressive authority, jostling dialogue, vibrant personalities and meticulous, unexpected historical detail. The intensity and intimacy of Russell's storytelling, her sharp character writing and fierce sense of humor bring fresh immediacy to this riveting WWII saga.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

 


Children of God

Russell follows her speculative first novel, The Sparrow, with a sequel that will please even readers new to her interplanetary missionaries. Having returned from a disastrous, 21st-century expedition to the planet Rakhat, Jesuit Father Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor of the mission, faces public rage over the order's part in the war between the gentle Runa and the predatory Jana'ata?fury more than matched by the priest's own self-hatred and religious disillusionment. In the sequel, he is forced to return to Rakhat with a new expedition more interested in profits than prophets. When they discover the planet in turmoil and the Runa precariously in power, the temptation to interfere is more than they can withstand. As in her first book, Russell uses the entertaining plot to explore sociological, spiritual, religious, scientific and historical questions. Misunderstandings between cultures and people are at the heart of her story. It is, however, the complex figure of Father Sandoz around which a diverse interplanetary cast orbits, and it is the intelligent, emotional and very personal feud between Father Sandoz and his God that provides energy for both books.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

 


The Sparrow

An enigma wrapped inside a mystery sets up expectations that prove difficult to fulfill in Russell's first novel, which is about first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The enigma is Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist whose messianic virtues hide his occasional doubt about his calling. The mystery is the climactic turn of events that has left him the sole survivor of a secret Jesuit expedition to the planet Rakhat and, upon his return, made him a disgrace to his faith. Suspense escalates as the narrative ping-pongs between the years 2016, when Sandoz begins assembling the team that first detects signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and 2060, when a Vatican inquest is convened to coax an explanation from the physically mutilated and emotionally devastated priest. A vibrant cast of characters who come to life through their intense scientific and philosophical debates help distract attention from the space-opera elements necessary to get them off the Earth. Russell brings her training as a paleoanthropologist to bear on descriptions of the Runa and Jana'ata, the two races on Rakhat whose differences are misunderstood by the Earthlings, but the aliens never come across as more than variations of primitive earthly cultures. The final revelation of the tragic human mistake that ends in Sandoz's degradation isn't the event for which readers have been set up. Much like the worlds it juxtaposes, this novel seems composed of two stories that fail to come together.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.


A candid exchange about religion between Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Mary Doria Russell, NPR Book Critic Alan Cheuse ('To Catch the Lightning') and "With Good Reason" radio host Sarah McConnell. Cheuse and Russell were interviewed as part of the 2009 Virginia Festival of the Book.


Best-selling historical novelists Mary Doria Russell (Dreamers of the Day) and Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book) talk about "book pusher" librarians, book lust, and where they stand on e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle at the January 11, 2008 Exhibits Round Table Author Forum at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia.

Also visit Mary's personal website for additional information about her books, her life, speaking events and signings.