Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review of The Fall of a Sparrow by Robert Hellenga

In The Fall of a Sparrow, Robert Hellenga gives the reader many interesting points to ponder and varied locations to visit, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Italy among them. Woody and Hannah Woodhull had three daughters, Cookie, Sara, and Ludi. In 1980 Cookie, age 22, was killed in a terrorist bombing in Italy. This novel, partly written in the third person about Woody and partly written in the first person by Sara, tells how the waters of the Woodhull family’s lives rippled out in years following this tragic event hurled into their pond by God or the gods.

I mention God because before part one begins, the author gives three quotes. One is from the bible, Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father knowing.” But that quote is perhaps the last evidence of any faith that God cares about Cookie and the Woodhull family. Since Woody is a classics professor, his line of thinking almost always supports mythological views of distant, impersonal, capricious gods that cannot shed light on baffling Why’s after a bombing. And Woody’s faith life seems empty; he believes he is on his own in this world with no divine comfort or guidance.

The second quote, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, uses sparrow imagery to describe the fragility of life. Reading The Fall of a Sparrow certainly accentuated that sense of vulnerability. The third quote, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, V.II. When I saw Woodhull family members work through their grief and figure out who they were and wanted to be after Cookie’s senseless death, I could see the aptness of that quote. Indeed, Hellenga reminds us of the Shakespeare quote toward the end of the novel.

I truly liked and empathized with the characters in this novel. Some parts, like the sexually explicit exploits of a middle-aged man, I could not identify with and found uncomfortable to read. But other aspects, like Woody’s questioning his relevance and identity and abilities in middle age, resonated with me. The stories of Woody’s, Hannah’s, Sara’s, and Ludi’s lostness leading to foundness give four very real pictures of grief. Woody’s being in academia influences the novel’s verbiage; many academic references were above my head. As I mentioned earlier, the spiritual emptiness of classical civilizations permeated this story, and I found grief with no hope of joy depressing. That the story is rich in music, growth, and cross-cultural experiences makes it worth a read though.

No comments: