Mary Doria Russell
|Born||August 19, 1950|
Elmhurst, Illinois, U.S.
|Alma mater||University of Michigan|
|Genre||Science fiction, historical fiction|
|Notable works||The Sparrow, A Thread of Grace, Doc, Epitaph|
|Notable awards||James Tiptree, Jr. Award, BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Kurd Lasswitz Preis, ALA Top Pick in Historical Fiction, Ohioana Fiction Prize|
Mary Doria Russell (born August 19, 1950) is an American novelist.
Russell was born in Elmhurst, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Her parents were both in the military, her father a Marine Corps drill instructor and her mother a Navy nurse. She was raised as a Catholic but left the church at age fifteen, and her struggles to figure out how much of that culture to pass on to her children fueled the prominence of religion in her work.
She graduated from Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Illinois, which has registered its chapter of the National English Honor Society in her name (as Mary Doria Russell). She is also a major sponsor of a Glenbard East scholarship established in memory of English teacher Richard Cima.
Russell earned her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign; her M.A. in Social Anthropology at Northeastern University, Boston; and her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Russell's doctoral research concentrations were in bone biology, craniofacial biomechanics, and paleoanthropology. She twice won the Trotter Award for outstanding work on bone by a doctoral student and went on to teach graduate-level osteology in the Anthropology Department of the University of Michigan and human gross anatomy at the Case Western University School of Dentistry in Cleveland, Ohio.
Her major scientific publications focused on Neandertal studies, and included work proposing a biomechanical explanation of the supraorbital torus (browridges) and statistical analyses to distinguish taphonomic evidence of secondary burial from that of butchery.
Russell's fiction has been recognized for meticulous research, fine prose and narrative drive. She has worked in a variety of genres.
Russell's first two novels, The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God—sometimes called the Sparrow series or Emilio Sandoz sequence—(Random House Villard in 1996 and 1998) have been called speculative fiction and focused on the religious and psychological implications of first contact with aliens. Both explore the problem of evil (theodicy) and how to reconcile a benevolent, omniscient, all-powerful deity with lives filled with undeserved suffering.
The Sparrow won the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, and Tiptree annual science fiction book awards (below), and it was the basis for Russell winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1998.; in German translation, Sperling won the Kurd Lasswitz Prize for Best Foreign Novel. Children of God won the American Library Association's Readers Choice award. Together, the novels won the Spectrum Classics Hall of Fame award and earned Russell the Cleveland Arts Council Prize for Literature.
For the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, chief editor John Clute calls Russell an "author who established a strong reputation for cognitive subtlety and narrative power in her brief [science fiction] career; after the Emilio Sandoz sequence ... she turned her interest to other fields."
The rest of Russell's novels have been categorized as historical novels, although she draws from a variety of genres when telling these stories.
A Thread of Grace (Random House, 2005) is a World War II thriller set in Northern Italy and features both the Italian resistance movement and the plight of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution throughout Europe. Much of story is based on accounts by survivors from the period, when many Italian citizens allowed Jews to seek safe harbor in their farmlands, cities, and ports. (Russell herself is of Italian heritage and is a convert to Judaism.)
Dreamers of the Day (Random House, 2008) is a historical romance set in the Midwestern United States and the Middle East during aftermath of the First World War and the Great Influenza. It focuses on the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, when Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and a group of British oilmen invented the modern Middle East, thus setting the region up for a hundred years of war.
Doc (Random House 2011) is a murder mystery as well as a realistic and compassionate portrait of the notorious "gambler and gunman" known as Doc Holliday. Doc is set in Dodge City, Kansas, during 1878, the last year that Dr. John Henry Holliday's tuberculosis was in check long enough for him to practice dentistry, a profession at which he excelled. The plot revolves around the mysterious death of a half-black, half-Indian boy who leaves a remarkable void in the life of the city. Doc was the American Library Association's Top Pick in Historical Fiction as well as the Kansas State Library's Notable Novel and the Great Lakes Great Reads pick.
Epitaph (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015) picks up where Doc left off, following Holliday and the Earp brothers to Tombstone, Arizona, and traces the political and social roots of the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as well as the making of the mythology that surrounds it. Epitaph is deeply researched; in addition to thorough study of the history of those involved, the 60-year-old Russell rode 58 miles on horseback through the mountains surrounding Tombstone, retracing the Earp Vendetta Ride. The novel was called the best ever written on the subject by Earp biographer Allen Barra and was recognized by True West Magazine as the Best Historical Western of 2015. The Ohioana Library Foundation awarded it the Best Fiction Prize of 2016; it also won the Ohioana Readers Choice Award for the year.
The Women of the Copper Country (Atria Books, 2019) is a painstakingly researched novel about the Copper Country strike of 1913–1914, the first unionized strike against all the copper mines in the Copper Country of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The central character, "Big Annie" Clements, is based on "America's Joan of Arc," Anna Clemenc, who founded the Women's Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners and proudly carried the flag in many marches against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Other historical figures, including James MacNaughton, General Manager of Calumet and Hecla, Woodbridge Ferris, governor of Michigan during the strike, and Mother Jones, prominent activist and union organizer, are also elaborately and credibly portrayed. The book received a Michigan Notable Book Award for 2020 from the Library of Michigan.
Russell is active on the lecture circuit, speaking at colleges, universities and libraries.
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