Over the weekend I was sorting out my book shelves and came across a dog-eared and battered copy of Madeline L'Engle's 1962 novel A Wrinkle In Time.
L'Engledied in 2007 at the age of 88. She was a sometimes controversial figure - her universalist and ecstatic version of Christianity drew criticism from fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who found her take on Christianity heretical at best. In her book Penguins and Golden Calves she reflected on icons and idols, arguing the icons are windows to God and idols block our view of God. In one memorable passage she reflected on aging, sharing the experience of having her granddaughters live with her - both her joy at their presence and her equal joy when they moved out. She described the experience of no longer stepping over tea cups as both joyous and a bit painful, a reminder of the emptiness in her New York City apartment. She reflected as well on family as something we have turned into an idol, a golden calf before which we fall down and worship.
In her novels, her main characters are often outcasts, misfits; people who are filled with love but isolated from their social world. L'Engle's childhood was painful and isolating - she physically awkward and often emotionally isolated in boarding schools as a result of her family frequently reloacting. Her father suffered injuries in WW1. The family moved regularly in hopes of finding a place where he could he be healthy. When he died, in 1935, she arrived home too late to say goodbye. She described her parents in one of her books as too immersed in their own pain to notice her pain. Her most famous novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was published in 1962, when she was nearing her mid 40s. The book won a Newbery award - the highest honor a children's novel can receive.
A Wrinkle in Time is a challenging novel. The plot is uneven, moving forward in leaps and bounds and then suddenly stalling, then starting again before stalling again. It ends with a rush, several central questions and characters unresolved. The abrupt ending is, to my knowledge, never resolved in her later writing.
The story begins with the infamous line "It was a dark and stormy night", then moves quickly into an opening chapter that has a dream like quality in which some details are extremely clear while others simply fade away. L'Engle introduces us to Meg, Charles Wallace and their mother Dr. Kate Murry. Meg is emotionally bereft since the mysterious disappearance of her physicist father some months before. Her youngest brother, Charles Wallace is her best friend and closest ally; her brilliant, beautiful scientist mother is devoted to her children but equally emotionally bereft by her husband's disappearance. As the story opens, Meg is awake in her attic bedroom while a wild storm lashes the house. She descends to the kitchen where Charles Wallace is waiting for her, with the hot cocoa on the stove. Mrs. Murry joins them. They are then joined by the mysterious Mrs Whatsit. The first chapter gallops to a conclusion and we're left with the daytime world of alarm clocks and school and bus rides home.
Meg and Charles Wallace encounter Calvin O'Keefe and feel and immediate bond and connection. Calvin joins the Murry's for dinner and our three main characters set off on a cosmic adventure with Mrs Whatsit and her companions, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, along the way they meet a cast of supporting characters, rescue Meg's father, nearly die, recover, find themselves on an alien planet with sightless beings, and then at last return safely home.
L'Engle's story moves unsteadily along. The first chapter engrosses readers, but the next chapter is slow. The characters set off on their adventure and take several side trips that don't move the plot forward but which invite the reader and the characters to imagine a vast and varied and amazing universe in which stars have consciousness and can shapeshift and time travel, in which a disembodied brain dominates and entire planet and bends it to IT's will.
The main villain of L'Engle's story is IT - a disembodied, telepathic brain that controls the actions of everyone on the planet Camazotz. IT, however, is an expression of and ally to the real adversary of L'Engle's word - the black thing, the source of all evil. IT's evil is the denial of individuality, of free will. Citzens of Camazotz are utterly devoid of freedom; they are utterly incapable of doing or thinking for themselves. IT promises absolute happiness by removing the stress of uncomfortable individuality - a promise which Meg instinctively rejects; she'd rather be unhappy and herself and happy and have no self. The scenes on Camazotz are a mixed bag - the sequences involving the Man with Red Eyes bring the story to a complete halt. The transition from that scene, the tour through CENTRAL Central Intelligence and Mr. Murry's move in fits and spurts before the characters wind up at IT's side. The Man with the Red Eyes is as much victim as villain.
Confronting IT, the characters realize they cannot hope to survive. Meg's father "tessers" - folds space so they can escape to a nearby planet where they are treated for their injuries. Charles Wallace agrees to go into IT; he is absorbed into IT's awareness; Meg, her father and Calvin escape. Meg returns to Camazotz to rescue her beloved baby brother. She is told by Mrs Which, the eldest and most powerful of the three mysterious women (who the book calls Guardian Angels), that she has something IT does not. Meg finds herself standing by IT struggling to figure out what she has that IT doesn't. She realizes that for all the power and control, the disembodied brain does not know love. She reaches out to Charles Wallace, selflessly declaring her absolute love for him which frees him from IT; Meg's superpersonal selfless love of Charles Wallace is powerful enough to rescue him without defeating IT. Evil, the black thing, remains in the universe. But the Murry's have been rescued from it. They are returned home through the power of the Mrs Which. The novel ends abruptly, no coda, no homecoming between the reunited Murry parents. As readers, we're left with many questions - most importantly "What happens next?"
L'Engle would write four more novels specifically about the Murry and O'Keefe families, as well as three focusing on Meg and Calvin's daughter, Polly O'Keefe. The book was adapted to a well-intetioned but unfortunate movie in 2003. Throughout the books in the series, L'Engle explores the idea of good and evil and the role ordinary and not so ordinary people play in the eternal struggle between good and evil. Theologically, L'Engle seems to have embraced mystical and ecstatic Christianity, a joyous and joyful spirituality, grounded in the belief that love conquers evil. A Wrinkle in Time is filled with literary, mythological and spiritual allusions (Camazotz and Ixchel are both names from Mayan mythology, Uriel of course is the Archangel; Mrs Who regularly quotes literature; the lengthy song on Uriel is a paraphrase of a psalm). In addition, the book includes some plays on words - one character is named The Happy Medium.
A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite childhood novels. I reread it over the weekend - for an adult it's a quick read. I'm not sure how well it stands the test of time. Written in a pre-personal computer era, the science seems dated. Although L'Engle liked to say the book and its sequels took place in kairos or pure, non-clock time, the book's setting is clearly in the early sixties. Later novels in the series reflect the changing technological world (i.e. in Many Waters the Murry twins type on their mother's personal computer). The plot which seemed so compelling when I was in third grade seems less so now, it's flaws and odd pacing clearly apparent. Yet L'Engle's characters retain a realism and freshness that exceeds the novel's shortcomings. Meg, awkward and uncomfortable in her skin, a social misfit, retains a passionate, fierce love for those around her, Charles Wallace has a childlike naivete. Calvin seems more wry and sardonic. Mrs. Murry - given only a few scenes - is nevertheless a fully realized woman, intelligent yet yearning for her lost husband. The immortal characters retain their mystery without seeming hokey or contrived.
As I re-shelved my dog-eared and battered copy of L'Engle's novel, I felt a strange sadness. I will never read it again for the first time, never feel that excitement, never wonder what will happen on the next page, and yet, it is like having tea with an old friend, familiar and reassuring. In my mind, I can still see the circle of light from the reading lamp in childhood bedroom, feel softness of the comforter wrapped around me from when I first read the book. A return, a journey into the past. An experience perhaps of kairos.
Cross posted at OneUtah.