Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time was a beloved classic in my childhood, and re-reading it now I wonder why I never sought out the rest of the books in the series. It could be that Wrinkle is such a wonderfully self-contained volume that I never felt the need, but now I find myself wondering about the outcome of Meg Murry and her family in their crusade against the Black Thing that threatens Earth.

I say that it is self-contained, and it is--for a serial book, the characters experience quite a bit of well-written growth, traceable, significant, and believable. At the heart of the tale is Meg, who is not as brilliant as her precocious brother Charles Wallace (who reminds me of so many Salinger creations) nor as communicative as her friend Calvin O'Keefe, but comes to learn that her own modest gifts are quite important. I think that this depiction carries an incredibly subtle message, championing the significance of "ordinary people." I mean this completely seriously; it is not only children but many adults in this world who seem to have internalized the idea that exceptional people are the only ones who matter. Many YA authors seem to want to stress how familiar their heroes and heroines are, how like you, the reader, but these are sympathy games. Meg Murry's ordinariness is not a ploy to get you to identify with her; instead, it is a crucial plot point that shows that those gifts available to all people--such as a learned and well-practiced capacity for love--often trump the undeserved brilliance or skill of others.

I am rambling. This book is self-contained but it is not, like Tuck Everlasting, tight. The prose is well-mannered, but the plot is all over the place, racing from Earth to Orion's Belt to the Stepford-like planet of Camazotz to the gray world of Aunt Beast. It is a book that really embraces imagination, and I am certain now that this is why it appealed to me so much as a child. It is full of great images: Camazotz, where every child bounces a ball at the same time, in the same rhythm. Aunt Beast, who is faceless and blind and crowned with tentacles and fur. It owes much to mid-century science fiction, I think, which was bizarre, vivid, and frequently absurd, replete with "space operas" not unlike this one--in contrast to today's science fiction, which endeavors to be sleek, or bleak. But where an adult science fiction novelist would have felt the urge to explain all away in some pseudoscientific babble, L'Engle manages to spin an entire universe from one relatively simple concept: tesseracts, which she describes as way to move through space and time using the fifth dimension. (Note: in reality, a tesseract can be simply defined as a fourth-dimensional cube. Here's an animation. Don't think too long about it.)

So, no, it is not tightly written, but it does manage to balance all its messiness and strangeness on the head of a pin, so to speak. Tuck Everlasting, by contrast, is unfortunately lacking in color and wonder.

Another thing I did not recall about the book is how very Christian in its outlook it is--there are several explicit references to Bible verses, and when young Charles Wallace speaks to the children's guides--three extradimensional beings known as Mrs Who, Mrs Whatsit, and Mrs Which--about the Black Thing which is enveloping Earth, he asks why no one has thought to fight it. But, the guides tell him, there have been many warriors against the Black Thing, and Charles Wallace, suddenly realizing, rattles off a list of famous artists, thinkers, and religious figures. But first and foremost on his list is Jesus. Buddha is on there too, of course, but there is no mistaking; in L'Engle's universe, primacy is reserved for Jesus. That's all right, I think; there is little patronizing or indoctrinating about A Wrinkle in Time. Rather, I think it is a much fairer and nuanced depiction of Biblical wisdom than I hear in church every week. It is a Christian book, but to L'Engle's credit, her sparing use of religious imagery gives the few instances great power.

5 comments:

Brooke said...

I read this for the first time in fifth grade and there was a big stir because several of the parents did not want their children to read this book due to religious reasons and they were Christians. When I read it later on I remember thinking it strange that they didn't realize it had Christian undertones to it. I suppose, though, if you only read a brief plot discription you might be able to easily take it for something else.

I enjoyed this review.

Carlton said...

I watched that tesseract animation for about 3 hours last night. I had to call in sick today.

Elizabeth said...

Is there an edition of this book without an embarrassing cover? I want to look cool while reading children's books on the bus.

Carlton said...

I would argue that that cover is pretty damn cool.

Josette said...

Haha! Elizabeth's comment made me laugh. But the cover above gave me a clearer picture of what Mrs Whatsit looked like too.

This book was really different...no wonder it got rejected so many times! But I'm glad that it got published. I did not really enjoy the book but just felt good that I read it. :) Here's my review.