23 April 2012

Re-Read : A Wrinkle In Time

First Edition 1962.
A Wrinkle In Time
Author: Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1962)
238 pages

There is a moment as a kid when your mind expands. When you suddenly are aware that the world stretches beyond your home and family. That the universe is expansive, science is weird, space is amazing.

For one shining moment everything is possible.

This book was a huge part of that for me. I have a love of knowledge, science, the beauty of imagination. I can trace these to moments in Madeleine L'Engle's amazing 50 year old book.

And after all that time there is still a lot to love here. There is the absolute love of science, intelligence, and learning. L'Engle infuses her characters with a profound smartness without apology and without cliche nerdiness.

80s kids know this version.
There are the imaginative characters of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, Mrs Which, and Aunt Beast. The Murry children are all well defined. Charles Wallace alone is amazing if for nothing else his clear aspergers representing.

The settings are epic. Camazotz and its strange bureaucratic nightmare office buildings is something out of Orwell. Even the evil of The Black Thing and IT are ominous in a classic vague/scary way that calls to mind the best of allegorical writing and Lord of the Rings.

The beauty is still there. The sense of wonder. All intact.

Coming back to it as an adult I was amazed at a huge part of the book I completely missed as a kid.

Here is what I mean. When Meg heads off to defeat the IT at the the end of the book the Mrs Ws give her 3 gifts:

  1. Mrs Whatsit - her love
  2. Mrs Who - A Bible quote about the foolish confounding the wise and the weak confounding the strong
  3. Mrs Which - she tells Meg she has something IT does not

All reasonable gifts that are - whataminute!? - Bible quote?

As a child reading A Wrinkle In Time the book was about being a kid, having an imagination, space travel, and science. It was kids kicking bad guy butt and saving the world. The book is about those things but it is also about religion.

I would not classify this a 'religious' book. The moments mentioning the Bible are really meant as allegory, as story-telling, and they don't really change the actual story. They could be left out and little would be damaged. Which I guess is my point. They don't serve a purpose beyond being Bible references tossed out to the world to show religion has a place. We are told that Jesus fought IT along side Ghandi and the Buddha and all are considered equally good. But the Bible is the only thing quoted from.

L'Engle says that science, art, and religion have a place together which is great. The book does little to connect any of these things. While that may be a huge undertaking for a 'kids' book, I would point you to His Dark Materials as a series that deals with religion, science, etc. in a very frank, albeit different, way.

The main evil L'Engle gives us is a giant brain. Pure thought is the 'evil' presented in this book. What is the takeaway? That thinking is only good if it is infused with religion, specifically Christianity.

I don't think that L'Engle was being malicious. The book is a clear product of its time and place. 1960s America was a strange blend of anti-Communist sentiment, cold war crazies, and general conformity mixed with hyper-patriotism and religion. It was not a place for anyone to question anything openly. Which is probably why even this book has been banned many times throughout its 50 years despite being firmly 'safe' in all of these regards.

My biggest problem with the book is a problem I see across the genre. Why are children's books full of characters who lack agency? Why does Harry Potter do absolutely nothing the whole of 7 books while others pull strings and die for the cause? He doesn't even kill Voldemort at the end. The wand Voldemort uses reflects the spell back at the villain. Why does Katniss have to remain above the frey in Hunger Games? She drops wasps, she mercy kills the already dying, she kills one who just killed a very young child. I guess I should be happy she at least participates in some way.

I'm not asking for bloodthirsty lead characters, but if you set up a world where Harry is going to have to fight a war against Voldemort then have him basically sit there while every one else does that thing...you have failed at story-telling. If your world is children conscripted into killing each other and your main character wins that contest by mainly sitting in a tree and surviving off of berries while others brutally kill you have not shown the horrors of said world.

Similarly. If your premise is that a father has been kidnapped by ultimate evil and your brother is controlled by a giant disembodied brain...I don't expect machetes and blood letting. I do expect something more than a deus ex machina and a pat love is good coda.

I know the book is meant to be allegory. But still, even in allegory the center would still have to hold. The story would adhere to its world.

Newest cover from 2007.
I find it troubling that we tell our children stories where they are asked to move heaven and earth but given no agency to do so. You do not solve problems with love alone. It is a false premise. It sets up children for a moment after the one I opened with. A moment where they look at the world and it shrinks. Where they lose the magic they were promised. The love they have proves useless against 'evil'. They loose hope. They settle. Why be an astronaut when you can work for an insurance company?

I think we should trust ourselves more. If we can stomach a world with evil, we can stomach a world where we fight that evil and do so without remaining above the dirt and shit of that battle. We can have the magic and wonder and the reality. All of it.


Re-Read is a sometime article where I go back and read a book from my childhood over and examine the threads that I find in my current adult life.