The problem with deciding to write about books by Madeleine L’Engle is that many of them are connected via characters or families of characters. Even when Cat and I decided that we had to include what we thought of as the Wrinkle In Time books, we immediately hit the issue of her having grown up with a set that included the first four of (according to the internet) five books in a series (that link to another half dozen or more books via shared characters) and I had grown up in a home that had purchased a set prior to 1986 and, thus, included only three books. Because of that, in Cat’s mind there are four books and in my mind there are three. And, in the minds of others, as I’ve said, it’s a larger number than that. (Plus, we have a different opinion about the right order of the last two books for that same reason.)
Because the fifth book (which I’ve not read) is more about an O’Keefe descendant and just the Murray parents but the first four are focused on the Murry children, and because we were both really more familiar with the first four, we drew the line there. (Though I’d have drawn the line at three, both out of my initial conditioning and because the fourth book focuses on two different Murry children than the first three.) So, as you can see, even choosing what to do here was sort of a wrinkle in mind. (Yes, I’m a laugh.) The one thing we absolutely and strongly agreed on was that these are important books and we welcomed a reason to re-read them and share our thoughts.
Fortunately, though we both love all four books (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters), we each love a different two best. It’s easier to let go of writing about one of them when you know it’s in the talented hands of someone who might love it a little more than you do…
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, just in case you haven’t read these. I want you to have the same experience of discovery that I did. Cat will do the same, bringing up just the barest of plot points to give you a slight tease (and maybe to stir the memory if you’ve read them but it’s been a while). Most discussion will focus on L’Engle’s brilliance, on personal connection, and on themes. Hopefully, this will only enhance any reading you choose to undertake.
A Wrinkle in Time – Amber
In A Wrinkle in Time, time travel is achieved by people folding space/time via a tesseract. It seems this is done simply using a mental power…And, really, the time folding/travelling isn’t as important as you’d think given the title of the book. To my mind, only the part where people are returned home just before they left for adventures is clear time travel use. For me, the most interesting time travel, if you will, comes from the real world, not the story. This book was published in 1962. 1962. If you don’t feel like that’s forever ago, read this and pay attention to what a different place 1962 United States was. And then, as you read the other books, notice how many years there are between the publication (and the writing) of each. For instance, A Wind in the Door was published in 1973 (and a note in the book makes it clear that it wasn’t written until 1970). Reading the books all in a row, decades later, you might notice how L’Engle doesn’t try to write later books in a tone that is the same as 1962 or that places the books in (or as close as would be realistic in terms of time passed for the characters) years close to that. New aesthetics, new household items, new ways of speaking that are modern to when she writes are there.
Another interesting aspect, especially of the first few books, is the state of young adult literature. Specifically, that it didn’t really exist. L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher for this first book because it wasn’t a children’s book (too smart for kids, they said…and I can see how some of it is even smarter than more recently written adult fiction) and it wasn’t an adult’s book (I’m guessing due to having kids as the main characters). She insisted all along that she was writing for people. Full stop. Not for kids specifically, nor for adults specifically.
The other thing that was unexpected (and unremembered) was the unabashed religiosity of the author and some of her characters. In modern times, that’s not the norm. On the other side of it, for the time she wrote it in, it wasn’t Christian enough. There was some hubbub over the fact that she actually dared to have her characters put people such as Buddha, Michelangelo, and Einstein on the same level as Christ. For me, neither the overt religiosity nor giving importance to scientists and thinkers and the like is a problem. In fact, some of what was likely a political statement on L’Engle’s part resonates with some of my own spiritual beliefs, which gives me some extra glee.
Somehow, though, she wrote this story and got it published…And it’s one that I loved as a child and love as an adult. One that, among other themes, taught me that too much forced conformity is bad, that sacrificing oneself for the greater good is a high purpose, that faith and belief and love (all in a broad sense) are powerful, that those things can live in harmony with science, that even small or “different” people can make a great impact, that we humans can be important even in a universe with spectacular creatures, and that doing things to shine light and hold back the darkness (which we see in violence and unkindness and other negative human behaviours towards other humans and the rest of creation) is something we all have part in. Lessons that can speak to us, no matter our age or the decade in which we live as we read this.
Want to read a little bit of unpublished stuff from the book (some that calls out the politics a little more clearly)? Just in time for us, they’ve found a cut passage! A passage that should be mandatory reading for politicians, fear-mongers, and the humans who are being kept in check by security theatre and other false shows of “keeping things safe.”
And I couldn’t pass up a chance to posit this: A Wrinkle In Time was published in 1962, and one of it’s main time travelling characters goes by the name of Mrs. Who. The first episode of Doctor Who aired in November 1963. Coincidence?
If you’ve already read the book (and, seriously, I wouldn’t watch this otherwise, as it is a massive spoiler and I also wouldn’t want its silliness to taint your reading experience…these books are all Very Serious for me) and you are in need of a laugh, some kids did a silly 90 second video re-enactment of the book. (I’m so serious about you not watching if you haven’t read that I’m opting not to embed the video. Very Serious!)
A Wind in the Door – Amber
(Don’t worry; having said all my “thoughts about the series in general” in the previous section, this one won’t be nearly as verbose.)
In A Wind in the Door, time travel is achieved by supernatural powers that aren’t really detailed (hello, cherubim and Teacher). As with A Wrinkle in Time, the time travel isn’t super important (time that flows at a different rate is more important here). But it’s there and I’m happy to call that enough to talk about these books in hopes that you’ll read them. One thing to note about this “series” is that L’Engle wrote them such that you could read just one, any one, of them and be fine. The stories aren’t connected in a way that you need to read multiple to understand fully or even to get plots tied up.
One thing that, to me, was clearest in this book (though it permeates all four) is the author’s interest in scientific theories. She weaves bits of science in. As I mentioned before, there’s unabashed religiosity (she didn’t like being called a Christian writer, but she saw no need to set aside some of what she knew/believed as she wrote), and, to my delight, it’s side-by-side with a love of science. The parents of the sibling protagonists in this series are both (both! even the woman…even in 1962!) highly educated and brilliant scientists. As someone who feels no struggle with having love for both spirituality and science, I love this. And the little ideas L’Engle uses as the science springboards for her fictions are intriguing, even if not up-to-date with current understanding.
With this book, though the story is important, I seem more likely to recall lessons learnt than to recall actual events. Even though I just re-read it last week and connected enough that I cried. Actual “tears running down my face” crying. (I’m not really a massive cry-er, but I did get choked up with A Wrinkle In Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet as well.)
This book shares some themes with the first. It has some important self sacrifice…which, now that I think about it, is an interesting balance to the lesson about the worth of individuality (of not giving oneself up in a way) and the value of people who are different that I also find in both books. But the unique lessons here speak to me and my personal experience at least as strongly.
- “If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.” This is a truth I have lived. When I really came to know who I am, I stopped hating myself and others. Does L’Engle have the secret to world peace in that sentence?
- In the whole of creation, all things are known, named, and needed. In fact, one of the running themes in all four books is the interconnectedness of all creation.
- “Where” doesn’t matter and doesn’t stop the things that do matter (like love and light). As a girl with loved ones, creative companions, and inspirations spread all over this world, I feel that deeply.
- “Time isn’t any more important than size. All that is required of you is to be in the Now, in this moment which has been given us.” I am pretty horrible at living in the now, but the fact that I see that there are very small things of great importance/impact and large things of lesser importance/impact and that we can, if we try, do some good and connect in spite of size, gives me hope I’ll one day do better at disregarding time, at making the most of this moment…my Now.
Many Waters – Cat
Confession time: this was absolutely my Most Read book of the entire series when I was younger. My copy is trashed, the pages wrinkled and torn, the spine so warped that the book looks twice as thick as it actually is. But what can I say? I loved it. Going back as an adult and revisiting L’Engle’s remarkable series, I can finally see that this is by far the worst of the lot. It’s more similar in spirit to the overwrought soapy romances L’Engle went towards later in her career (I’m thinking A Ring of Endless Light type material) and lacks the resonating depth of the other works in the Time series. I’ll admit that straight up. It diverts from Meg and Charles Wallace, the themes aren’t as groundbreaking and full of scope for children and adults, and quite frankly the relationships are kind of creepy when you dwell on them for too long.
Bu, as a kid, I ate up the tale of Murry twins Sandy and Dennys like it was a hot fudge sundae with extra whipped cream. An apt metaphor, particularly when you think of the other books as the hearty elements of a meal—the meat, vegetables, vitamins—and this as the frothy dessert that feels good in the moment but leaves some lingering regret and/or shame.
Still, there are things to appreciate. For one, it’s one of the more overt usages of time in the series, with the twins being transported back millions of years to the era of Noah. With that comes some fascinating musings on Biblical culture. Many Waters was the first time I had heard of seraphim or nephilim, and it was kind of rad to read Bible verses later on and see these terms pop out at me, now with a highly individualized, but completely fleshed out world behind them. L’Engle’s thoughts on the relationship between mortals and the divine is wonderful, as always. She has this method of widening the possibilities in Christianity, resisting narrow interpretation and making it the more welcoming, warm religion that I personally identify with. Using the singing of the stars, creating angels that have feelings (even if they are, again, somewhat questionable), these were traits that made Heaven less scary and more familiar.
I also kind of loved the diversion away from Meg and Charles Wallace. Meg was sometimes so close to my own self that spending time with her was occasionally wearying. And Charles Wallace can be too remote, too intimidatingly wise. They’re wonderful, and I’ve learned to grow into Meg comfortably, as I’ve grown into myself comfortably, but, as a kid, it felt better seeing characters so unlike me and who had previously been everything I disliked (popular, athletic, irksome in their cold rationality) learn more about their place in the world and soften towards the unknown. Sandy and Dennys became bastions of hope, signals that with a little time—or a little time traveling—everyone can learn and everyone can contribute to the unifying splendor of this earth.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet – Cat
Just as Many Waters was my Most Read book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet was my Most Favorite. To my delight, it remains so to this day. Which shouldn’t be surprising, because this book is incredible. Absolutely incredible. It takes L’Engle’s typical themes of family, humanity’s interconnectedness, and the conflation of religion and science, and uses all of them to full potential. To me, this book is the culmination of L’Engle’s work. I know that there’s technically another book following the O’Keefe family. But to me this is the end, perfect and shining and whole (again, later Many Waters publishing date notwithstanding).
A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the only book in the Time series to deal only with time, not with space. In that way it’s thematically similar to Here, the comic I touched on earlier, with one location constant throughout a relentlessly shifting time. Charles Wallace tries to piece together the history of America and fictional Latin American country Vespugia, while also discovering the connections between Welshmen and Indians and the intricate history of the O’Keefe matriarch, all set against a backdrop of impending nuclear destruction. Through it all he technically does not move. Everything is improbably set in the same area. In fact, messing with space is highly discouraged. It’s an interesting plot point that serves to drive home the importance of each and every place. Yes, while all these threads diverge in the same Connecticut meadow, it could be any location with a history as rich and as impactful. It’s a rendition of time whose weight stays with me, long after the reading is done.
Beyond having an interesting time twist, the book itself is full to bursting with beauty. L’Engle gets to stretch her authorial wings a little, bringing in the power of mythology and poetry and literature. She emphasizes how the slightest choices can be vitally significant, manifesting that concept through a steady appreciation for story as a method of warning and teaching. Her characters, each group throughout the ages, rely on songs and poems and books to carry on their belief and help build up moral reasoning. It’s a message that deeply resonates with me as someone who believes that, without story, civilization is lost.
The struggle between light and dark, a persistent motif through the Time series, and interpreted through both science and the power of the Divine, is also expressed in a clear and chillingly lovely way in this novel. One thing I appreciate about L’Engle is the diversity she brings to the heavens. Each book has a different manifestation of heavenly messengers—Wrinkle has the Mrs’s, Wind has Progo, Waters is full of seraphim and singing stars, and Planet has the majestic unicorn Gaudior. These are all agents of light, and they aren’t the homogeneous throngs that exist in most Christianity. It’s a touch that perfectly exemplifies all that is right and good with this series. L’Engle’s work, as Amber discussed, is incredibly ahead of its time, an imaginative and increasingly prescient vision of the world. Her view of humanity, of faith and ration, of goodness in all forms and sizes, adds to an overwhelming message of hope, a clarion call of our capability for positive change as a people.