IT'S 1963. Kennedy is in office, Betty and Don Draper are still married, and Abercrombie & Fitch sells camp cookware. Meanwhile, the Austins — Mother, Father, John, Vicky, Suzy, and Rob — are traveling across the country in their station wagon. This journey is documented in the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Chronos series, The Moon By Night.
It’s the summer of 2012, and I’m rereading this book and the four others that make up the Austin Family Chronicles (Chronos, minus a couple of short Christmas specials). I’m doing this for the usual reasons we revisit books from childhood and adolescence: to unearth a lost experience, to unearth a lost self. The self I hope to recover is me before I was a published author, when books were only joy and I didn’t know anything about the sausage factory in which they’re turned into products.
As a nerdy girl-child of the 1970s and ’80s, I read everything Madeleine L’Engle wrote for young readers. As a writer, I hold her as one of my patron saints. I’ve long admired how much faith she put in her audience, and how big the world of her books felt. I appreciated that her heroines were smart and enjoyed the company of adults. I liked how life in her stories felt simultaneously safe and dangerous. People disappointed each other, people disappeared, some people were evil, some were good, and sometimes those good people died. Ultimately, there was the assurance of the hearth and the table, where there were always books, music, meaningful talk, a cup of cocoa or a bowl of soup, and grace was sung at the table with joined hands.
Meet the Austins is the first book in Chronos, and compared to rest of the series, it’s more of a “novel in vignettes” than anything. L’Engle was young in her writing career, and the Austins were a young (but still traditional) family. When I mentioned on Twitter what I was reading, one response of the “ugh” variety complained about the unmodern aspects of Austin family life: “Daddy doesn’t like women in pants,” and the troubled/“bad” adopted child, Maggy — a plot point in Meet the Austins, gone by chapter three of The Moon By Night.
Because L’Engle’s work doesn’t generally feel dated or time-specific, it’s easy to forget that she wrote in a cultural and historical context. The Austins were introduced in 1960. The last book in the series, Troubling a Star, was published in 1994, by which time the context was less apparent, though that story takes place only a few years later than the first book in the Austin series. It’s a little bit of a wrinkle in time itself, as Troubling a Star contains references to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. However, the dedication in The Young Unicorns reminds the reader that the action doesn’t necessarily take place in the present. L’Engle, even in her “realism,” often writes about parallel worlds and times that may share 98 percent of their DNA with present reality but aren’t quite the same.
The experience of rereading Meet the Austins and The Moon By Night was exactly what I wanted it to be: comfortingly nostalgic and a little bittersweet. It stirred both memory of and longing for the world before cell phones, the internet, airport pat-downs, and irony as the dominant rhetorical paradigm. There are ...read more