AUGUST 16, 2015
I CAME TO A Wrinkle in Time in my mid-40s. I had tried to read it earlier, on a few different occasions, but its now classic tale of a young girl traveling through space and time to find her father and save the universe did not work for me until I could appreciate Madeleine L’Engle’s deep engagement with the way the past, the present, and the future interconnect with and inform one another. I needed to have lived a bit to see the past in my present and the future born out of both.
The paradox here, of course, is that L’Engle is pegged as a writer for young people, and surely many children and young adults love her books. Yet I have to admit a particular fondness for the sometimes forgotten books she wrote in her later years, in the 1970s and ’80s. Some of them are fantasies playing out the further adventures of the Murrys from Wrinkle, such as the kooky Many Waters, a retelling of the story of Noah and the Flood. Others, like A Severed Wasp, a novel about the elderly pianist Katherine Forrester, are stunning, realist explorations of the experience of time across a life.
Known for her strong interest in science, L’Engle often explores the ethical challenges of scientific work, much as she had throughout the more famous Austin Family Chronicles and Time Quintet. As in those cycles, her characters travel across novels, living, learning, and evolving through the fictional time that L’Engle explores. Indeed, L’Engle wrote her various cycles over the course of her entire life, with some of her first characters, such as Forrester, featured both in her earliest and later work.
Throughout, L’Engle probes her spiritual beliefs, influenced by the work of George MacDonald, the Victorian pastor and author of children’s books who wrote some of the first fantasies for adults (Phantastes and Lilith) and who greatly influenced the work of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. MacDonald, like L’Engle, was fond of the concept of mythic time, and he enjoyed detecting and reading eternal verities and spiritual truths in the present mundane world. His influence is evident in A Wrinkle in Time, which uses the time and space bending tesseract as a plot device to suggest the interconnectedness of all things across different planets. However, in tracing the wonder of lives unfolding across generations, L’Engle’s later fiction largely eschews fantasy. Such books grapple with the personal and moral dimensions of living in time, with the accumulated debts and damages of the past and the hope of redemption in the future. While L’Engle wrote both fantasy and realistic novels throughout her life, these late realist novels focus their attention on the mysteries of time as revealed through the intricacies of human relationships. The Austin Family Chronicles marked L’Engle’s turn to the “new realism” in children’s and YA fiction, a treatment of harsher realities in works for young people, and A Severed Wasp is likewise brute, and even sexually mature in its subjects, but it is always laced with L’Engle’s hope for connection, reconciliation, and redemption. We are fortunate that Square Fish has rereleased several of L’Engle’s later gems in the last few years, so we can reexperience their odd charm and their periodic brilliance.
The Arm of the Starfish, originally published in 1965 and rereleased in 2011, is something of a political thriller. Adam Edgington is traveling to an island off the coast of Portugal to work as an intern for Dr. Calvin O’Keefe, a world-famous biologist who is studying the regenerative capabilities of starfish. Along the way to Portugal, he meets, seemingly by accident, Kali, a seductive young woman who warns him that O’Keefe is not trustworthy, and then he stumbles into an Episcopal priest, Canon Tallis, who is accompanying O’Keefe’s young daughter, Poly, to Portugal. Tallis hands Poly off to Adam to complete her journey, but Poly is soon abducted, and the mysteries begin.
A complex set of events unfolds, with Adam torn between two camps. One group, focused on Kali and her father, Typhon Cutter, warns Adam that O’Keefe’s experiments with starfish may have profound political implications, as they might lead to the ability to regenerate human tissue. Initially, Adam doesn’t know who to trust, but he is eventually swayed by the unconditional love that Poly exhibits, not just for him but for all creatures, human and animal; there are strangely moving scenes in which Poly seems to be able to communicate with a dolphin, a sign in L’Engle’s universe of basic goodness. Much of the first part of the book concerns Adam figuring out where to place his allegiance, even if his siding with the O’Keefes seems inevitable. They are a warm and welcoming bunch — perhaps unsurprisingly, because Mrs. O’Keefe is the adult Meg Murry from the Wrinkle in Time series. Ultimately, Adam decides to work as a double agent, providing false information to the Cutters while smuggling O’Keefe’s work out of Portugal and into safe hands. In the process, the work is saved but a major character is killed, a reminder from L’Engle that commitment, even to the just cause, is not without its risks and dangers. The death also signals that we live in and through time, and that our commitment to justice must make peace with the cycles of life and death. Doing the right thing, that is, cannot insure us against the inevitability of loss.
Subsequent books in this cycle play out the intersections amongst commitments, risks, and time. Dragons in the Water, published in 1976, and rereleased in 2011, is a mystery with overtones of the political thriller. The protagonist, Simon Renier, is traveling by boat with his adult cousin, Forsyth Phair, to Venezuela, to return a portrait of Simon Bolivar that has been in the boy’s family for several generations. An ancestor, Quentin Phair, worked with Bolivar in the liberation of Venezuela and was given the portrait by the famous revolutionary leader as a token of appreciation. Young Simon, named after Bolivar, whom he idolizes, is an orphan who lives with his elderly Aunt Leonis. The only reason he and his aunt are parting with the portrait is because they need the money. The mysterious and somewhat creepy Forsyth Phair has come out of the woodwork to help them sell the portrait. On the long boat voyage that occupies the first half of the book, Simon meets Dr. O’Keefe, who’s traveling to Venezuela to check out the effects of oil drilling on starfish. He is accompanied by two of his children, a now early adolescent Poly, and the slightly younger Charles, a serious child whose dreams can be prescient. The kids quickly become inseparable, and the plot heats up: the portrait goes missing, cousin Forsyth is found murdered, and everyone on board seems suspect.
Suffice it to say that the O’Keefe children are key to helping Simon figure out what is really going on, and Canon Tallis makes a return appearance as well, helping out the O’Keefes, Simon, and Aunt Leonis. A smuggling operation connecting shifty cousin Forsyth with both Venezuelan locals and one of the boat stewards is no match for this crew. Once Simon, Aunt Leonis, and the O’Keefes find the Quiztano tribe to whom the portrait rightly belongs, order is restored and the portrait returned to its rightful owners. We learn that ancestor Quentin had abandoned the Quiztano and his native lover, who gave birth to his child after his departure, and he eventually settled in the US and married a white woman. The Quiztano never forgot his promise to return, though — a broken promise — and they cursed the Phairs until Quentin, or one of his line, would return to the tribe to fulfill his promise. Simon’s presence heals the breach of trust made by Quentin Phair’s abandonment of the tribe.
Through this somewhat unlikely but still gripping plot, L’Engle plays out some of the interconnected complexities of not just time, but space. Simon’s need to return to the Quiztano tribe shows how, in L’Engle’s universe, “it is not good to bury things. They will always erupt and in that way they may even destroy you.” But the moral here isn’t a simplistic truism. L’Engle boldly launches into the damages wrought by both long-term legacies of colonialism and more contemporary corporate greed. The Quiztano serve as stark reminders of past colonial breaches of trust, which endure in present relationships across individuals, groups, and even nations. The Quiztano also mark the space of nature threatened by greedy corporate interests whose power plays are both imperialistic and ecologically destructive. Dragons in the Water is a curious, compelling, and not completely successful book, but it shows L’Engle working through hybridized meetings of spaces and times, the modern and the native, the capabilities of contemporary science and the wisdom of ancient practices. Simon himself is hybridized, as are the natives, part Indian but also carrying the blood of colonialists through their generations. We may not fully buy how L’Engle tries to heal the ruptures of past betrayal, but readers will still marvel at her attempt, however dated it might seem.
The plots of The Arm of the Starfish and Dragons in the Water might sound slightly preposterous. Their implausibility, though, is still often fun and compelling, as it allows L’Engle to craft genre-driven works of mystery and political intrigue while interweaving conceptually rich material about commitment, promises, memory, risk, and hope. The last book in this series, A House Like a Lotus, and the unrelated A Severed Wasp offer plots that are much more convincingly realistic, and their maturity of content and form shows L’Engle at the height of her powers, tracing out some of her most profound and deeply humane meditations on time.
The Severed Wasp, published in 1982, lies outside the O’Keefe cycle and picks up a character from one of L’Engle’s earliest books, The Small Rain, which came out in 1945. Katherine Forrester is a world-famous pianist, and while The Small Rain treats her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, The Severed Wasp shows Katherine well into her 70s, having moved back to the United States in retirement and reflecting on her life. The earlier book sets the stage for a materially and emotionally complex life, as Katherine comes from a troubled family marked by infidelity. The latter book, odd in L’Engle’s oeuvre in that it focuses primarily on an older person, reflects on the emotional and relational landscapes of adults at the end of their lives. Adults in other L’Engle books often seem like guides or mentors, but A Severed Wasp tackles the difficulty of aging gracefully. L’Engle masterfully interweaves present narration with extended flashbacks. A quality of air in one scene induces reflection on another, linking past and present across two continents in a time warp folding of space that will strike readers as psychologically real. The mind, then, is our tesseract, wrinkling our histories into our futures.
Such wrinkling presents characters with challenges they must overcome if they are to continue to grow, love, and connect with others, even in old age. Music has helped Katherine, a concert pianist, to cope with a difficult past, including the accidental death of one of her children and difficult experiences in a Nazi prison camp during the war. The immediate cause for Katherine’s reflections is her invitation to perform a benefit concert for an Episcopal cathedral, where she has reconnected with an old friend, Felix, now a retired bishop. After a few weeks of developing friendships with the book’s many characters, we learn that Katherine is being harassed by phone, and her apartment is even vandalized by a resident of the cathedral, jealous of Katherine’s success. Katherine’s empathy allows her to connect with this woman and forgive her, guiding her to seek the help she needs. Katherine is well aware that “We fail each other, over and over.” But L’Engle’s vision is relentlessly hopeful; we can forgive and be forgiven, even if we must recognize that “to love is to be vulnerable.” The hope for forgiveness, for time redeemed, finds expression in a narrative that moves fluidly, even within paragraphs, across many moments and locales in Katherine’s life. Formally, such a narrative approach imbues L’Engle’s work with its hopefulness, with a sense that we can, with patience, care, and love, connect the dots — and loves — of our lives.
That interweaving of time finds its most impressive articulation in the last realist novel in the O’Keefe cycle, A House Like a Lotus, first published in 1984 and rereleased in 2012. This narrative is stripped down; Polly (note the slight name change) narrates the story through her journal, moving back and forth between the present, where she’s traveling to Crete to serve as a gopher for an international literacy conference, and the recent past. At home on Benne Seed Island, she’s developed a close friendship with an older woman, Max. Indeed, L’Engle, rather daringly for the time, centers Polly’s life lessons on her friendship with Max and her partner, Ursula, two highly accomplished lesbians who have a home near the O’Keefes. Max, an artist who is dying of a rare disease, has retreated to her island home, to try to make peace with her past. Max is a captivating character: elegant and assertive in very late middle age, she is worldly, wise, and complicated. She immediately intrigues Polly, now 17 and starting to explore her own independence. Polly becomes an increasingly frequent guest at Max’s home, where she does her homework, talks about art and books with the older woman, and generally enjoys the company of an adult who shares her interests but also challenges her to think differently about her own life. Polly comes to idolize Max a bit, reflecting that Max “saw potential in me that I hardly dared dream of.”
Max offers her experience, born out of her long and difficult life, but we quickly learn that time doesn’t just leave us with wisdom; it can also leave us damaged. Max herself had a difficult youth, having been the victim of child abuse and having lost a child as a young woman. Her attachment to Polly is compensatory in many ways, allowing her to experience a form of motherhood. L’Engle’s treatment of such adult-youth relationships is sensitive and perceptive. At one point, Max describes to Polly the bonds that are like family, only different:
I love you as I would have loved the daughter I couldn’t have. You don’t need a mother, you have a fine one. But every adolescent needs someone to talk to, someone to whom she is not biologically bound, and I serve that purpose. We are alike in our interests, you and I, but not in our ways of expressing our sexuality.
Readers are well aware, though, that Polly’s bond with Max is broken in the present time of the narrative. Flashbacks trace the dissolution of trust. The complexities of Max’s character, her own past damage and her terminal illness, have resulted in her periodic drunkenness. One evening, when quite drunk, Max becomes increasingly agitated and scares Polly. The scene, occurring halfway through the book, is somewhat ambiguous, and it seems Max might have made a drunken pass at Polly. Regardless, the intensity and neediness of the older woman’s distress frightens Polly, who flees the house and refuses further contact with Max.
The rest of the novel takes place in Crete, and offers some of L’Engle’s most sustained fictional treatment of sex, in part through the character of Zachary, a young man whom Polly met earlier in her travels. Privileged, flippant, and somewhat predatory, Zachary is not afraid to ask for what he wants, and he becomes petulant when he doesn’t get it: he is a stock figure in L’Engle’s fiction for young adults. He tracks Polly down at the conference, and Polly is initially flattered by his interest. The two go boating, with Zachary taking them much farther out than allowed. The boat capsizes and Zachary starts to drown, pulling Polly down with him as he flails around grasping for her. The two are saved by Omio, one of the conference leaders. Omio comforts Polly and intuits that she is struggling not only with how to understand the clingy Zachary but other painful events as well. Polly is so touched by Omio’s attentions that she starts to have feelings for him. Omio, however, is married, and lets Polly down with great gentleness, assuring her that they can still be friends.
The series of encounters — Max, Zachary, Omio — helps Polly understand some of the intricacies of human desire, particularly how people often use current relationships to address past trauma or loss. As Zachary had been grasping for Polly, so Polly realizes she had been grasping for Omio. And Max had been grasping for her — for comfort, for understanding, for healing. The fault of the grasping lies not in the need for connection but in the inept handling of it, in foisting one’s needs onto another. Instead of running from such complexities, though, Polly grapples with how to face — and even appreciate — them. The challenge for Polly is, can she allow the older people in her life the mixed emotions and contradictory moves she herself feels and experiences in her own life? Can she recognize that the course of a life, lived through time, accrues complexities, even damages, which require patience and love to heal? In the novel’s final pages, she can, and she calls Max to accept her apology, offer her own, and tell her that she loves her. Such a move marks Polly’s maturation. L’Engle wrote elsewhere that “it may be infinitely worse to refuse to forgive than to murder, because the latter may be the impulse of a moment of heat, whereas lack of forgiveness is a cold and deliberate choice of the heart.”
L’Engle’s treatment of sexuality, particularly homosexuality, has garnered limited critical attention. L’Engle has been criticized for casting Max as a “predator,” but I tend to disagree. Max is a fascinating character, and in crafting her, L’Engle gives herself permission to explore some of the complexities not just of human sexuality, but of relationships between older and young people. Indeed, I imagine her writing these books, particularly A House Like a Lotus, as much for herself as for any younger reader. Lotus seems a reminder that young people, still figuring themselves out, might be confused by the contradictory behavior of older people, who are trying to live, not always adroitly, with their own complications. In contrast, younger people might want reassurance that confusion goes away, when in fact it often does not. More provocatively, these books might be about how we burden youth with our expectations. So much contemporary dystopic young adult fiction stems from our guilty conscience about the world we are leaving to the youth. L’Engle’s work is hardly dystopic, but it still demands a lot from young people, whom she often charges with handling a great deal of past damage. More hopefully, A House Like a Lotus shows us young and old negotiating their differences in expectation together, across generations — with pain, but also ultimately with mutual understanding and respect.
L’Engle uses such intergenerational encounters to complicate our understanding of time. Recent work by queer theorists, such as Elizabeth Freeman and Jack Halberstam, traces how contemporary neoliberal understandings of time orient us toward productivity, watching the clock and our bodies (think biological clocks) to make the most of the time we have and contribute to the maintenance of society. L’Engle’s approach to time is not “queer” in its questioning of normative orientations — after all, these are books concerned with the maturation of young people into pretty standard (and heterosexual) notions of functional adulthood. But time for L’Engle is queer in the sense that it hardly ever moves in a straight line in her novels. Everyone, no matter how old or seemingly “mature,” is caught in time, dealing with the complexities of living and loving.
Contemporary readers will find L’Engle’s plots problematic at times: romanticized notions of natives, a love affair with a Nazi, an unstable lesbian making a pass at a teenager. These are not politically correct topics, especially not from an author of books for young adults. But at a time when our YA markets are flooded with the dystopic, L’Engle’s hopeful meditations on time are refreshing. We can learn from the past. We must, for it inevitably shapes our present and becomes the raw material for crafting better futures.