MARCH 12, 2013
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 other aspects of the Austin world that also seem lost, or, now, impossibly quaint — the picnics, the family poetry readings, the singing together, and the fireside conversations (where people can disagree without arguing) about politics and religion and science and what it means to be a responsible and loving citizen of the world. Perhaps this way of life is rare now; perhaps it was rare even then. And maybe it takes more intention now, more pushback against everything that invades and encroaches, but it’s within the realm of possibility. And my hope was briefly rekindled by the Austins’ model.
The Young Unicorns is an anomaly in the series. The books before and after are narrated in first person by Vicky Austin, while The Young Unicorns is a third-person narrative, semiomniscient, and Vicky doesn’t play much of a role. I had little to no recollection of this story. It’s very possible I didn’t finish this book when I read it in childhood, and I definitely didn’t finish it this time. I emailed a friend and fellow L’Engle fan to express that I neither remembered nor enjoyed the book. She said it was one of her favorites, because of the supporting characters, even though “it feels in many ways about them with the Austins along for the ride.” This is the reason I did not like The Young Unicorns — I wasn’t ready to leave Vicky’s head and the family’s slower, less anxious life in the country and on the shore. The parts of the book that I did read made me want to revisit The Arm of the Starfish, which features several characters from both the Austin books and the more well-known Murry/O’Keefe Kairos series (of which A Wrinkle In Time is the first).
The next book featuring the Austins, A Ring of Endless Light, didn’t come until 1980. It was a Newbery Honor Book (Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved won that year), and like countless other 10-year-old girls, I had many, many Newbery titles thrust upon me by teachers, relatives, and librarians. There’s a good chance this was the book that introduced me to the whole series.
What I remember from my first reading: dolphins, and Adam Eddington and Zachary Grey as Vicky’s potential boyfriends. What I didn’t remember: everybody dies! Okay, not everybody, and none of the primary characters, so this isn’t a major spoiler. There is just a lot of death in this book. And that’s the point. That’s the subject, really, of the story. The title refers to it indirectly. Vicky’s grandfather reads her a Henry Vaughan poem that includes a description of eternity as “a great ring of pure and endless light,” and Vicky must decide whether or not she can embrace that kind of hope or if she’s going to take on Zachary’s more nihilistic view of the world. Zachary, who Vicky met on the family’s journey in The Moon By Night, is as much of a bad boy as boys get in L’Engle’s world, and the rest of the Austins basically hate him, but Vicky can’t deny their chemistry.
I’m ashamed to admit that, in 2012, at 42 (and currently in the throes of home-lust), my favorite parts of this book were the descriptions of Grandfather’s house and beach. He lives in a converted horse barn where poetry is painted on the walls and nearly all of the barn stalls are now lined with bookshelves (and, of course, books). There’s a beach accessible by descending a steep but manageable bluff, and Vicky swims in the ocean like it’s her private pool.
Whenever you read a whole series of books in a short amount of time, you run the risk of getting overfamiliar with the characters, just as you do with your own family. It happened to me halfway through A Ring of Endless Light and throughout Troubling A Star: were the Austins a tiny bit self-congratulatory about their tolerance and wisdom and concern for the environment — their basic Austin-ness? Could Vicky ever meet a young (or old) man who didn’t tell her that she’s wonderful and lovely and charming and special and intelligent? Why doesn’t Vicky have any girl friends? How come she gets to miss as much school as she wants with no consequences? Speaking of school, what happens to her during her school day? She remarks a few times that she’s not popular or social like her sister Suzy, but it’s hard to feel too sad when she’s got three or more suitors at any given moment.
Troubling a Star was published 14 years after A Ring of Endless Light, which may be why I couldn’t remember ever reading it before. In 1994, I was in my mid-20s and having a love affair with Faye Kellerman crime novels and cable TV. Also, like The Young Unicorns, it’s more of a mystery, and if I did pick this book up in the 1990s I may have put it back down without finishing. The story brings Vicky and Adam back together, briefly in person but mostly through letters, and Vicky is immersed even more deeply in an adult world.
There’s a lot of philosophy crammed into the last two books of the series. The market-savvy modern writer in me condemned them for not having much of what we call in the biz “teen appeal,” but at the same time I recognized that this is the very reason L’Engle had and continues to have my admiration. I was a child and teen who enjoyed the company of adults. I was a young person who, like so many of her characters, believed in God but also believed God should mostly be a mystery. I was smart, and my IQ did not help me socially. I needed her voice in my life — and not only for those reasons. The world L’Engle envisions and brings to the page is borne of a kind of unsentimental optimism, a deeply-held faith that life is worth living, that it’s worth trying to do the right things even if you risk messing them up, that relationships are worth the potential pain, and the existence of the universe itself is an act of love and therefore the world is worth loving.
When we read stories like L’Engle’s as adults, we are in many ways handicapped. They’re a tougher sell than they were when we read them in our youth, because a lot of us have lost that faith. We do not believe life is always worth the struggle. We fear that relationships aren’t worth the pain. Or, like Zachary Grey, we’re bored with life — “So bored it hurts like a toothache.” We lack the childlike trust, the sense of wonder it takes to enter into the kingdom of a book. I believe that’s related somehow to the reluctance we sometimes have to enter fully into our own, present lives.
Which brings me back to my original purpose in rereading the books. Did I recover my lost self? No. That self is as ghostlike and gone as the first reading experiences of childhood. As gone as the 19-year-old bride I was. As gone as the young woman who sat down to write her first novel, with nothing to lose. As gone as countless other selves that I sometimes find myself pining for in midlife. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, of course. The attempt to recreate meaningful experiences is indeed one of the things that make us human. But I don’t want to become like Zachary, only seeing what’s wrong, what’s lost, encrusted in refusal to see what is good, here, now.
Madeleine L’Engle’s work — flawed, frustrating, beautiful — is an invitation to enter, a call back to faith. I needed it at eight, at 10, at 16, and I need that voice, that invitation, still.