Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tesseract now

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is a book that I remember covering in grammar school, but one that I'm not sure I ever read properly until this past week. That is, my class read it, and I may have taken a look inside, but I think I left the heavy lifting to the teacher reading aloud in class.

I was missing something, though. It's a book that can be read very quickly, having been written for older children. But this is a fictional world worth going to regardless of how long you're there.

Quick summary: Meg Murry's father is missing, which has caused her some what-we-now-call-"issues." Her little brother Charles Wallace--always referred to by his given and middle name--is a prodigy who seems backward to nearly everyone else. Eccentric neighbor Mrs Whatsit introduces both of them and neighbor boy Calvin O'Keefe to her friends Mrs Who and *pun alert!* Mrs Which. These three uncanny women send the children on a dangerous mission to another galaxy, which results in a family reunion.

A crude outline, and much can be unpacked from the actual story. As some have noted, the 1962 novel mines a vein of anticommunism that probably helped to sell it in many school districts. The planet of Camazotz is suffocated by an inhuman level of social planning. The total kind that Americans feared was going on behind the Iron Curtain, and not the Keystone Kops version that the actual Soviets generally had going. And one of the villains--in actuality a puppet--is the Man with the Red Eyes.

But of course the idea of free will and individualism being choked off existed before the Cold War and has survived beyond it. L'Engle is neither Ian Fleming nor Ayn Rand.

To some degree she is CS Lewis. Or at least she is wrote science fiction and fantasy within a Christian--and specifically Anglican/Episcopal--framework as he had before. In some ways the three seeming witches are the Holy Trinity in female guise. And Christ is mentioned by name as a "light for others to stand by" although he's on a list with Gandhi, Buddha, and Louis Pasteur. That's actually gotten L'Engle in trouble with some religios conservatives.

But above the political and aside from the religious, it may be in investing Meg with the hero's role that the book makes its greatest impact. Meg is superficially middle class, but she is also an outcast. She's ungainly. She has a great head for math but doesn't do well in school. She gets into fights with boys but isn't strong enough to win. Her being a witness to the adventure for much of the time may strike some contemporary readers as an example of how limited female characters were in the early sixties. But that's not what's going on. Meg is someone with a very low opinion in herself. She will save the day, but finding that capability in herself won't be easy.

So, better late than never?


susan said...

I've heard her name but never read the book so I'm glad you've written the general outline. Meg sounds like a very realistic and well developed character but I'm not sure I could handle the whole story line. I've always been fond of CS Lewis but didn't read him until after I was grown so was well aware of his theological core when I read the novels and his essays in parallel.

Propaganda has had a long history of being developed to perfection in the US in particular but I don't tend to think of it in books for young adults. Just goes to show I can still indulge in naivety even being completely aware of the popularity of first person shooters in games.

Your description of Camazotz (a play on Camelot?) as a description of a totalitarian state certainly bears some resemblance to the current state of affairs. People really don't want to know until the sheriffs arrive to throw them out of their homes.

Ben said...

Oh, um. I'll have to get back to responding to this in the next day or so.