Friday, January 22, 2010

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

L'Engle, Madeleine - Time 01 - A Wrinkle in Time (1) From

Meg's father mysteriously disappears after experimenting with the fifth dimension of time travel. Determined to rescue him, Meg and her friends must outwit the forces of evil on a heart-stopping journey through space and time. A commemorative edition with an Introduction by the author. A Newbery Medal winner

This was a favourite book - and the first in a favourite series - when I was a child. I'm sure I've read it several times over the years, along with A Swiftly Tilting Planet which is my absolute favourite of the five.

I promised not to take on lots of reading challenges in 2010, but when I saw that Kailana at The Written World was holding a readalong for the series over the first five months of the year, I just couldn't resist. After all, surely I can manage to read one children's book a month for five months?

It's always something of a risk, rereading childhood favourites as an adult. You come to them with such a range of experiences that you didn't have when you first loved them. And not only that, but if your childhood is as long ago as mine was, they the book is going to be several decades old and there is also the chance that it may have dated terribly.

I'm very happy to report that I really enjoyed rereading A Wrinkle in Time. Yes, with adult eyes I could see that it was a book for children, but I didn't care. That delightful sense of wonder I discovered so many years ago was still there and I read it quickly and easily, really enjoying my trip through the universe with Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin.

I don’t remember a lot of details of my reaction to the book on first reading it. I remembered the story and I remembered loving Meg as the main protagonist, but not much more than that.

Firstly, let me say that I still love Meg. I guess she is one of the first characters I really felt I could relate to. I, too, was the different kid who didn’t properly fit in. I was more academic than Meg and didn’t get into such trouble, but I still felt, on reading her, that here was someone like me. Looking back now, I see that the superficial likeness isn’t all that great, but inside, inside I felt like Meg. And I can look back at my childhood self and look at Meg and still fell great sympathy between the two. The blessing given to Meg, “I give you your faults”, felt perfect. What child (or what adult) doesn’t want to be able to turn their faults into something powerful and positive like Meg did.

I also remember finding IT horrible, repulsive and scary. I still find the concept of IT and its control over Camazotz to be all those things, but the actual physical manifestation of IT no long scares me. Instead, I find myself wondering about size and scale and really, unless it was huge, it’s not all that frightening. I’m reminded of the Buffy episode, Fear, Itself where the demon seems terribly frightening until its scale is revealed and Buffy stomps on it. It felt to me that IT needed a good stomping. But because the power of IT remained so repulsive, this small failure didn’t damage my enjoyment of the book.

I did wonder, when I started, if the book would have dated. On the whole, really it hadn’t. Okay I did try to remember when Cape Canaveral turned into Cape Kennedy (1963, the year after A Wrinkle in Time was published I find after looking it up on Wikipedia, which make logical sense when I think about it). But really, the only time I stopped and thought, “Hey, this was written in the sixties”, was when the children walked into Camazotz Central Intelligence and the computer room was described as being full of enormous boxes full of reels of tape. That kind of technological dating is impossible to avoid in an old book – how could L’Engle (or anyone else) imagine what my computer experience would be in 2010 as I sit here with a laptop on my knees connected to you all by wireless broadband. I just noticed the old computers and moved on. Otherwise, the people remained real people, the problems real problems and the alien worlds were very nicely, if not exactly scientifically, portrayed.

I've already read some of the reviews posted by other "readalongers" and some points had been raised (points seen by adult eyes and at a distance of years as I mentioned above) that remained in the back of my mind as I read. Would I notice them too? Would they bother me too?

One in particular, mentioned by more than one reader, was the very Christian-centric view of the universe in the book. Several said that while they didn't mind the characters having such a belief set, they felt that the author was preaching to them by having the actual universe itself having that belief set. Being brought up in the Christian belief system myself, I certainly never noticed it when reading the book as a child. Or at least, I don't remember noticing it. Reading it now, I could see what the other readers meant - I felt there were two places in particular where Christianity was given as absolute truth of the universe rather than one of several possibilities. These were when Mrs Whatsit tried to translate the music on Uriel and later, when the children were asked to think of people on Earth who had fought against the Darkness and the first answer, given by Charles Wallace, was Jesus.

So yes, it was there. How did it affect my reading of the book. Well, it didn't really, I must admit. I thought for a second, "Oh, that's what they meant" and went on reading. Part of that is probably due to the fact I still hold that same belief set myself (if not with the absolute assurance I had as a child), but I also didn't feel that L'Engle was preaching at me. I couldn't say whether she wrote the book as she did because to her that's the way the world was, truth rather than choice, or because she chose to create her "universe" where that was the truth of things. Either way, it didn't feel to me like she was on any kind of soapbox, which would have annoyed me, but telling her story the way that was right for her. Of course, others who come to the book from a different background may not agree with me.

(It also helps that I'm quite capable of subscribing to the concept of each book I read belonging in its own alternate universe that exists alongside the real one - something that can be very useful when watching TV and film adaptions of favourite books as they often belong in totally different universes from each other. Although, as an aside, I admit that even I can't manage that when it comes to the atrocity that is the film of Susan Cooper's wonderful book, The Dark is Rising.)

Someone else mentioned that they felt the characterisation was choppy, especially with the way Meg's feelings jumped all over the place. I don't think I would have noticed that even this time if I hadn't already been aware it might be there. I didn't really find it choppy, but more as if everything was being shown right up front and centre. Subtle, Meg certainly wasn't. In an adult book this might have been a problem, but I didn't feel it was here. By that, I don't mean that L'Engle can "get away with it" because she was writing a book for children, but because subtlety is something we develop as we mature and spelling it out was probably appropriate for the reading audience. This is a book for children, not for adults or even young adults (a reading category that didn't even exist when this book was published in 1962) and I felt it fit the age group, especially considering when it was written.

Speaking of when it was written, do you like the cover of my edition? I had to go and scan it, since I couldn’t find it online anywhere. I really like it and feel it works well for the book. I’m kind of sorry there’s 50c written on the cover, but it helps with the whole nostalgic feel. I wish I could still buy books for 50c – and that New Zealand cents not American ones too.

Kailana asked us to come up with some questions for discussion. I've already addressed some other readers' points, so thought I'd throw out one of my own.

Do readers feel this book has a clear sense of place?

Because I do. For all that a significant portion of it occurs on other planets, this feels like a very American book to me. I don't mean that as a kind of judgement, just that the sense of place is very strong for me. And this is something I feel certain I picked up on original readings as well as it felt very familiar to me as I reread. I've been thinking about why that might be, and come to the conclusion that it is because most of the books available to me as a child living in New Zealand in the 1970s and early 80s were British books. The fiction world of my childhood was therefore very British. (There were a few New Zealand books available, noticeably books by Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee's Under the Mountain but I don't remember many others off the top of my head.) Then along came these wonderful books that felt so different. I couldn't say why then and I still can't put my finger on it now, but the sense of place for me stood out because it was quite unlike the other books I read.

There are some obvious things, like mention of different kinds of trees and Mr Murray working at Cape Canaveral, but it was more subtle than that. A sense that seeps through the pages to give me a delicious, different feeling.

I'm not sure that actually makes sense, but that's how it feels to me and I'm going to stick by it.

So overall, yes, you can tell this is a children's book, but I just don't care. I loved rediscovering it and it spoke to me as much at age 40 as it did when I was 10. There's got to be some kind of magic in that.

And besides, tesseract is just a totally cool word.

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle
Time Quintet, Book 1
Read: 19-1-10 to 21-1-10

Time Quintet

  1. A Wrinkle in Time
  2. A Wind in the Door (Goodreads link)
  3. A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Goodreads link)
  4. Many Waters (Goodreads link)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Goodreads link)


Xine said...

AWiT is still my favourite of the series. I first read it around 1969/70, and read it again every few years.

Care said...

Wow - a very thorough review chock full of great thoughts and questions. I definitely approached this book from my 40+ yo self for a first time and yet appreciate it as a kids book. I really liked your concept and views from NZ as approach to whether or not this was American centric? (is that what you meant?) and since I am American, I do have a very US-viewpt since we don't often get any other option, perhaps. LOVED your post. Tesseract is a cool word.

orannia said...

It's bad that I've never read this, isn't it?

Kerry said...

Care - I didn't mean so much American-centric but that there was just a different feeling coming from the book than comes from British ones. It's very hard to describe, but if I hadn't know the book was set in the US in advance, I would have been able to tell by the feeling it gave me.

Orannia - no bad. We all read different books. Some us are voracious readers as children who are lucky to have our parents support our habit and some are not. I was one of the lucky ones.

Anonymous said...

Meg is a favorite character of mine, as well. I can easily relate to her not quite fitting in, which in retrospect I think is a good thing. Fitting in with the popular crowd at her age only means compromise, in my mind.

I had to smile when I read the part of your post which mentions some who've criticized it for being too Christian. Of course it's Christian! Madeleine's faith is present in every book she's written, and those who scorn it come to her writing unprepared for who she is and what she wants to express.

Ironically enough, I've heard many Christians (of which I'm obviously one) disparage her writing because of faith interspersed with fantasy. It seems it's impossible to please every one. For me, Madeleine epitomized what is good about Christianity and told it through story. I've loved her books for more than thirty years.

Anyway, I look forward to continuing the Time Quartet with you. It will be especially good to hear why Tilting Planet is your favorite; I think Wrinkle is mine. But, when we revisit childhood books we never know what new surprises await us, right?

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