Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Time Quintet (#1)
I read it: January 2018 (re-read)
At the mall in my hometown when I was a kid (back when malls hardly ever displayed an empty storefront), there was a Waldenbooks. This small spot was the first proper bookstore I knew, and although I didn’t buy new books from there on a regular basis, I remember stopping in a lot. I particularly remember perusing the shelves when my R.L. Stein phases were transitioning from Goosebumps to Fear Street.
It could have been around the same time that I thumbed through A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels—I remember their placement at the very back center of the store. The series had been recommended by a friend (hey Chris!) but for some reason I never put in the effort to acquire them. Then, a decade ago, I finally picked up the paperback of the main book. I read it with that good old-fashioned sense of back catalogue duty, and I remember… not very much. I remember not remembering an impact made by the story.
With the mega-production movie looming I figured I’d give it another go. (Plus I’ve snagged a few older versions of the sequels at thrift stores and I’m curious enough to try out a couple of those as well.) As for the primary text, it starts in an extremely traditional fantasy way: “It was a dark and stormy night.” The first few chapters that introduce Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are cleverly constructed and make you want to join in on the mysterious adventure with Meg, her younger brother, and her friend from school. Meg’s parents are loving and intelligent, and it’s a nifty conceit to have a child compelled to save her father who got wrapped up on the fringes of science and then fell in too deep.
What follows is a crash course of the vastness of space and the various alien civilizations that inhabit it. L’Engle is not afraid to keep her love of learning front and center, with Mrs. Who always substituting her own thoughts with quotations from great thinkers over the ages, sometimes in foreign languages. Meg picks up on lessons in humanity along the way, realizing that “when I’m mad I don’t have room to be scared” or learning from the Happy Medium (a humorous name for a conventional fortune-teller type) that “if I didn’t get fond I could be happy all the time.”
The main mission to rescue Meg’s father brings the trio to a creepy planet where the citizens act under dull compliance out of fear of repercussion. Here is where the Point of the Novel is laid bare, and unfortunately the story becomes steadily less interesting. Conformity is bad and the whole place is being run by a giant brain called IT (an intentional play on “information technology,” or had that phrase not been invented yet?). We learn that Meg’s younger brother, Charles (who is a genius), will fall into peril because he’s too smart to see his own hubris. This is all well and good for a child reader, I suppose, but it’s somewhat disheartening when they bring down the big bad using the power of love. It’s because it’s unique to humans, I guess? It feels cartoonish though.
Most disheartening of all, there is an alarming amount of God talk throughout the book. At one point the powerful lady leaders describe the ancient darkness that they constantly fight to keep at bay. They go on to explain that throughout time, the brilliant humans revered in our books and culture have been the primary weapons in the struggle. So of course you have the obvious ones like Einstein and Shakespeare… and Jesus. I don’t think L’Engle is a stealth Christian trying to push through a specific agenda wrapped in a sci-fi robe. No, she is sincerely enamored of the fantastical elements of her story and has humanistic intentions. It strikes me as simply the vague, somewhat intellectually lazy mindset of “religion must be good at its core, regardless of what you call God” that carries a hippie tinge. This oversimplified (or perhaps intensely optimistic) vibe is a convention of its own sort, such as in The Dark Tower series and its references to “the power of the White.”
(The religious matter comes to a depressing close in the author’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech from 1963, which is included at the end of the book. While appropriately gushing about the power of a universal storytelling language that cuts across barriers of “time, place, race, and culture,” L’Engle takes it a step too far. She says, “The extraordinary, the marvelous thing about Genesis is not how unscientific it is, but how amazingly accurate it is. How could the ancient Israelites have known the exact order of an evolution that wasn’t to be formulated for thousands of years? Here is a truth that cuts across barriers of time and space.” I have no idea what she’s actually trying to suggest here, but it was hard for me to uncringe. I wish I hadn’t read this part.)
Anyway, the book remains a potential first option for blowing open a young person’s mind with the implications of what could lay beyond our world. There’s an intriguing late-chapter subplot about differences in alien perception and communication, with another excellent character name in the form of “Aunt Beast.” When the beast asks the travelers, “What do you suppose you’d do if three of us suddenly arrived on your home planet,” Calvin simply says, “Shoot you, I guess.” This is a nicely realistic exchange that redeems some of the “power of love” gooeyness from earlier, and is always fertile ground for speculative fiction (see The Exo Project for a recent example).
I’m wondering if any of the sequels feature a more focused storyline, presumably about some sort of alien interaction, with a plot that’s less scattered and more subtly philosophical. Everyone loves a good vs. evil battle, but A Wrinkle in Time teases a lot of ideas at the expense of focus. I may not get my wish that the “good” side of the equation keeps its ties with intellectualism but strictly parts ways with religion. If anything, I’m guessing that the story still fuels the strange sort of left-leaning fire that warms people into thinking that bad people mess up good religions, and not the other way around. We’ll need a jump in space-time, and a heavy stack of better novels, to get us past that odd flame.