A Ring Of Endless Light: Eros, Thanatos; Now, Where The Hell Is That Dolphin?

Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads 'A Ring of Endless Light', the 1980 Madeleine L'Engle novel about Vicky Austin, who needs a good (dolphin) slap on the ass.

Dolphins. Do I even need to write another word? Oh, I know I do, but...dolphins, I had to write it again! That's the whole reason I started this column—to write about dolphins! You dog/horse/wolf/rabbit/mouse/Cave Lion/alley cat girls, keep your creatures. I am sticking with the one that can race to the horizon and back in an instant, symbolizes the great timeless mystery and wisdom of the universe, and is psychic. Try that with a rabbit sometime.In A Ring of Endless Light, Vicky Austin, seemingly the most ordinary of the triptych of L'Engle heroines that includes Meg Murray O'Keefe and, in later installations, Meg's daughter Poly, yet again reveals herself to have a tiger in the tank. Having left her the previous summer, camping across the country on her way to a year in New York (see The Young Unicorns for that story), we return to an older Vicky under sadder circumstances. Not only has her family gathered on Seven Bay Island because her grandfather dying of cancer, a dear family friend, Commander Rodney, has just been killed trying to rescue a drowning boy. What has always been a happy summer on the water has become, in true Virginia Woolf style, a slow march into the sea. Luckily—it is summer, after all—L'Engle has seen fit to break up all this agony with a passel of love interests for Vicky, though all three boys are wrestling with their own boatmen as well. First up is the familiar Zachary Gray, Vicky's pale, raven-haired suitor from The Moon By Night, his ordinary old death wish now transmuted into a veritable buffet of funeral baked meats. He's still got his bum ticker and loves to race cars and fly prop planes too close to jetliners—but now, his mother has died and been cryogenically frozen, and, oh, yeah—he's just (unsuccessfully) tried to commit suicide, which is the real reason Commander Rodney, who managed to save Zach, but not himself, is dead. No wonder, after he pull up in his hearse-like black station wagon, he wastes no time telling Vicky she's all that stands between him and chaos. ("You're reason where there isn't any reason. Reason to live—") Stick a pin in that for one second, Zach—because, in addition to this matter of your being responsible for the death of Commander Rodney, Leo Rodney, his son, is very much interested in Vicky!
Without realizing what I was doing, I put my arms around him. "Cry, Leo, don't hold it back, you need to cry—" I broke up because I was crying, too, for Commander Rodney, for my grandfather, who was dying slowly and gently, for a thousand porpoises who had been clubbed to death... I held Leo and he held me and we rocked back and forth on the old elm trunk, weeping, and the salt wind brushed against the salt of our tears. And I discovered that there is something almost more intimate about crying that way with someone than there is about kissing...
The French may have figured out how sex can evoke death, but it took an American to realize that death can also evoke sex. Luckily for Zach, however, Vicky doesn't feels the same amount of wild chemistry with gentle Leo. Speaking of which, we come now to the figure of Adam Eddington, who's studying dolphins at the lab with Vicky's older brother, John. Those of you who've read The Arm of the Starfish know well that Adam is currently grieving over the death of his former mentor and friend, Joshua Archer, and the role he may have played in that death—but in this novel Adam is also, for L'Engle, the lifeline between science and God, his experiments with dolphins leading him less down a rational path than one towards greater mysteries. When he asks Vicky for help, thinking, as a child (he thinks), she may communicate better with the wild dolphin, Basil, he's made friends with out at sea, he realizes that she's not a child—and that her poetical brain runs rings around his when it comes to communicating with them:
"Tell me what he feels like to you," Adam urged. How can anybody describe the feel of a dolphin? "Something strange, alien," I murmured, "like touching a creature from a different planet—and yet completely familiar, too, as though I've always known what a dolphin feels like....." Again I lifted my hand from the water, but I couldn't see anything, and this time when I stoped scratching, Basil dove down, his great fluke flicking so that again I was drenched in spray, and appeared far beyond us, leaping up in great and glorious arc before diving down again... I was still treading water and feeling more exhilarated than I have ever felt in my life.
Yes, that's right, she gets to swim with dolphins. Contain your jealousy. (Actually, just save it for when she has psychic conversations with them.) But Vicky's summer is one of absurd juxtapositions and extremes—one moment quietly spent reading philosophy with her Grandfather by his bed, the next being taken to a spa and a classical music concert with Zachary, the next eating spaghetti with her family and discussing the nature of death and cellular regeneration, the next skinny-dipping with Leo. It's an overwhelming deluge of physical, philosophical and psychological stimulae, sex and death, Eros and Thanatos, one in which the dolphins prove a crucial link for Adam—and for her:
"It's just—it's just—there's death everywhere—Commander Rodney—and watching Grandfather, and now Ynid's baby for no reason—it's just everywhere..." ..."Are you afraid?" he asked softly..."Of what, Vicky?" He picked up another handful of sand, and started trickling it through his fingers. "Dying?" his voice wasn't loud, but the word seemed to explode into the night.
Unlike Zach, who is far too dangerous, and Leo, who is far too tame, Adam is capable of making Vicky feel strongly without maker her feel entirely out of control—or making her feel entirely unlike herself:
...I heard every word he said. And I think I understood. At the same time my entire body was conscious of the feel of his fingers stroking my hair. I wondered if he felt as strongly as I did. At that moment there was a rip in the clouds and an island of star-sparkled sky appeared, its light so brilliant it seemed to reach down beyond the horizon and encircle the earth, a ring of pure and endless light. I wasn't sure that Adam's words were very comforting. But his arm about me was. He made me feel very real, not replete with me at all, only real, and hopeful....And I knew that if Adam kissed me it was going to be different from Zachary, with all his experience, or Leo, with all his naivete. Adam did not kiss me. Yet I felt as close to him as though he had.
This is a far cry from Leo, whom she can grieve with but not kiss, or Zach, whom she can kiss, but not grieve with. But here again, we find that the dolphins have the answer for her. After the baby of the dolphins at the lab dies, she asks the wild dolphins (wouldn't you?) to explain the nature of death to her:
I thought of Ynid and her grief at her dead baby, and I asked Basil, Is Ynid's baby all right? (Is Commander Rodney all right? Is my grandfather all right? Am I? Is it all right?) Basil pulled himself out of the water and a series of sounds came from him, singing sounds. And what it reminded me of was Grandfather standing by Commander Rodney's open grave and saying those terrible words and then crying out, full of joy, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Like Vicky's minister grandfather, the dolphins advocate a unified theory of everything, one in which not only life and death are intertwined, but evil and good. But when Vicky, on the cusp of womanhood, tries to assert her new psychic powers with the dolphins with Adam to form their own unified theory, she is slapped back:
Without consciously realizing what I was doing, I turned my mind toward Adam. Do a cartwheel in the water, like Basil. I held my breath. Adam dove down. Up came his legs. Flip. Head and arms were out of the water. Just like Basil. Adam, do you really think of me as nothing more than a child? I realize I'm naive and backward for my age in lots of ways, but I don't feel about you the way a child feels. I've never felt about anybody else the way I feel about you, touched in every part of me...Is it only my feelings? Doesn't it touch you at all? He broke in, saying sharply, "Vicky, what are you doing?" I could feel heat suffusing my face. "N—nothing." Now he was shouting at me. "Don't do that!" "Why? Why not?" "Because—because—" He clamped his mouth shut. But he was telling without speaking. Because it's too intimate. But I did it with the dolphins. Why was it all right with the dolphins? And the answer came lapping gently into my mind like the water lapping about my body. Because this is how the dolphins are, all the time. They're able to live with this kind of intimacy and not be destroyed by it.
I have always loved the part of this book where Leo tells Vicky how his parents made love after his own grandfather's death as an "affirmation of life" (it's not creepy, I swear), and it seems to sum up the entire thesis of this book—that sex and death are intertwangled with joy, which is, as Vicky's grandfather puts it, "the infallible sense of God in the universe." Meg Murray may well get to be consumed by tilting planets and fandolae and the future of the universe, but Vicky is, in her own quiet way, touching on questions just as crucial, however young and awkward she is. Like Meg, Vicky is a conduit for discussing the big questions, but I have always felt that she alone is also a conduit for representing the overwhelming feelings of adolescence, especially for girls. As Adam puts it, "I simply did not expect that John Austin's kid sister would be thunder and lightning and electricity." • • • • • Hello, pretty ladies! Thank you for being so extraordinarily nice to my dear friend Laura Lippman last week! (Just fyi, my personal takeaway from the Gilbreth family has always been flaking whitewash, shingled hair, QWERTY, "Lincoln freed the slaves. All but one. All but one," and Davey Jones Locker, not necessarily in that order. Oh, and the scent of oranges in California! This could go on for hours.) If you have not already, please go check out Laura's Times' Magazine Sunday Serial of last week, which returns, I presume, yet again in this next one. ADDITIONALLY AND FURTHERMORE...construction at YA Book Central continues APACE, and various announcements, including the TITLE AND COVER PEEKS, plus SPECIAL ACTION ITEMS, will be appearing as soon as the publisher authorizes it, i.e. soon. Want to know before everyone else? OBVIOUSLY. To sign up, click here or send an email to jezziefinelines@gmail.com with the words DOLPHINS DO IT BETTER in the subject line, and I will put you on it! Now, onto the last Plotfinder, which gave us a rare visual. I encourage all of you who haven't looked at it to give it a click and scroll down before proceeding. LAST FACEFINDER VISUAL Okay, good. (Guys, you are OBSESSED WITH Matt Dillon, but that is not Matt Dillon! BELIEVE ME, I KNOW MATT DILLON. Hair is right, though.) As I said last week, one of these I know for sure, the next I am 98%, and the third I just like to believe is true. Therefore, the winner is one Elissa P., who replied to the challenge: 1. Courtney Cox 2. Ethan Hawke 3. Alanis???? (I really want to believe this one) I ALSO WANT TO BELIEVEEEEEEEEE!!!!! But yes, that is Courtney Cox, and, I am quite certain, Ethan Hawke. (You have to look at the eyes, or, rather, eye.) Is that or is that not a pre-nose job Alanis? Did Alanis have a nose job? God knows; either way, there's nothing ironic about that corsage. But! Elissa, please write me at jezziefinelines@gmail.com to claim your prize of one free column demand. Previous winners, your columns are coming up in the order in which they were received — do not despair! I was saving them for the cold weather. AND NOW TO THIS WEEK'S PLOTFINDER!!!!!!! Laboring mightily myself of late, I have taken pity upon this poor fellow laborer, Sarah, whose efforts, tho' verily admirable, have as of yet come to naught:
I read it in the early 90s, but I think it was published in the mid-late 80s. There's a teenage girl who is very poor and lives with her mom in a trailer park. Her dad died when a wheel flew off a semi and landed on his car (I still freak out on highways because of this). I believe the trailer park is located next to a highway also. They sometimes eat spaghetti every night for dinner. Somehow she gets accepted into this fancy private school and meets and befriends a bunch of rich girls. She becomes very close to one, and starts to hang out at the friend's mansion, but then discovers the father is molesting her friend. I think the friend comes to live in the trailer for a bit. That is all I remember, but I LOVED this book and I have been trying to recall the title for years. I even spent time "shelving" the teen rack when I worked at Barnes & Noble in college, trying to figure out what the title was.
For some reason I think the author's name is Sarah, or possible the main character, but my name is Sarah too, so I may just be really self-involved.
I would totally and completely adore you forever if you can help me figure out what this damn book is called.
Thank you!!!!!!
Sarah
Please, no more "shelving"! Help a Sarah out!
For pre-readers, initially, I had And This is Laura scheduled for next week. But you REMEMBER ME people WILL NOT GO AWAY!!!!!! Jesus, I REMEMBER YOU! Okay, we'll do that next week, and then I'll announce the next roster.
Interns, thank you for your wonderful applications! I am still reading them all and will be back to every single one within the next few weeks. If anyone else would like to be an intern on the book, please also send me your resume and a cover letter to jezziefinelines@gmail.com with THROW ME ON THE PILE in the subject line, and I will throw you on the pile!
As always, you can send your assessments, analyses, requests and recriminations to jezziefinelines@gmail.com. I label them either "sex" or "death," then move on.
A Ring of Endless LightA Ring Of Endless Light Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag] Earlier: Bridge To Terabithia: Troubling The WatersFlowers In The Attic: He Ain't Sexy, He's My BrotherA Little Princess: A Reversal Of Four BunsTiger Eyes: Cuando Los Lagartijos CorrenHomecoming: A Dicey ProspectGo Ask Alice: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase: Life's A Bitch And So Is The Governess
Stranger With My Face: Stop Projecting
Happy Endings Are All Alike: The Price Of Fault
The Pigman: A Day No Friends Would Die
Julie Of The Wolves: The Call Of The Wild
Deenie: Brace Yourself
A Wrinkle In Time: Quit Tesseracting Up
Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
The Westing Game: Partners In Crime
The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die