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 rereads 'A Wrinkle In Time', Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 novel of Meg Murry, who is too young to have wrinkles.
It was a dark and stormy night.
If I had my way, none of us would have to read this review at all. Instead, we'd join hands, hear a great dark thunderclap, and be whisked off to a rambling house in the country, where we'd view odd things bubbling in a lab with a stone floor, then eat limburger-and-cream-cheese sandwiches while swinging our legs at the kitchen table. We'd sidestep for a moment onto a planet inhabited by gentle gray creatures with dents for eyes, then be inserted into some mitochondria. We battle for the soul of Madoc /Maddox, and eat small crayfish with our lesbian kind-of aunt who insisted on calling us our full name (Polyhymnia). We'd hop on a freighter and solve a mystery, then go to boarding school in Switzerland. We would make a brief detour on the Upper West Side by way of Portugal, and be concerned with cell regeneration in starfish. We'd be smacked on the ass by a dolphin. Most important, whatever happened, we'd know we could get through it-because we are creatures that can love.
GOD, HOW MUCH DOES IT KILL ME THAT WE CAN'T DO THOSE THINGS, ESPECIALLY THE DOLPHIN PART! But, as Mrs. Who would have us recall Dante saying, Come t'e picciol fallow amaro morso! (What grievous pain a little fault doth give thee!) For here we are finally, located at the miraculous creation of Meg Murry (Madeleine L'Engle: Das Werk lobt den Meister! The work proves the craftsman!). Meg, the first heroine to endear herself to the reader by way of atom rearrangement.
For those readers who don't know-and I can't imagine there are many, but just for the record-A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg Murry-bespectacled, easily angered, brilliant at math-the first in a line of L'Engle heroines who flit across the boundaries of space and time, even more flummoxed by adolescence than they are by being whipsawed across the universe. (Which they are generally, just to complicate things, in the process of saving.) In AWIT, Meg, joined by her neighbor (and future husbs!!!) Calvin O'Keefe and her quietly remarkable younger brother Charles Wallace, hop-stops her way through a number of only occasionally hospitable galaxies, searching for her father in the shadow of the Dark Thing, the shadow of evil threatening to overtake Earth, and all of creation.
And that's it for those of you who haven't read the book. (Just stab me in the eye; it's less painful.) For the rest, first off, I am embarrassed to say that, swooning over memories of red-tinged, Sloppy Joe brains and calm, fragrant creatures with dents for eyes (Aunt Beast!), I had entirely forgotten that, when we first come across the studious, brilliant, Murray family, they-and Meg in particular-are in somewhat of a crisis. Not only has Meg just gotten into an enormous fight, black eye included, on the way home from school with some boys teasing her about her "dumb baby brother," but her father is missing-a fact which the town is only too happy to snidely remind her of. Here's Meg with her school principal, sullenly hating life in the hall:
"Meg, don't you think you'd make a better adjustment to life if you faced facts?"
"I do face facts," Meg said. "They're lots easier to face than people, I can tell you."
"Then why don't you face facts about your father?"
"You leave my father out of it!" Meg shouted.
"Stop bellowing," Mr. Jenkins said sharply. "Do you want the entire school to hear you?"
"So what?" Meg demanded. "I'm not ashamed of anything I'm saying. Are you?"
Am I the only one who'd forgotten that Meg has a) a bad attitude and b) is therefore, as yet unbeknownst to her, kind of a badass? Unfortunately for Meg, at that age, being a badass feels closer to, "I hate myself and would like to die." As the novel begins, alone in the bathroom, Meg tells her cat, "Just be glad you're a kitten and not a monster like me," then looks in the mirror and makes "a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with braces."
The problem for Meg is that, like Vicky Austin, she is surrounded by people who know exactly who they are. First are her younger brothers: "The twins didn't have any problems....They were strong and fast runners and good at games, and when cracks were made about anybody in the Murry family, they weren't made about Sandy and Dennys." Then there's her mother, who's both beautiful, kind, and a brilliant scientist. (Meg snorts at the idea her mother's looks or accomplishments are ordinary, although her mother, also enragingly modest, assures her they are.) Youngest brother Charles Wallace may have issues on the vast social stage of their country town ("Thinking I'm a moron gives people something to be smug about"), but only because being brilliant, psychic and self-assured before reaching 5 feet never plays well on the playground. (FYI, Charles Wallace is the only preternaturally wise child I've ever been able to stand, in literature. Maybe that's why I can't stand the other ones—they're NOT Charles Wallace.) Even their neighbor Calvin O'Keefe, who Meg thinks of only as a popular, well-adjusted basketball player, only pretends to be-he, like Charles, is both bright and highly attuned to unseen currents.
Meg, on the other hand, is all flyaway hair, braces, irritation and uncertainty-not ordinary enough to be popular in school, but not quite the extraordinary being Charles Wallace is. (As Charles Wallace puts it, "Meg has it tough. She's not really one thing or the other.") When she's hears someone say, "The two boys seem to be nice, regular children, but that unattractive girl and the baby boy certainly aren't all there," there's no more coherent rejoinder than her flying fists.
But Calvin O'Keefe, whose unabashed affection for Meg marks the beginning of her transformation, dispatches this whole line of inquiry neatly. "Oh, for crying out loud," Calvin said, "you're Meg, aren't you? Come on and let's go for a walk."
I'm sorry. I'm going to need to just swoon for one second over Calvin:
Tall he certainly was, and skinny. His bony wrists stuck out of the sleeves of his blue sweater; his worn corduroy trousers were three inches too short. He had orange hair that needed cutting and the appropriate freckles to go with it. His eyes were an oddly bright blue.
Loving. Him. LOVING HIM! (Zach and Adam, Shmach and Adam.) Anyway, enough backstory. As you know, Calvin has been brought on the scene at the request of Mrs. Who, one of three mysterious old women who have arrived in order to help the Murrys retrieve their father, who has not, as the family knows perfectly well, gone on the lam with a beautiful woman, but obviously been stuck in a high-tech jail on a galaxy far, far away. But in order to get there, they are going to have perform the act that landed Professor Murry in trouble in the first place—engaging in a tesseract. (Is the tesseract the object or action? Whatever.) As Mrs. Whatsit unhelpfully explains, "Oh, we don't travel at the speed of anything....We tesser. Or you might say, we wrinkle."
I'm going to need some visuals on that! Okay, imagine an ant crawling on a piece of string. Now, imagine the string is a skirt!
Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together. "Now, you see," Mrs. Whatsit said. "He would be there, without that long trip. That is how we travel."
Exactly! Sort of. Charles Wallace begins to quiz Meg on dimensions, just to bring the reader even further up to speed. Meg, if the first dimension is a line, the second a square, the third a three-dimensional square in which we live, then what's the fourth dimension?
"Well, I guess if you want to put it into mathematical terms you'd square the square. But you can't take a pencil and draw it the way you can the first three. I know it's got something to do with Einstein and time. I guess maybe you can call the fourth dimension Time."
That great whooshing sound you hear is the noise of 10 million readers deciding to just go ahead and be English majors. In any case, having tesseracted, 5th dimension style, of course, Meg's father is not simply lost—he is imprisoned by the great brain of the Dark Thing, a shadow stretching over the entire universe that is also starting to creep over Earth, the children are horrified to see. And in order to release him, the children are going to have to travel to Camazotz, where he's being held, the planet where the forces of evil have coalesced into a dreadful reign of conformity:
Then the doors of all the houses opened simultaneously, and out came women like a role of paper dolls. The print of their dresses was different, but they all gave the appearanceof being the same. Each woman stood on the steps of her house. Each clapped. Each child with the ball caught the ball. Each child with the skipping rope folded the rope. Each child turned and walked into the house. The doors clicked shut behind them.
What's fascinating about L'Engle is how in her world, courageous action is never simply swashbuckling, and it's unlikely anyone but a bookworm who couldn't conform if she tried could stand up against the forces of evil. In the first few chapters of the book, the reader is introduced, in no particular order, e=mc2, megaparsecs, Peru, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Euripides, Delille, and a host of other terms with which your average 12-year-old is rarely familiar. As the children watch the Dark Thing encircle their planet, they are relieved to realize that there have been heroes fighting against it throughout history, heroes they can name: Jesus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Pasteur, and Madame Curie and Einstein. The children resist being hypnotized by the forceful brain, IT, holding their father captive by reciting the periodic table, the Declaration of Independence, and doing the square roots of odd numbers. And when Charles Wallace is fully pulled into the brain of IT, Meg holds it off on her own simply by having an insight:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident!" she shouted, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
As she cried out the worlds she felt a mind moving in on her own, felt IT seizing, squeezing her brain. Then she realized that Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT.
"But that's exactly what we have on Camazots. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike."
For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. "No!" she cried triumphantly. "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!"
This is absolutely apropos, since Meg, Charles and Calvin, are, of course, not like their peers, and not like the world in which they live—but they are far more than equal, if it comes to that. And is this regard, Mrs. Who has also provided Meg with a far more important weapon against IT, one that not even Calvin or Charles Wallace have:
"My faults!" Meg cried.
"But I'm always trying to get rid of my faults!"
What were her greatest faults? Anger, impatience, stubbornness. Yes, it was to her faults that she turned to save herself now.
And because she's able to resist IT for long enough out of pure orneriness, she's able to remember what it is that she has that those in conformity, both at home and on Camazotz, can never take away from her:
Her own Charles Wallace, the child for whom she had come back to Camazotz, to IT, the baby who was so much more than she was, and who was yet so utterly vulnerable.
She could love Charles Wallace.
Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.
Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.
I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you, I love you.
...Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms. He was shrieking with sobs. "Meg! Meg! Meg!"
Well jeez, now I'M crying. But I find it fascinating and instructive what role KNOWLEDGE plays in courage in A Wrinkle in Time, where Meg, who has been castigated by her math teachers by not doing their problems her own way, discovers that her stubbornness about what she knows is right is her greatest strength. It's not really her love for her brother that saves him and her father and herself from being taken over by the Dark Thing. It's her faults (anger, impatience, stubbornness) that keep her from being sucked in by the great throbbing brain telling her to fall in line. Because Meg's bullheadedness—her insistence on doing things her own way, her understanding that she is probably right, her anger at the attempts to silence her—isn't simply a cute narrative depiction of a spunky girl. She's not spunky, she's difficult. And, as unattractive as those traits are to others, Meg's faults amount to no less than a belief in herself. And, as Mrs. Who says: Justitae soror vides-faith is the sister of justice.
As usual, you ladies have done me proud. The solution to last week's Plotfinder, which involved streaky lemon pie and bad hair, was, of course, Candace F. Ransom's Fourteen and Holding. (Just FYI, for the record, I hope you all know I never print Plotfinders that I, MISTRESS OF FINE LINES, know or can recall. So you are doing all this excellent work yourselves.) The winner, by literally FOUR MINUTES, by email, was one Rita D. Congratulations, Rita! As you will recall, winners get to choose an upcoming Fine Lines; Rita, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to claim your prize.
Now, for this week's Plotfinder:
I swear I read this book dozens of times — including as an official class assignment in the 5th grade — so I can't believe I've completely forgotten its name. It's about a family of orphans (naturally), I think five of them. The book is from the point of view of the second-oldest daughter as she tries to hold the family together after their grandmother dies. They try to hide the fact that their grandmother died from all the neighbors, and make ends meet by going up into the woods and collecting wild herbs like digitalis that they sell to people from the city for money. They have an evil landlord named Keyser Pease, and at one point they have to save him from dying from a horrible disease by putting him in a bathtub full of fried onions. (I still have no idea what that was about.) The eldest daughter, who is described as "cloudy-headed," ends up falling in love with the evil landlord and they get married, which saves the family from being evicted.
I don't think this is The Boxcar Children. (In case it is, just be like THE BOXCAR CHILDREN DUH, LIZZIE.) Just for insurance purposes, however, I'm going to add my own Plotfinder that's been bugging me this week, which is also about orphans. I'm going to ital myself too so I don't feel alienated from you all:
What's the book where a family of foster children, led by an older, now of-age foster child, runs off when they are about to be separated because the youngest is about to be adopted? They are super-on-the-lam all the time. The oldest guy is kind of nice. At some point after their first escape they pick fruit in California. There's some issue of cards on construction paper being written to absent parents. There's also a haunted house with peeled grapes for eyes where they're almost caught and have to move yet again. The youngest boy (of course) has a lisp and probably carries around a blanket, and I believe there's a quiet, genius black child (of course) whose computer skills become useful at some point. And a young hispanic boy who likes...skateboards? Can this be? He's obsessed with something boy-ish that is provided to him on Christmas, perhaps. They buy a house at some point, and are allowed to stay together at the end.
You can answer in the comments below, or send an email to email@example.com. First correct answer(s) win. (Yes, this week there is the possibility for two wins!) Winner(s) get(s) to demand a column, nicely or intemperately, however so they choose. In any case, I will be sure to bring all your answers to life and wrap them in fur after you freeze and pass through the Dark Thing, however snatchy the forces of evil have made you.
Earlier: Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
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