Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads Madeleine L'Engle's 1963 novel 'The Moon By Night,' in which Vicky Austin goes camping and gets to know boys from A to Z.
It was John's voice and he was calling for me. I supposed somewhere on the inside of my mind I realized it, but with the outside of my mind all I heard was the constant crying of sea gulls and the incoming boom of breakers.
Don't buy into the party of unity: When it's comes to Madeleine L'Engle, you're either a Meg, Polly, or Vicky girl. (NO ONE is Camilla. And whatever, Maggies — you're deliberately being provoking.) For those of you rusty on the trois dames of L'Engle's works, Meg is, OF COURSE, Meg Murray, of A Wrinkle in Time fame, while Polly (Polyhymnia) is her red-headed daughter of the excellent Dragons in the Waters action. Vicky is Vicky Austin, of Meet the Austins, two kinds of awkward, three kinds of innocent, and strangely appealing for a fourteen-year-old given to frequent bouts of vigorous prayer.
The Moon By Night is the second in the Austin family trilogy, and when we catch up with Vicky, she's just exited the ugly duckling stage, where all her "sticky-out bones and unmanageable hair seem to come to some sort of agreement." (Exiting the awkward stage, as we have learned, is a narratively advantageous time to launch a novel, AS WE CAN NOW GET A LOVE INTEREST OR POSSIBLY TWO IN THE MIX. More on that soon.)
The Austin family — of the kindly physician father, the lovely stay-at-home mother, the older, supersmart brother, John, the pretty youngest daughter, Suzy, the surprise child, Rob, and Vicky in the middle — have just married off Vicky's mother's best friend to her uncle, deposited their foster daughter, Maggie, with the happy couple, and headed off on a camping trip across the country, bearing their usual Austin cheer with them:
"When we reached the mainland we headed for a parkway and started playing the alphabet game. You know, you divide up by who's sitting on which side of the car, and you have to find the letters of the alphabet, in order, one by one, on the signs. John and Daddy and Suzy were way ahead until they came to Q, and then Mother and Rob and I caught up with them and won. Then we played Animal Rummy, and Rob saw a white horse and won that. And of course we sang. We always do a lot of singing."
Approximately every 10 pages, to be precise. This level of saccharine should of course be unendurable, but Vicky's innocence is the only acceptable kind. In L'Engle's world, there's no virtue in innocence, only a testing ground for what will happen when real choice is at stake. (Like the whole evil starfish consortium in Dragons in the Waters! Sorry.) There are only a few flavors of childhood in L'Engle: precocious, thoughtless, and as-yet-unformed, all trying to contend with what they can't understand but know they must master. In short, the Austin family still all reads in the campground together at bedtime: but they read A Connecticut Yankee.
Vicky, of course, is in the as-yet-unformed camp, every experience and piece of knowledge and opportunity to feel all the more a meteor hurtling widely while all around her and snug in tight orbits:
"John [is] terrifically intelligent, but not a bit of a grind. I mean, he just comes home from school and sits down and gets his homework done in half the time it takes me to do mine. He's good at sports, too, the kind you can do with glasses on, like basketball and track. As far as I can see he's good at just about everything, I'm proud of him, sure, but sometimes I feel, well, just kind of said, because I can't ever hope to be the kind of person John is. I don't even know what I want to be yet."
No worries, sweets. That's why you get the trilogy! This ties in, of course, to L'Engle's vision of Christianity, one even a Spaghetti-Monster-fearing atheist might have a difficult time quarreling with, filled as it is with thoughtful analysis of one's role and a aggressive rejection of piety voiced by almost every major character. (Choice excerpt, from Vicky's uncle: "The minute anybody stars telling you what God thinks, or why he does such and such, beware.")
In fact, the whole Christianity thing is so sublimated you are mostly concentrated, like Vicky, on GETTING TO THE BOY STUFF. This occurs right after the family has settled in at one of their first campgrounds and Daddy fights off a hood because he, you know, KNOWS JUDO.
Suzy asked, "Daddy, weren't you scared?"
"I didn't like it," Daddy said, "but most hoodlums are cowards when it comes to a showdown. They're only brave when they think you're afraid of them. Now don't let this spoil our trip, and don't let it spoil Tennessee."
"Are we to be frightened of our teen-agers?" Mother asked bitterly. "Has it come to that?"
"Vicky and I are teen-agers," John said. "You can't blame teen-agers any more than you can Tennessee. There are dopy fringe elements in every group. I wrote a paper on it for Social Studies."
Sorry, I drifted off for a second, but is it...ZACH! Thank God, it's ZACHARY GREY! Like, riding up in a big black car into the campground and Vicky's life NOW!!! Zachary of very pale skin and black hair and polo shirt and totally rich parents and bad-boy vibe! Zach who is, in Vicky's words, "really pretty spectacular."
Because, how awesome is it that you're on a vacation and are finally pretty and your parents are nice but constantly making you sing and you kind of like it but ISN'T ANYTHING ELSE GOING TO EVER HAPPEN TO ME and the guy across the way full STROLLS UP, ASKS YOU OUT, and is a real person, filled with contradictions, enough that your family totally hates him on sight, even though though he has his virtues and not just some weird guy trying to sleep with you:
"You've got an interesting face, Vicky," Zachary said as we walked back towards our tent. "Not pretty-pretty, but there's something more. And a darned good figure. I'd say something other than darned only I might shock little unhatched you."
"I'm not so unhatched as all that."
"I'll bet you nothing's happened to you all your life long. Your meals have always been put in front of you and if you skin your little knee you can run crying to Mommie and Poppie and they'll kiss it and make everything all right."
Well, maybe I didn't have very much experience so far. But I was on my way to getting it.
PREACH IT, SISTER! But why is Zach such an avatar of experience? Because, as we learn, he, like many of a young poet before him, suffers from rheumatic fever, leaving him with the dramatic coloring and disposition Vicky adores — and that drives her family to try to expel him like a foreign agent. ("This camping trip's a family affair, Vicky.")
What's most fascinating about L'Engle is how she's able to weave the actual events of the trip with great moral quandaries to the extent that an adult can, with a stretch, almost read them as parables. You could say some delinquents throw a Coke bottle at their car, or that they, like all travelers, are beset upon by thieves on the road. They either use their station wagon to drive some Girl Scouts out of a flooded canyon, or they are Noah, with an ark saving the innocents. There's a baby left in a tent with Mother, and a fallen woman who gratefully retrieves her. Vicky learns about Native Americans, a town destroyed by half the mountain, and the Holocaust, American imperialism. She sees New Mexico: "At home in Thornhill nobody is really poor, and it was awful to see the shacks and shanties and poor, foreign-looking people along the roadside. No wonder D.H. Lawrence isn't really happy in New Mexico." She sees "The Diary of Anne Frank" with Zach when the family reaches Laguna Beach. "If God lets things be unfair, if He lets things like Anne Frank happen, then I don't love Him, I hate Him!" she cries. Dude, don't hold on a second. YOU'RE GOING TO MEET ANOTHER GUY.
And enter Andy Ford, the moral redhead who does not want Vicky to see Zach anymore than Zach wants Andy to see Vicky! Eff morality, this entire book is about two guys chasing Vicky around sunlit canyons and dark, starry nights around the fire, and, though you have to actually read about three more books to see how it resolves, I would sit through any amount of secret sermonizing to find out what happens next.
"You're a funny kid," Zach tells Vicky: "a mixture of goody-goody little Miss Prunes, and quite a gal. I look forward to knowing you in five years." Trust us, Zach, there's all this crap about dolphins and lovers and telekenesis and it's AWESOME.
* Gold star to anyone who can mention when this book breaks the space-time continuum.
Earlier: My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
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