Monday, September 10, 2007

Time Out of Time: Farewell to Madeleine L'Engle

The world of children's literature both mourns the death and celebrates the life and work of Madeleine L'Engle, who died September 6 at the age of 88.

Rejected by 26 publishers before it was published and subsequently awarded the John Newbery Medal in 1963, her signature work, A Wrinkle in Time, was attacked by religious conservatives and loved by a generation of readers who like its author found no contradiction in its free association of faith, fantasy, and science. "I am Meg," said L'Engle, and her shy, math-loving heroine Meg Murry, her perceptively gifted brother Charles Wallace, and her brave friend Calvin O'Keefe took on the worst the Dark Side could throw against them in a exhilarating mix of science fiction and fantasy adventure which has become a popular classic since its arrival 45 years ago.

Like C. S. Lewis before her, L'Engle brought a hard-headed Christian mysticism to the task of writing for children. She was not afraid to draw upon religious and mythical metaphor to tell her stories, but at their heart her works were novels which dealt with real people, limited by their faults, but gifted with love for each other and enough courage to pit their limited human love against the forces of evil, both without and within. Educated in literature, with an Anglican background, and writing in mid-century amid an explosion of scientific discovery, L'Engle drew her symbols freely from all three strands, placing mitochondrial DNA and quantum physics into her stories as seamlessly as angels and winged horses.

L'Engle's novels for young readers are comprised of three separate but interwoven strands, the first of which are the "Time Quartet" or "Murry Family Quartet," which include A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters.

Begun in 1960 with the publication of Meet the Austins, the "Austin Family" books also include The Moon by Night, The Young Unicorns, A Ring of Endless Light, and in 1994, Troubling a Star.

Chronicling the children of Meg Murry and Calvin O'Keefe, the "O'Keefe Family" series includes Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters, A House Like a Lotus, and An Acceptable Time.

Like the Harry Potter books in this century, A Wrinkle in Time has been revered by teachers and librarians as the "go to" book which turns indifferent readers into fervent readers. A rousing good adventure story which starts with a stormy night and a bang at the door and ends in the redemption of Meg's father and the pro tem containment of evil, it leaves the reader with a mind somehow willing to think within a wider universe. Not that all that comes easy:

"Why does anybody tell a story? she once asked.

"It does indeed have something to do with faith," she said, "faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose to say or do matters, matters cosmically."

It takes a leap of faith for a writer to set out to create a whole fictional world in which people say or do things that matter. Madeleine L'Engle was able to do that and do that well, and her readers are fortunate she shared her time with our time.



  • Thanks. I'll check out these other books.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:42 AM  

  • Her books are amazing. She had a way of making you fall in love with humanity, both the good and the bad aspects. She will be missed.

    By Blogger Sarah, at 12:28 PM  

  • A Wrinkle in Time actually begins with the sentence "It was a dark and stormy night," which has been mocked by English teachers since time immemorial as a symbol of horrid writing. That sentence has been listed as one of the major literary crimes of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who has has himself come to symbolize abysmal writing. And yet -- she revived it, and made it work, almost unnoticed.

    I always wanted to meet Meg. Especially when I was her age ...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:39 PM  

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