Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Slightly Creased

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, Read by Barbara Caruso, Recorded Books, 1994

[Text updated to dispell my mistaken notion that L'Engle was somehow British, which she totally ain't. LRLO apologizes deeply to everyone involved. Tip o' the keyboard to alert reader Alley Cat for catching what too many late night hard ciders prevented me from adequately researching.]

Madeleine L’Engle is the third member of the oft-grouped trio of fantasy writers who salt their childrens’ tales with Christian allegory. Perhaps less a literary luminary than C.S. Lewis and less a fanboy fave than J.R.R. Tolkien, L’Engle writes a kind of warm and human prose not unlike current British fantasy champ J.K. Rowling. Unlike Lewis’ rather overt (and occasionally ham-handed) proselytizing in his fiction, L’Engle seduces with a more embracing than a stern and scolding Creator. And unlike Tolkien (whose religious principles are so well-buried in allegory in his fiction that I had only the faintest inkling of their existence when I read The Lord of the Rings), there is considerably less sword and sorcery swashbuckling whose primary appeal is to spotty teenaged boys.

There are few enough decent, interesting children’s books featuring angry young girls going through their awkward phase, a phase most children go through at one point or another. “Angry” and “young” are adjectives writers and publishers seem most commonly to bestow upon boys in fiction, so to meet Meg Murry, the heroine of Madeleine L’Engle’s justly famous A Wrinkle in Time, is different and refreshing. Young children, Meg and her brother Charles, along with their friend, the older Calvin are sent across space and time by a pseudo-witch trio to rescue the Murry father from the extra-terrestrial/extra-dimensional captivity in which he has been languishing these several months. As the adventure proceeds, however, something changes.

The midway-through shift in concentration on to Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin does beg a serious question, though, even if the focus does return to Meg shortly after. Why do children’s books typically become “classics” or popular based on what seems a primary concern with young boys? Why do young girls seem so willing to read books about boys when the reverse is rarely true? Is it that so few books about girls are marketed as aggressively to boys or is it merely the audience — boys don’t want to read about “girly” stuff? (Idly speculative, but my mind can’t help believing that Shari Potter might have sold several million fewer copies than Harry.)

Nevertheless, Meg is almost prototypical in her brawling, short-tempered, suspicious fashion, each successive generation of children’s books protagonists less and less convinced of the automatic benevolence of the adult world or the need to sit still for condescension. The portrayals of her automatic doubt about adult motivations and her own self-doubt tap into a lively vein of child-thought, the skepticism that neither you nor the big people really can handle what’s going on. This is a fundamental doubt and the flowering of such child character thoughts. The only person Meg never questions is her advanced, near psychic little brother Charles Wallace, an interesting and mysterious character in his own right.

In another smallish departure from what is pro forma for many a children’s literature classic, it is the father this time who is absent in the book rather than the mother. The list of absent and departed mothers is longer than both my arms with my legs thrown in to boot (“wicked stepmother” in fact, practically a cliche of a phrase anymore), but the list of absent fathers (and only fathers solo) runs up pretty short — despite the quite real statistical frequency of such a thing in real life. (It’s my suspicion that stepmothers were more common in real life in the times when many fairy tales have their origins, when childbirth was a sight more dangerous a proposition.)

Since Meg is our focus, and since the L’Engle name doesn’t carry with it the dark and dangerous baggage of a Cormier, you can bet that it will be Meg who will happily rescue her father from whatever perilous fate has befallen him, even with Charles Wallace’s amazing abilities. Despite the magic throughout, Meg also shares her father’s rather unorthodox style of scientific thought, not unorthodox in the Tesla free-lunch power variety, but in the alternate paths to the correct answer kind.

What’s perhaps the nicest feature of L’Engle’s Christian allegory is that she has no fear of what science might teach. It is mathematical proofs, the table of elements, square roots, and other such scientific factoids that help Meg keep her individuality when threatened in the book. In these days when anti-scientific ID/creationists are knocking on every school district’s door, the whole hearted embrace of the scientific method is refreshing.

For L’Engle, science isn’t a threat to her faith, it’s an ever expanding, ever more fascinating description of its proofs. Her open-mindedness has a great deal more forgiveness in it than C.S. Lewis’ tsk-tsking judgemental humor. In fact, it may be the role call of luminaries from Earth who have battled against the elemental darkness that gets the author in trouble with those who’d wish to see the book pulled from the library shelves. Jesus, naturalamente, but then Ghandi, Buddha, Einstein, Bach, da Vinci, Schweitzer, and even that pagan heathen Euclid. There may be some territorial concerns on the part of some offended readers who wish to keep things strictly Christian on the role call.

In the end, what warms you when reading A Wrinkle in Time is just how warm the book is toward difference, alternate ways of thinking, heterodoxy, and the like. Madeleine L’Engle shows a kind of tolerance greatly needed in today’s religious based books, a tolerance for ideas no less than for people.

As a parent who spends a great deal of the day reading to a two year old, I find myself characterizing many books with different voices for the sake of entertaining everyone involved. There have been times I’ve felt myself trapped in a voice I didn’t particularly like, unable to quite find the right tone to strike to escape it.. Barbara Caruso characterizes everyone she reads and gets most of it right, or at least enjoyable. But one personality Caruso reads (Mrs. Which, one of the “witches”) is such a characterization that can be a bit grating, a slowly ponderous voice that draws everything out sluggishly and dully. It impedes the general pace of the novel and is out of place in any sense. Other than that false note, she hits the book with everything she’s got and delivers the goods left, right, and center. Save for one little wrinkle, she is this project’s dream reader.

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