Probably most people’s first exposure to Madeleine L’Engle is A Wrinkle in Time. After all, it’s a Newberry Award winner, and appears on lists of “most controversial” books almost every year. One group had even tried to assert that the descriptions of “tessering” in the book actually refer to orgasm. No wonder the book was so popular amongst pre-pubescent! But my first exposure to this amazing writer came through a much lesser known book – Meet the Austins. The first time I read it I was about 11, and I fell in love with the characters. Vicki, the second born child, so much like me. Uncertain, insecure about her looks and her place in her talented family. Her smart, confident older brother, John. Her beautiful little sister Suzy, who’s always known that she wanted to be a doctor. Her precocious baby brother, Rob. And the parents – loving, stable, not without flaws, certainly, but able to provide an anchor for Vicki when her world gets turned upside down. Which it does, almost immediately. A beloved friend of the family is killed in a plane crash, and his orphaned daughter, Maggie, turns up to live with the Austin family, throwing their lives into chaos. Never before had I read a book that dealt with death so honestly. All the characters, even the adults, struggle with this death and the chaos it brings into their lives. But through the love that they share for each other, and are consequently able to extend to Maggie, Vicki is able to come a little closer to acceptance and understanding. The book was special to me, but I didn’t yet know how much its author would touch and change my life through her other works.
I came to discover other books about the Austins in subsequent years. The Moon by Night, The Arm of the Starfish, the Young Unicorns, A Ring of Endless Light, Troubling a Star. I grew, and my age paralleled Vicki’s as she grew up in the books. I even discovered a story about them in a women’s magazine at Christmas time, which was later republished as The 24 days before Christmas. The Austin’s were a part of my psyche – my internal understanding about what a family was and could be. Vicki’s struggle to find meaning in suffering, to find “cosmos in chaos” as L’Engle quotes Leonard Bernstein in another book, resonated with me. Throughout the books, she struggles with growing pains, sibling rivalry, violence and death, and yet the stories are so full of hope, and life, and love.
I soon discovered the science fiction branch – the “kairos” time series of books which feature Meg Murray and her even more precocious little brother Charles Wallace. I joined the millions who’ve been enthralled by a Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. Again, the struggle to find meaning in suffering. Again, the affirmative stamp of the power of love to conquer evil. What glorious impossibilities lived here! Unicorns with wings, and cherubim composed of thousands of eyes and wings. Countless other planets, angelic visitations, time that folded back upon itself. Heroic rescues and adventures. My soul breathed it in and rejoiced.
And then, oh then! I discovered the non-fiction books. A Circle of Quiet – it was like sitting in Madeleine’s drawing room and having tea with her. (Actually, I’m a coffee drinker, but Circle seems to be more of a “tea” book.) To hear of her personal history, her private struggles, her own revelations of cosmos and kairos. It was such an intimate blessing. And then A Two-Part Invention, the story of her marriage and the death of her husband. Summer of the Great Grandmother, where she recounts the death of her own mother. The less-autobiographical but no less revelatory books the Rock that is Higher, Penguins and Golden Calves, and Walking on Water.
Walking on Water in particular has become a sort of reference book of refreshment for me. Its subtitle, Reflections on Faith and Art, seems almost too serene for the struggle found within its pages. (Side note: I had a teacher at CMU who used to remark, after people had said that their characters were “reflecting” onstage, “Reflecting??!! What are you, an f#%**ing moonbeam??!!) L’Engle wrestles with the characterization of being a “Christian” artist, stating instead that she is an artist who happens to be a Christian. It is in this book where she articulates the struggle of her protagonists: “An artist is someone who cannot rest, who can never rest as long as there is one suffering creature in this world. Along with Plato’s divine madness there is also a divine discontent, a longing to find the melody in the discords of chaos, the rhyme in the cacophony, the surprised smile in times of stress or strain.”
I’m not sure where along the way I became a “collector” of L’Engle’s work. I just knew that it gave me pleasure to read and re-read her books, and that it was much easier to do that if I had the books on hand. I have in my collection all of the titles I’ve named above. In addition, I own The Glorious Impossible, The Other Dog, Herself, Camilla, The Other Side of the Sun, A Cry Like a Bell, Bright Evening Star, Mothers and Daughters, A Ladder of Angels, Sold Into Egypt, A Stone for A Pillow, And It Was Good, Certain Women, the Ordering of Love, Dance in the Desert. I may have missed a few. She was a pretty prolific writer, and yet spoke of herself humbly as a small contributor to “the lake”. This idea came from Jean Rhys, another writer. In Walking on Water; “Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.’”
Madeleine L’Engle died last week at the age of 88. She was preceded in death by her husband and her son. She spent the last part of her life on this earth in a nursing home. I’m sure that she is rejoicing in a much more glorious place right now, riding on the backs of unicorns and conversing with cherubim. I however, feel the loss of her bright voice calling out hope and joy and love in this dark world. I have been touched and changed by her contribution to the “lake” and hopefully I am a somewhat better person because of it. Thank you, Ms. L’Engle, for fighting the darkness.
Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing. - A Wrinkle In Time