Writer Madeleine L'Engle, 88; Author of 'A Wrinkle in Time'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle, 88, a prolific author whose best-known novel, "A Wrinkle in Time," won the top prize for children's literature and was considered among the most enigmatic works of fiction ever created, died Sept. 6 at Rose Haven nursing home in Litchfield, Conn.

The cause of death was not disclosed by the family, but she reportedly had a cerebral hemorrhage in recent years.

"A Wrinkle in Time," published in 1962, won the American Library Association's Newbery Medal for best children's book. It went through more than 60 printings, was adapted for television and other media and helped establish Ms. L'Engle among the best-selling children's authors of her generation.

Yet "children's author" did not begin to describe the breadth of her output, which included more than 50 books of adult fiction and nonfiction, poetry, plays and many volumes of memoirs. Reviewers noted a timeless quality in her best fiction, which blended themes of adolescent pain, spiritual and emotional insight, ethical decision-making and, above all, adventure and entertainment.

Ms. L'Engle was a veteran author by the time "A Wrinkle in Time" was published, and the book cemented her reputation as a major literary figure. The novel weaved together aspects of theology and quantum physics and featured a female protagonist, which was unusual at the time.

The plot concerned three New England youngsters -- the socially awkward Meg Murry, her young brother, Charles Wallace Murry, and her older, more popular friend, Calvin O'Keefe. They use time travel and extrasensory perception to free the siblings' scientist father, who had vanished from the family after discovering a mysterious source of evil. They find him on a planet where absolute conformity rules.

The book introduced many readers to a "tesseract," a principle, according to the narrative, that allows the youths to "travel through space without having to go the long way around."

Ms. L'Engle tried to sell "A Wrinkle in Time" to a dozen publishers before Farrar, Straus and Giroux agreed -- with the caveat that the author should not expect much public reaction. She, in turn, had it written in her contract that the company could have the rights to the book forever, anywhere in the universe, except the Andromeda galaxy.

"A Wrinkle in Time" was an instant sensation and attracted critical praise that culminated in the Newbery.

The novel consistently encouraged debate, with some literary observers speculating that Ms. L'Engle's strong Anglican faith was a major influence.

Writing in the New Yorker in 2004, poet Cynthia Zarin said the book can be read as "science fiction, a warm tale of family life, a response to the Cold War, a book about a search for a father, a feminist tract, a religious fable, a coming-of-age novel, a work of Satanism" -- Ms. L'Engle said that Christian fundamentalists continually tried to ban it -- "or a prescient meditation on the future of the United States after the Kennedy assassination."

Ms. L'Engle demurred from analyzing the book too much, once saying, "It was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company