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."

Madeleine L'Engle Camp was born Nov. 29, 1918, in New York. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a foreign correspondent and author of thrillers, some of which ("Backstage Phantom," "House of Fear") were turned into films. Her mother, also named Madeleine, was a pianist from a prominent Jacksonville, Fla., family.

Ms. L'Engle, a demure child, said she was abandoned by her parents at a Swiss boarding school. "I shook hands with the matron, and they vanished," she told the New Yorker.

They later enrolled her in schools in Jacksonville, where she once was horrified to see an alligator crawl up a porch front, and a girl's prep school in Charleston, S.C., where she bloomed socially and was named class president.

Her father died about that time, and some critics noted that it was probably not coincidental that many of her books include searches for lost fathers.

Ms. L'Engle was involved in theater and playwriting at Smith College, where she graduated in 1941, and afterward spent two years as assistant stage manager for a production of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."

She married one of the show's actors, Hugh Franklin, who had a recurring role on the TV soap opera "All My Children." He died in 1986. A son, Bion Franklin, died in 1999.

Survivors include two daughters, Josephine Jones of Goshen, Conn., and Maria Rooney of Mystic, Conn.; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

In the early 1950s, Ms. L'Engle and her husband settled in Goshen, where they owned and operated a general store. In later years, she taught at an Episcopal day school and was a librarian at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, both in Manhattan.

Although she had written and published novels since 1945 -- her debut book, "The Small Rain," was about a young pianist's struggle between art and love -- it was not until 1960 that she wrote her first widely recognized work.

That book, "Meet the Austins," was the first novel in a series about a Connecticut family and its struggles with jealousy, love and death. A later book in the series, "A Ring of Endless Light" (1980), was a Newbery finalist.

As with the Austins series, Ms. L'Engle was compelled by popular demand to create more books with the Murry children, including "A Wind in the Door" (1973), "A Swiftly Tilting Planet" (1978), "Many Waters" (1986) and "An Acceptable Time" (1989).

Over the years, the characters of Meg and Calvin, who becomes a biologist, marry and have a daughter, Polyhymnia.

The author did not claim to have any special knowledge of science while writing the books.

She once told National Public Radio that she was in a phase of searching for a better understanding of theology when "I just came across a phrase of Einstein's, which completely excited me. He said, 'Anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle.'

"And I thought, 'Oh! There's my theologian.' "

She had a long career as a public speaker, and in 2004 she received the National Humanities Medal but could not attend the ceremony because of poor health. Her newest book for young adult readers, "The Joys of Love," is scheduled for publication in the spring.

Less publicly, Ms. L'Engle struggled with difficult family relations, including her son's death from complications of alcoholism.

"I think that my characters came to me because I didn't have any family, and I wanted to have a family, and it was the only way I could get it," she told the New Yorker.

When she was reminded that she had a family, Ms. L'Engle replied: "Even so, writing the stories came out of my childhood experiences."

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