L'Engle's 'Wrinkle' Smoothed Our Way
Monday, September 10, 2007
It was a dark and stormy night, and we fell in love with Meg Murry.
She was a sour social misfit, an underachieving mathlete -- the improbable antihero of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" in an era when most kid-lit heroines were wholesome Nan Bobbseys. Though L'Engle, who died on Thursday, wrote more than 50 novels, to those who loved the Murry family her other works seemed interesting side projects, the equivalent of discovering that Beethoven had also enjoyed cooking. "Wrinkle" and its four fantastical sequels were her masterpieces and our revelations.
"A Wrinkle in Time" was not the sort of book you were assigned in school; with its New Testament quotations and witchy supporting characters it was at once too Christian and too blasphemous. It was the sort of book you discovered on your own, shelved as it was in the big kids' section, and that you read ferociously into the night with a mug of Swiss Miss -- a replica of Meg's homemade cocoa. You didn't talk about the book at school. Meg's awkwardness, her anger, her imperfections were too intensely private, too attuned to your own gangly self-loathing. As with "Bridge to Terabithia" or the Ramona Quimby series, you wondered, perhaps, if it had been written for you.
And so you bought a ticket for every sequel, for every time-hopping adventure. You learned about tesseracts -- those convenient shortcuts that made dimension-skipping possible for Meg, her genius little brother Charles Wallace, and her boyfriend, Calvin, who saw behind her dorky specs a pair of "dreamboat eyes." You also learned about Einstein's theory of relativity, a smattering of Latin and a goodly amount of Shakespeare.
Woven through every story line: the unfailing message to be yourself, delivered not in a syrupy parental way but in a jarring and often scary one. In "Wrinkle" the trio travels to the planet Camazots, where children can be euthanized for bouncing a ball out of rhythm and society is controlled by a giant, pulsing brain called IT. Attempting to resist conformity, Meg recites the Declaration of Independence, only to have IT reply that "all men are created equal" is exactly the point: On Camazots "everybody is the same as everybody else."
"No!" Meg shouts triumphantly. " Like and equal are not the same thing at all!" In the end it is her unique gifts and her fierce love of Charles Wallace that break through the brain's spell. If the concept of love shielding child heroes from dark magic seems familiar, it's worth noting that J.K. Rowling is not the only author who owes a debt to the works of Madeleine L'Engle.
Years after you first read "A Wrinkle in Time," after your braces had been removed and your skin had cleared up and your self-loathing had mostly disappeared, you probably referenced the book, to a college roommate or a fellow trainee at your cruddy after-school job. You unthinkingly threw the word "tesseract" into a sentence, or called a wildly dressed older woman a "Mrs. Whatsit." And when you did that you learned that "A Wrinkle in Time" hadn't been written for an audience of one, because your roommate had read it, too.
All those years ago, with your patchwork quilt and your instant hot chocolate and your despairing belief in your own monstrosity, you hadn't been alone after all.