Madeleine L’Engle once said that “A Wrinkle in Time” was rejected by 26 publishers. On the surface, this seems incredible, given that it went on to win the 1962 Newbery Medal and become one of the most beloved of all modern children’s novels (in one poll second in popularity only to E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web”). Over time, the book also served as the seedbed for much of L’Engle’s future fiction, as she returned to its major characters, showing them at different ages. What’s more, on March 9, “A Wrinkle in Time” will acquire our culture’s ultimate imprimatur as a major motion picture, its cast including big-name stars Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon.
I wish the film well, but having just reread the novel I can understand why editors turned down L’Engle’s manuscript. Artistically, the book is a mess; it’s illogical, derivative and confusing, with a rushed and unconvincing ending. In 200 higgledy-piggledy pages, L’Engle throws together magic, folklore, science fiction, dystopian nightmare, Christian religiosity, 1950s fears about communism, classic notions about individuality and conformity, mystical transcendence, some slapstick humor and a lot of sentimental pablum. One starts to look for the kitchen sink.
Somehow, though, this superabundance of cargo never manages to sink the book. Every chapter is a fresh surprise, nothing goes on too long and the emphasis on family values confers a — slightly tendentious — “It’s a Wonderful Life” charm. As some readers may remember, the mysterious Mrs Whatsit bestows a gift on the novel’s heroine: “Meg, I give you your faults.” L’Engle certainly seems to have made a virtue of hers. Few 10- or 12-year-olds complain about the novel’s aesthetic shortcomings; most are too in thrall to its succession of wonders.
Like many young-adult novels, “A Wrinkle in Time” conforms to the almost surefire “Ugly Duckling” model. The youthful reader — on the verge of adolescence and consequently possessing the self-esteem of a hamster — quickly identifies with gawky 14-year-old Meg Murry, who can scarcely see without her glasses, wears braces, finds it hard to concentrate at school and is frequently in trouble because of a quick temper. She is particularly sensitive about her father. Mr. Murry — a top-flight physicist — has disappeared and everyone in town assumes that he has run off with some “dame” and abandoned his biologist wife and their four children.
Besides Meg, who’s a genius at math, the Murry family includes the preschool prodigy Charles Wallace. This 5-year-old is hyper-aware of everything around him, can seemingly read minds, and thinks and behaves like an adult. He reminded me of the super-child in J.D. Beresford’s 1911 science fiction classic “The Hampdenshire Wonder” (well worth reading, by the way). Meg adores Charles Wallace almost as much as she does her missing father. In the course of the novel, her love for both will be severely tested.
What really jump-starts “A Wrinkle in Time” is the appearance of three mysterious beings: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. (L’Engle was adamant that “Mrs” shouldn’t have a period.) The first dresses like some wild old gypsy, wrapping herself in scarves and tramping around in rubber boots; the second wears granny spectacles and speaks almost entirely in quotations from classic authors; the third is barely glimpsed but sometimes appears as either a stammering, hooknosed crone in a pointy hat or as merely a shimmer in the air. Are they witches? One actually murmurs “When shall we three meet again?” thus calling to mind the Weird Sisters from “Macbeth.” Or could they be fairies? In fact, they are . . . but I should say no more.
To my mind, the best chapters in “A Wrinkle in Time” are the early ones set on Earth. Once Charles Wallace, Meg and their friend Calvin O’Keefe are transported to other planets by using tesseracts — wrinkles in the space-time continuum — the novel starts to go off in several directions at once. The planet Uriel is a Christian heaven, of the sort C.S. Lewis might have imagined. Another chapter presents a humanoid alien called, believe it or not, “The Happy Medium,” who — given that embarrassing name — could almost be a deleted character from Norton Juster’s pun-filled “The Phantom Tollbooth.” There certainly seems to be no structural purpose for the episode.
In due course, the three children learn that a cosmic Evil threatens various planets of the universe. The Black Thing, as they call it, appears as an immense shadow, a smothering blot of darkness. Improbably, Meg’s father has been imprisoned by this alien entity on a planet named Camazotz. Obviously, the trio’s task is to rescue him and save the universe. (This latter notion, only suggested here, is never developed.)
Our heroes soon discover that the inhabitants of Camazotz are so highly regulated that they behave like robots. When interrupted with questions, people simply repeat passages from “The Manual.” Their scary leader, The Man with Red Eyes, naturally promises peace and happiness to all those who surrender their free will to a mysterious being called IT. No doubt, we are supposed to think of Orwell’s Big Brother or even the great helmsman of “Red China,” Mao Zedong. Sadly, the ultimate source of the brainwashing exercised on Camazotz turns out to be a trite cliche from 1930s pulp science fiction.
Well, that’s enough jaundiced adult criticism. Kids of 8 or 10 or 15 treasure L’Engle’s novel and, even if its incongruities need ironing out, the story provides more than enough material for some boisterous classroom discussions. But as a work of art, it’s no match for its covert model, L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” let alone Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden.” Still, there’s one thing that is absolutely perfect about “A Wrinkle in Time”— that magnificent, hauntingly evocative title.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.