Every few months, I spend a day or two distracted by kid’s books. An old title on the bookshelf will jump out at me or I’ll be laying in bed and word association skips back to when I was short and the most effective punishments were the ones that threatened to take my reading privileges away. I remember old favorites, the ones I read and reread obsessively, and the ones I only read once but contained images strong enough to linger. I puzzle over the tangled relationship between what I read back then and who I would grow to be.
After this happened a couple weeks ago, I decided I was going to dig through my library and mix my stacks of to-read books with an array of books-to-remember. The first of these, in no small part because of the new movie trailer, is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which I remembered curiously little about aside from the cover. I was always most drawn to its sequel, A Wind in the Door, with its emphasis on the power of names and its visit with the monkey-ish creatures found within mitochondria.
First published in 1962, L’Engle’s writing style and characterization in Wrinkle feel dated. Her voice translates into my head as vaguely English, narration provided by a Mary Poppins surrogate telling a nightly tale. The characters are prone to dramatic wailing and sobs, fits of passion that perhaps make sense for child protagonists but are nonetheless tiring.
Emphasis is largely placed on plot over character, and the plot at times feels largely like a vehicle for Christian evangelism. The plot follows siblings Meg and younger brother Charles Murry on a quest to find their missing father with the help of Calvin O’Keefe, a popular boy at Meg’s school. The quest is directed by three supernatural entities, Mrs. Whatsit, Who, and Which, and compounded by the mysterious concept of the tesseract. The search for the Murry siblings’ father is part of a larger battle between the forces of Good and Evil, which takes the form of a malevolent shadow covering planets that fall to it. The three Mrs. are essentially angels, and a visit to their home planet reveals the inhabitants singing praises to the Lord in the form of the King James Translation of Isaiah 42:10-12 (ok, technically they sing in ethereal voice unknown to mankind, but when it’s translated, it is the KJV translation of Isaiah). There are various other quotes from the Bible about the greatness and strength of God from the angels and from a second race of friendly tentacle aliens, as well as the Murry parents.
Beyond the prevalence of Christian theology in the text, however, A Wrinkle in Time opens the door for several feminist discussions. Meg Murry, as the primary protagonist, receives the most characterization and most clearly defined character arc, not quite a coming-of-age as much as a realization-of-strength, and serves as the heroic knight in shining armor. She rescues her father, a damsel in distress locked away in a tower. Flipping the classic fairy tale text, Calvin O’Keefe’s primary role is as her supportive love interest. Notably, she is allowed both her vices and virtues as strength. From the very first page, Meg is portrayed as a brawler. She vents frustration at school by picking fights. She is stubborn and angry and impatient, and she gets to use these qualities as a tool to fight against and survive evil as much as she must use the love she shares with her family. The ability to both embrace rage and recognize when to let it go is celebrated.
Likewise, L’Engle can offer a decent introduction to the idea of toxic masculinity. The forces of Evil are consumed by the idea of rigid control and homogeneity, and are distinctly masculine. The mouthpieces of IT, the book’s physical manifestation of the darkness, are male; ITs most apparent victims are women and children hoping to escape notice in their homes. In contrast, Calvin and Papa Murry both fill support roles. Calvin’s role in the plot is explicitly stated to be supporting and helping Meg, and when he attempts bravado, he also steps aside for Meg to realize her own strength. Papa Murry is a classic Good Guy Dad, wanting to protect and help his kids, but when his ability to do so breaks down, he offers love. This dichotomy of masculinity as either authoritarian or nurturing is crucial to the overarching discussion of the nature of free will in the battle of good versus evil.
That being said, A Wrinkle in Time‘s treatment of free will is not black and white, and is directly tied with its religious aspects. While authoritarian control over physical action is considered evil, there is no indication that ideological control is considered evil. L’Engle attempts to address the issue of free will using the metaphor of a sonnet, suggesting that in life “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”
Camazotz, the shadowed planet, is monstrous because each moment, each action, is planned and any variance is punished, allowing no control over what you “say.” But the inhabitants there are shown to be engaging in active mental choice. A mother attempts to hide and lie about her child being off-rhythm. A newspaper delivery boy shows curiosity at the presence of strangers. A man expresses regret at reporting the children because of his own fear of being “reprocessed.” While their public actions are regulated, what they say goes much deeper than that action. On Camazotz, at least, there is still the idea of rebellion.
The societies of Uriel and Ixchel are supposedly utopian foils to Camazotz because they do not constrict action and free movement. The brief snapshots of these two planets, however, do not present any diversity of thought. Both cultures, and particularly Uriel, the planet of the angels, are presented, essentially, as ideologically and homogeneously Christian. Though it is not directly stated, it can be implied that these planets have won their own battles against the shadow because of this sameness. The result is the impression of a kind of culture-wide cult that is never addressed and is, in fact, glorified.
A Wrinkle in Time is a classic in the line of books focusing on the epic battle between light and darkness, and all the more powerful for presenting a single battle for family as an important part of that war. In that battle, L’Engle brings out some big ideas, but loses an important part of the conversation in what amounts to a tract for Christian ideology. Regardless, the heart of her writing is strong and her settings and characters distinctive – I am particularly fond of Mrs. Who and her array of quotes. Returning to the mystery of the tesseract is well worth it, particularly to get at the words behind the fantastic imagery of the upcoming film.