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Friday, September 07, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle 1918-2007

Long ago, in a decade far away, my fifth-grade class held a book sale. Already a bibliophile, I eagerly sifted through the book-laden table trying to find anything that piqued my interest. Eventually, I came across a paperback with three kids of varying ages riding a rainbow-winged centaur. The book was entitled A Wrinkle in Time and the cover pronounced it a winner of the Newbery Award. The blurb seemed interesting enough, so I bought the book and read it within days. And there began my entry into the world of Madeleine L'Engle.

The story of angsty, misfit teen, Meg Murry, resonated with my younger, misfit self. What was particulary refreshing was that the prose wasn't cutesy. Instead it was clean and lyrical with wonderful imagery and dialogue. And only a confident author would start her first chapter with "It was a dark and stormy night" a sentence made infamous by author Bulwer-Lytton.

On that rainy night, a sleepless Meg opens her kitchen door to an old ragtag woman dressed in odd layers of clothing. The strange woman begs entry from the rain. Although Meg is hesitant about letting a stranger into her home, her "weird" genius baby brother, Charles Wallace, seems to know the woman. They feed her and let her dry, and during the course of her visit, she turns to Meg and says, "By the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract." Meg's initial peeve is pushed aside as shock takes hold. How could this woman know about her father's experiment, the one he was working on when he mysteriously disappeared. By the way, a tesseract is a "wrinkle in time," a shortcut through time, space and dimensions.

Of course, the strange woman named Mrs. Whatsit isn't who - or even what - she appears to be. Neither are her companions, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who, with whom she lives in a wooden enclosure. That night is the beginning of a wondrous adventure in which Meg, Charles Wallace and their new friend, Calvin, eventually journey to the ends of the universe, escorted by the three "witches" who are actually creatures from other planets threatened by a dark cloud the witches call "The Black Thing." With the darkness comes comformity, oppression, hatred. Meg's father is trapped on one of the dark planets and in order to save him, she and her brother and friends have to battle the true evil behind the darkness.

Those many years ago, I didn't realize I was reading a Christian allegory much as C. S. Lewis's The Lion and the Wardrobe is. I wasn't that analytical and the story stood on its own as entertainment. Later, as an adult, I read it with its varied layers and remarked on how L'Engle interwove her beliefs into her story without banging her readers over the head with heavy iconography (which I felt Lewis did with his tale).

Still, this story of one girl's courage and the miracle of love over evil was one I turned to many times through the years whenever I felt down and needed something uplifting to read. At one point, I let one of my mother's friends borrow it and she never gave it back. So, in my twenties I searched out another copy and still have it to this day. The cover is different but the pages are just as frayed from much use.

I have read nearly all of the sequels (A Wind in the Door; A Swiftly Tilting Planet; and Many Waters) spanning into Meg's adult years and was never disappointed. However, none of the sequels held the same sway over me as that first book.

I just read that Madeleine L. Engle passed away yesterday. She was 88. And in those 88 years, she authored 60 books of poetry, fantasy and memoirs. In them, she explored spiritual themes that managed to captivate without turning away her audience. Only a very gifted writer could do this. Years ago Engle couldn't find a publisher for Wrinkle because they thought the prose was too adult for a young audience. They told her she needed to "write down" to her audience, but Engle refused. She stated in an interview, "When you underestimate your audience, you're cutting yourself off from your best work." I wish other writers would live by this creed.

To honor one of my favorite authors, I plan to re-read L'Engle's Wrinkle and relive its wondrous tale of the power of love, something we all need to remind ourselves of on occasion.

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Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 9/07/2007 01:42:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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