There are some books we read when we are young – transcendent books, books that resonate and reverberate, that hit us as we fly through the outer space of intellectual and emotional growth and forever alter our orbits. Among these books, for millions of people, were Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and The Wind in the Door. (The others in the storyline were tremendous as well, but for me, it was these two that struck and shifted me.) I think maybe everyone has read Wrinkle, with its pantheon of fantastic characters: the madames Whatsit, Who, and Which; telepathic children; bodiless sadistic brains; tentacled caregivers; Happy Mediums; flying centaurs; and the incomparably brave and human Meg. Wind was less widely-read, but to me even more poignant with its “drive of dragons” (the cherubim), mitochondriae, and Echthroi, and the fight to save Meg’s extraordinary little brother.
L’Engle’s books were brilliant, and she utterly refused to treat her readers like little children who required easy ideas and easy words. She is known for having argued that children’s books are literature far too complicated to be understood by adults – and, especially in her case, she was right. Her books are packed with philosophy and science – we’re talking quantum physics and microbiology here, not sixth grade earth science – theology, existential exploration, good, evil, death, and the kind of characters and relationships that we feel lucky to encounter in adult lit.
A Wrinkle in Time starts with “It was a dark and stormy night,” and upon reading it we feel that it is the quintessential dark and stormy night, the one that started it all, the one that started everything. In Wrinkle, it isn’t cliche – it’s reassuring, and breath-taking, and signals you right from the beginning that now things are going to happen.
I don’t think I could possibly explain how these books impacted me. If you read them when you were a child, then probably you understand without my saying. If you didn’t, I doubt I could ever make it clear.
Madeleine L’Engle, who modeled Meg after herself, passed away this past Thursday at the age of 88.
She started writing at five, won an award in fifth grade and was accused of plaigarism. She conceived of her best work on camping trips. She loved her books, her family, her pets, and her characters. Much of her life was not like mine has been, but these things are so like me that I can’t help but feel a kindred, a connection. It is another layer of my admiration for a woman whose words built and shook worlds.
I pull the following quote – L’Engle’s – from the close of the NY Times eulogy:
“Why does anybody tell a story?” Ms. L’Engle once asked, even though she knew the answer.
“It does indeed have something to do with faith,” she said, “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”
Thank you, Madeleine, for these gifts.