Friday, February 26, 2021

Time Quintet, because I promised

 When I picked apart Tolkien and Lewis (i.e. my FAVORITE authors) somebody asked if I was going to do L'Engle next. So I got the one-volume chonker of the entire Time Quintet and read . . . well, most of it. I got a little way into Many Waters and said to myself, well, the kids are never going to be allowed to read this anyway.

Well, I still enjoyed them. Meg and Charles Wallace are great characters and the worlds L'Engle builds are still compelling. I had fewer gripes about the values in the books than about the writing. I wanted to take out a red pen and demand some heavy rewrites, especially in The Wind in the Door. The Wind in the Door appears to have been written in a single sitting, on an acid trip, and never once revised.

I'm not saying I didn't still like it, but . . . well, the editor in me is outraged that it could be so good and yet not be better.

Anyway, let's start with A Wrinkle in Time. It's the most popular and for good reason: it makes sense on its own, it has a nice contained plot that's easy to explain, most of it takes place in a corporeal reality that it's possible for the human mind to understand. So that's nice.

One thing I really like about it, compared to Narnia, is the absence of an actual god-figure. Instead we have some slightly inept ladies (retired stars/possible angels) who don't thoroughly know what they're doing and literally can't help sometimes. When you're writing a religious allegory or religiously-themed story, you can't have God actually in it helping too much or there's no story, but if God is in there, he ends up looking like a jerk because he's not helping. Narnia falls into both those pitfalls, by having Aslan sometimes not helping for no good reason, and other times taking over and fixing things too easily.

Likewise the parents in any children's book are an issue, like what kind of neglectful monsters are they that they don't solve the problems for the kids? In AWIT, Mrs. Murry doesn't know what's going on and Mr. Murry is obviously missing for most of the book, so they're able to escape looking terrible. I don't care for Mr. Murry when he does appear; he seems pretty dense and overly concerned about Respect and Politeness from his son who's, you know, obviously possessed. But he does eventually figure out that Meg knows what she's talking about, so I'm not too mad about it.

I like how the main conflict is Meg learning her worth and knowing she has something to offer even when everyone else in the book is smarter and prettier and better at sports than her. I like that she's encouraged to stay angry, and that the answer in the end is love.

The only part I really deeply hate is the genetic explanations for things. The Murrys don't belong in their small town, because . . . they're genetically superior. Because their parents are two scientists, obviously all the children must be brilliant. Meg is reassured that she actually is brilliant and will be pretty--not, you know, that people have value even if they're neither brilliant nor pretty.

Calvin, honestly, doesn't belong in this story at all in my opinion. It's reasonable that Charles Wallace, being both smarter and more spiritual than Meg, knows how to tesseract right away. It isn't really reasonable that Calvin does. It feels like he exists in the book just to make Meg feel bad about herself, by being effortlessly better than her at everything. And why is he so much better? He'll tell you: it's because he's a "sport." His family is genetically inferior (look at his gross ugly abusive mom!) but he's some kind of genetic throwback and therefore perfect in every way. Like, WHY. I hate that. We could have used this moment to point out that genetics isn't destiny and everyone's individual and Calvin just happens to be good at some things his parents aren't, but nope. L'Engle doesn't believe that.

The whole thing felt, when I was a kid, extremely relatable. I, too, felt weird and inadequate around "normal" people. My family was weird and smart and a little bit autistic. The reassurance that I was going to grow up into someone who was good at something, that the other kids were mean to me because they sensed I was superior, that I didn't have to be as smart as my brother to be worthwhile, that all mattered to me a lot when I was a kid. At the same time . . . I'm not sure it went the right way with any of this. It might feed in, a little bit, to the whole Superior Smart Kid thing a lot of us fell into, as our way of defending our self-worth against bullies.

Okay, so that's A Wrinkle in Time. What about A Wind in the Door?

Well, it's a mess, as I said. It felt like L'Engle was trying to cram too many things into one book. Are we talking about Meg learning to see the good in Mr. Jenkins, the mean principal? Or is this about "school" where the cherub teaches our characters how to . . . um . . . something? Or is it about curing Charles Wallace from mitochondrial disease? Having the bulk of the book take place in a dimension where you can't see or hear anything, but everything is transmitted through telepathy, was . . . a choice. It made it really difficult to relate to what was going on, because you couldn't picture anything.

Personally I would have scratched the "school" concept because it automatically lowers the stakes. Like, any time in a children's book, the children are simply facing a challenge adults have placed in front of them for educational purposes, I know that none of it really matters. It's not a life-and-death struggle, it's homework. Wouldn't it have made more sense to simply say "nobody can save Charles Wallace but you"?

Charles Wallace is getting bullied in this book, and we are told it's his fault for being weird and he needs to learn to act more normal. I hate this lesson with the heat of a thousand suns. He is obviously autistic and some of the adults in the story need to get their acts together to stop the bullying. Why should it be on him to change himself?

However, we do get a few alternative views. Calvin suggests that he'd do better in a city school, with more diversity. (This counters the Murrys' views of cities as horrible places full of crime.) Mr. Jenkins, by the end, seems he'll be CW's ally at school. So maybe it's not all on Charles Wallace to change.

The whole central struggle of the book (insofar as there is one in the tangle of plot) is that the farandolae inside Charles Wallace's mitochondria don't want to settle down, "Deepen," grow up, and do their jobs in the cell. They want to run around being wild, because an evil being is there telling them to do it. So Meg and Calvin have to telepathically convince them it's good for them to be what they were meant to be. That's the theme: be the thing that you are meant to be, be essentially Yourself, except when you have to pretend to be more normal at school, but really that's a service to being your true self . . . It's a little convoluted, but L'Engle does try to explain it all.

And like . . . I get it, some, but I also don't get it. How are you supposed to tell the real thing you are supposed to be from the thing you want to be? The thing you are supposed to be will make you happier, but you can't know that till you do it, and it might look like less fun from the outside. It struck me as the whole vocation nonsense in Regnum Christi, where the thing you are meant to do is always the thing you want least. What is the analog in real life? Growing up? Getting a job? Getting married?

On the whole, it's a heckin confusing book, which had the added bonus of making me think farandolae were real, and then when I found out they weren't, making me think mitochondria weren't real. My kids probably shouldn't read this till they're a little older, just because it makes so little sense.

Next I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The plot: Earth is facing nuclear war because this crazy dictator in South America is going to nuke everyone. Teenage Charles Wallace goes back in time to be all the dictator's ancestors and make them make better choices which will avert the nuclear war. Only it's all told from the point of view of grown-up Meg, who is now pretty as promised, who is telepathically linked to Charles Wallace the whole time. I really don't know why she chose to do it that way, instead of actually writing from Charles Wallace's point of view.

Anyway the solution to the story turns out to be making the right people marry each other, so that the South American dictator is descended from the blue-eyed of two prehistorical Welsh/Native American brothers. Blue eyes, you see, is a sign of goodness and the blue-eyed brother or cousin of each generation is the one with a good heart.

We never change the dictator's mind, or give him less traumatic life experiences. We change his genes, so that he's now blue-eyed and good, and doesn't want to shoot missiles anymore.


This is worse than all the previous genetic assumptions and just leaps right into genes-are-destiny. Is anybody's actions their fault at all, or is it just that good people are going to be good and bad people are going to be bad?

I do like that the book redeems Calvin's mother, who it turns out is part of this magical Welsh family even though she's forgotten almost everything important about it. But she plays a role by giving Meg and Charles Wallace an important poem.

I don't like that the lesson Charles Wallace takes away is that he should stop trying to direct any of the process or plot, but just go along with wherever the winds take him, land in whatever body he happens to be in, and God (not mentioned, but definitely God) will make everything work out. I like characters with agency, dangit. "Agency is bad" is a bad lesson. But the whole "genetics is destiny" thing is definitely why I'm not giving it to my kids just yet. It's expanded from a little annoying detail to the entire plot and I simply don't believe in it.

I'm not going to go into the last two because I didn't reread them. I will say Many Waters is not intended for children. It's mostly about sexy angels having sex with human women, and then everyone drowns, except one girl who's virginal and chaste but we also talk about her breasts a lot. Like . . . it might not be horribly toxic, but my memory of it is something like "sex is bad, it makes you almost die in childbirth, you can tell the good guys by the fact that they don't have sex." I was 12 or so when I read it, and that was too young for sure.

Who's a Madeline L'Engle stan here? Do you agree with my takes?

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