Wrinkles in Time
Rereading Madeleine L'Engle.
It is hard now to recover what was so arresting about A Wrinkle in Time the first time I read it, at age 8 or 9. I remember that it was somehow difficult and that it seemed simultaneously very strange and very familiar. There was the opening ("It was a dark and stormy night"), in which Meg Murry, an awkward, opinionated teenage math whiz, filled with anxiety about her missing scientist father, finds herself unable to sleep in her attic room and goes downstairs to make herself hot cocoa. Her prescient kid brother, Charles Wallace, is waiting; he announces, with peculiar certainty, "I knew you'd be down." In wanders the children's mother, a beautiful scientist who often cooks dinner over Bunsen burners; and then the door blows open to reveal a figure swaddled in rags who calls herself Mrs Whatsit. Cocoa and fraternal telepathy, New England storms and Bunsen burners, a strange old lady paying a midnight call: This was an odd but intriguing world, entirely distinct. And it only got stranger and more distinct as the book went on.
Madeleine L'Engle, its creator, died two weeks ago at the age of 88, and it's safe to say that for her many fans, the universe—about which she wrote so feelingly—seems darker without her. That is not because she was a sentimental bearer of bright news. A Wrinkle in Time was turned down by more than two dozen publishers, but since its publication in 1962 (by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), it has become legendary, with some 8 million copies in print and roughly 15,000 sold each year. Return to the Time series today (L'Engle wrote four sequels) and it's not hard to understand why publishers thought the books wouldn't sell, or why, as a young reader, I found them difficult. They are engaging and startling, even to an adult, but they also do not adhere to traditional fantasy setups and resolutions. Instead, they are a truly peculiar blend of Christian theology, modern science, fantastical invention, and portrayals of plain old growing pains. The results are original dramas that unfold mostly in the inner lives of their protagonists rather than on grand battlefields. They are more filled with abstraction than action. And in their search for moral certainty, they leave plenty of room for ambiguity.
L'Engle was fascinated by the way that science helped explain the universe, but not fully, and in that space of uncertainty she made something mystical. Together, Meg, Charles Wallace, and a boy named Calvin O'Keefe set out to rescue Meg's father from the clutches of an evil entity known as IT, which has colonized the planet of Camazotz and turned it into a conformist dystopia, where children bounce balls in unison and all houses look the same—neat and prim. The three are aided by the mysterious figures of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, guardian angels who, it turns out, are embodiments of universal forces beyond the ken of humanity and can communicate only approximately with their charges. One is a dead star; another speaks only in quotations from Cervantes and Shakespeare. They take the children to Camazotz by traveling through the fifth dimension, also known as a "tesseract." As Mrs Whatsit explains, this tesseract is like a wrinkle in time, allowing movement between otherwise distant points in the blink of an eye.
While the physics at work here were totally exotic to me as a young reader, the metaphysics somehow weren't: Meg's growing intimations that the world she lives in is full of a global darkness mirrored many fears that kids, myself included, felt. As the children travel across planets via the tesseract on their way to Meg's father, they are made newly aware of an ongoing universewide battle between absolute evil, known as the Dark Thing, and pure good. Yet the children's own struggles, their role in this grand battle between good and evil, are almost entirely internal. The crucial battle scene in A Wrinkle in Time involves Meg's reciting multiplication tables as she struggles against the brain known as IT, which is trying telepathically to colonize her mind. The aid the guardian angels lend her, Charles Wallace, and Calvin has less to do with providing magic swords or talismans than with identifying—and intensifying—the virtues the children already possess. Indeed, the crux of the book rests on Meg's coming to understand that her father cannot save her or Charles Wallace, or make the world a less anxious place; part of the task she faces is, simply, accepting the evil that is in the world while continuing to battle against it.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.