Fifty years ago, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”was first published, becoming an instant commercial and critical success, and winning the prestigious Newberry Medal in 1963. Its 50th anniversary, which saw the publication of a nice new edition, is a good time to revisit this children’s classic.
Because it has been a perennial favorite of school librarians and readers of all ages for five decades, it’s hard to believe that the novel had a difficult time finding a publisher. The manuscript was rejected several times before John Farrar took a chance on L’Engle’s quirky tale. He was convinced when another manuscript reader claimed it was “the worst book I have ever read, it reminds me of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
The novel’s quirkiness makes it hard to categorize even today. Is it a book for children, teens, or adults? Is it science fiction, fantasy, a fable, a parable, or something new? Is it too overtly Christian or does it promote witchcraft? (Both charges have been leveled against "Wrinkle"since its publication.) Since it is aimed at readers ages 12-16, are the scientific and philosophical concepts too difficult? Are the quotations from famous people too obscure? Whatever the book’s unique challenges, it has endured -- as have its four sequels, collectively known as the Wrinkle in Time Quintet.
Several factors account for “Wrinkle’s”popularity. First, it’s a story about a loving family facing a crisis. The Murry family’s father is missing. He’s a brilliant scientist who went on a top-secret mission for the government and disappeared.
The story focuses on Meg and her younger brother, Charles Wallace, who are sent on a quest to rescue Dr. Murry from a dark force known as IT. To do so, they must travel through space and time with the help of three supernatural beings known as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Without revealing any spoilers, it’s Meg’s love for her family, especially for her father and Charles Wallace, that is the deciding factor in their struggle against IT.
A second reason for the book’s enduring appeal is the way L’Engle characterizes Meg and Charles Wallace. Meg is a typical teenage girl -- worried about her looks, feeling like an outsider at school, and angry at the world for its cruelty. She especially resents how the gossipy townspeople talk about her missing father and her quiet younger brother. Readers easily identify with Meg’s teenage self-doubts and her protectiveness when it comes to her family members. We feel her pain at being an “oddball,” and her anger at being treated unfairly (the principal calls her “the most belligerent, uncooperative child in school”).
On the positive side, as events unfold, we admire Meg for her heroism and we are delighted when she meets her soulmate, Calvin O’Keefe, a popular older boy at her school who has his own family-related heartbreak. Calvin accompanies Meg and Charles Wallace on their journey to rescue their father. Along the way, he and Meg come to care deeply for one another, though the romance factor is handled lightly in this first book. (In later books, we learn that they marry and have seven children. Ironically, feminists later criticized L’Engle for making Meg a traditional housewife and mother. L’Engle countered that true feminism allows women to choose their own path, and that those who choose to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, rather than professional career women, should not be criticized for it.)
L’Engle’s ability to create fascinating characters is especially evident in five-year-old Charles Wallace. Charles Wallace is “something more,” though even his mother is not sure what. This child speaks like an adult -- but only to the members of his family. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, he’s a mute who’s “not very bright.” In truth, Charles Wallace is a genius with superhuman talents, such as the ability to anticipate the future and to communicate telepathically with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. He adores his sister and seems to be the only one in the family who truly understands her. Yet despite possessing knowledge and wisdom beyond his years, Charles Wallace is still a vulnerable child. When he falls under IT’s influence, his sister must risk her life to save him.
Finally, it’s the supernatural beings and events of cosmic importance that bring readers back to “Wrinkle”time and again. We meet the delightful angels -- Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which -- who enlist the children’s help in liberating Dr. Murry. Mrs. Whatsit is the youngest at 2,379,152,497 years old. Mrs. Who rattles off quotations from famous people, works of literature, and the Bible to impart wisdom and courage to her young charges. And Mrs. Which can’t quite figure out how to take on a corporeal form, so her words come out in slow motion.
While the angels put the children in danger, they also expose them to moments of joyful beauty, like the time they listen to other angels singing Isaiah 42:10-12 (Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the habitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory to the LORD. . . .”).They also reveal to the children how the battle between good and evil is being played out across the universe, with Jesus as the “best fighter.” Unfortunately, L’Engle also goes on to list religious figures like Gandhi and Buddha in this context, which has the effect of putting them on the same level as Christ and clouds the many positive Christian references scattered throughout the book.
With the help of these angelic beings, the children are able to tesser, to travel through space and time, to the dark planet Camaztoz, where evil (depicted as a disembodied brain) has removed everyone’s free will and forced them to look and act the same (a commentary on the numbing push for conformity under totalitarian regimes). There, the children are not only called upon to rescue Dr. Murry, but to stake their very lives “for the truth” in the cosmic war against evil. By pushing the scope of her tale out into the universe, L’Engle reminds Christian readers in particular that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
A loving family persevering in hard times, sympathetic and compelling characters, and otherworldly adventures of great spiritual importance–these are just three reasons for checking out Madeleine L’Engle’s enduring classic “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Image copyright Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
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