What We Quote, But Never Read: May 2013
A monthly column that reviews the classics, the novels we scholars love to reference and quote, but never bother to read. Yes, those novels like Moby Dick, Les Miserables, and anything by Tolstoy. Yet, this column is not just about reviewing the classics, but relating them to our modern, youth culture, and proving how an old favorite is just as influential and relevant as anything fresh from the New York Times Bestseller’s list. With a new review per month, be reintroduced to the old school side of the literary spectrum and discover why it truly was the “best of times and the worst of times.”
A WRINKLE IN TIME by MADELEINE L’ENGLE
As summer takes its painfully slow time getting here, the excitement, wonder, and general giddiness that comes with the sunshine and the good times starts to sink in. We’re taken back to the nostalgic days of childhood when every wardrobe lead to a magical world, every owl carried a letter from Hogwarts, and every old man with a white beard was “looking for someone to share in an adventure.” The stories and novels that we read in are youth are the ones that often stick with us the most. They are the stories we based our future on, and the ones that gave us hope.
One children’s novel that offers a literal universe of adventure, yet is often forgotten behind the wands and talking animals, is the 1963 Newberry Medal winner, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle’s novel, though short and obscure, captures some of the best aspects of childhood, and the fathomless limits of imagination.
This story begins as most do: “on a dark and stormy night.” For Meg Murry — one of our main protagonists — it was the end to another day spent being the extremely ordinary member of an extraordinary family. Two brilliant physicists for parents, a pair of ten year old brothers who are masters of everything social, and Charles Wallace, a four year old genius of a baby brother who is born with an almost mystical inherit sense of intuition about almost everything. As Charles Wallace himself describes it, he hears things as “being able to understand a sort of language, like…if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with trees.” Even her one acquaintance, Calvin O’Keefe, is the third of eleven children, a high school junior at fourteen, and an athlete of all trades.
The lightbulb in a room full of stars, Meg is growing through her adolescence with her head down. Especially since the disappearance of her father, Meg feels even more that she is the only one in the Murray home who could not contribute, who could not also be amazing.
Thus, enters adventure in the form of three old women as fantastical as they are odd: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. One wears the most random assemblage of clothes ever conceived, one speaks only in quotes, and the other is little more than a shimmer and a whisper in the air. They are self-proclaimed Knights of Good, and travel through the wrinkles in time and space as easily as Dr. Who, but without the TARDIS. When looking for a guide through the planets and stars, there are few who perform the role so well. Their true identities are never explicitly stated, but throughout the novel, like the children, the reader never really questions who or what they are. They become as familiar to us as an old friend, or a warm hug, and just as welcome.
Along with Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin, we are swept off into a universal quest to rescue Meg’s father that spans planets, where the antagonists can be as great and encompassing as a force of evil that is described only as “IT,” or as personal and traumatizing as self-doubt. Where heroes can be as epic as religious figures and great writers and thinkers, or as small and obscure as a teenage girl.
L’Engle creates a universe that is not strictly fantasy, or scientific, or religious, yet takes all of those elements to create a story that is just close enough to home to feel real. Yet, it is not just the story that makes A Wrinkle in Time a masterful novel for all ages, but the lessons that we learn from L’Engle’s characters.
Meg is a character who feels defined by who she is in comparison to her friends and family, yet it is her “ordinary” tendencies that make her such a powerful and relatable protagonist for anyone, especially children. Everyone at one time or another has felt that they pale in comparison to the lives of others. Through L’Engle’s development of character, we as the reader come to see that the things we may hate about ourselves — stubbornness, doubt, plainness, all of the faults we try our hardest to lose everyday — can be our most reliable strengths.
Or, like Charles Wallace, the character we expect to save the day and save the world, the “Chosen One,” who relies so much on his strengths that his confidence becomes his greatest mistake. In times of fear, no matter who we are or what talents we possess, clinging to each other is always better than trying to fight alone.
A Wrinkle in Time is marketed as a children’s book, yet, even now, I learn from it more about life and the choices we make everyday. This is the perfect novel for beach stays and lazy days where we can be taken to the furthest reaches of the universe and back again, written with the perfect combination of suspenseful adventure and the cliché that continues to endure: love may not conquer all, but it certainly helps.
About the Writer:
Avery Cunningham is from Jackson, Tennessee, and a sophomore at DePaul majoring in English with a Literary Concentration.