1962’s A Wrinkle in Time won a Newbery, even though it features no dying dogs or other pets and no child drowns tragically in a beloved creek. A star does explode but that happens before the book opens. The Newbery and the book’s heavy-handed Christian imagery gave the work enough of a patina of respectability that schools would stock it — even though it was pretty obviously spec-fic. Despite the official imprimatur, kids liked it enough to actually read it for pleasure. It still has a high enough profile that the net abounds in reviews.
Pity poor Meg Murry:
braces, glasses , mousy brown hair, and mediocre marks. Her mediocrity is a glaring contrast to her brilliant parents’ scientific accomplishments and, her twin older brothers’ academic and sports achievements. She is also less talented than her younger brother Charles Wallace, who is a brilliant telepathic mutant (though nobody outside the family knows about Charles ). On top of being odd, she is also a discipline problem for the school administration; they heartily disapprove of her tendency to pummel kids who slander her family.
Her father has been away on a trip for a very, very long time and the town gossips believe that the Murrys have been abandoned. Mrs. Murry might have become that most scandalous of creatures, a single mom. Meg does not believe that her father would leave them; she is worried that something bad might have happened to him. Mrs. Murry could (if she would) tell her daughter that Meg is right to worry.
The very very peculiar neighbor, Mrs. Whatsit, and her two odd companions, Mrs. Who (status of medical degree undetermined) and Mrs. Which, intervene. While they themselves cannot directly save Mr. Murry, they know who can, if suitably encouraged: Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and the stalwart teen next door, Calvin!
(Meg’s other brothers, the twins, are not included in this group offer. They will henceforth vanish from this review.)
The Mrs. Ws send the trio across higher dimensions to a world of eerie conformity, where Mr. Murry has been imprisoned by IT, an evil disembodied brain. IT is stronger even than Charles Wallace. And since Calvin is essentially baggage, that means it will be up to Meg to save the day. If she can.
Although this book fails to deliver the usual Newbery carnage, the dead pets and drowned childhood pals, there’s certainly enough horror and suspense to compensate for any other deficits. Any kid reading this for the first time couldn’t have been sure how many of the trio would survive to go home to Earth, if indeed any of them would.
L’Engle is writing in C. S. Lewis mode here (fantasy, despite nods to science or at least mathematics) so I found it somewhat amusing that the explanation of travel through higher dimensions could have been lifted directly from Heinlein’s Starman Jones. Mind you, by that stage in his career, Heinlein wsn’t writing SF that was much harder than the interplanetary fantasies concocted by Lewis.
The form evil takes in this novel is enforced conformity. While it would have been very easy for a reader in 1962 (height of the Cold War) to see that as an allegory for Those Darn Soviets, what we actually see could be an American suburb: every home on its quarter acre plot with the mandatory housewife and a child or two playing in the approved manner, at the approved time.
(Of course, if we look back at what kids were actually doing then, they enjoyed freedoms that would get their parents imprisoned for reckless endangerment nowadays and might earn the kids a prescription for behavior-modifying medication as well. Who could have guessed how safety-crazy society would become? Aside from L’Engle, I mean; she clearly had some premonition.)
The book is marked by the unsubtle religiosity that was common at the time . Not my cup of tea, but not unexpected. What did please me was the unusual choice of protagonist: Meg Murry, a girl. Not only that, she is never pushed out of the spotlight, not by her mutant brother Charles Wallace (who turns out to be worse than useless as a rescuer), not by Calvin, who fits the profile of a standard early 1960s juvenile novel protagonist. Perhaps that’s why Calvin comes along for the ride: he looks like the character who steps in at the last moment to save the day, but he actually isn’t the character who steps in at the last moment to save the day. How atypical for 1962.
L’Engle was a successful and prolific author, but most of her books did not resonate with me. This novel is one of the few L’Engle books I have ever reread , and the only one I own. Later books continued the story of the Murry family (although I think the interstellar exploration angle got dropped, never to be mentioned again). My unreliable memory tells me that it was Calvin who became a noted academic, while Meg covertly provided mathematical assistance while hiding behind the façade of an unremarkable housewife. In this book, however, Meg starts out at center stage and she remains there.
1: You may ask “Did the movie adaptation give us a mousy, unattractive Meg?” That sound you hear is my bitter laughter.
2: The townsfolk think Charles Wallace is a moron. This was an age when not only were people free with the m‑word, it was one where being related to someone who was mentally handicapped carried a taint. Just ask Rose Mary Kennedy.
3: I recently listened to a dreadful 1960s radio adaptation of James Blish’s “Surface Tension,” into which many portentous references to “the Creator” had been shoveled. The original is about a bold adaptation to a hostile world. The adaptation is about relying on higher powers to save people from otherwise inescapable doom.
4: I may have reread The Arm of the Starfish ; I’m not sure. I vaguely remember a tepid Bad Girl, an antagonist who looked a bit like a spider, something about regeneration, and possibly a shark.