Thursday, September 20, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle

When I came to New York four years ago, I brought only a handful of books with me. One was Pale Fire, one was Strunk and White's Elements of Style. And one was A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I still have that book, and I still consider it one of the most important in my library. So I had to stop and reflect when I heard that Madeleine L'Engle had passed away this week.

The love that Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time series inspires in its readers is evident in the obituaries that surfaced for the 88-year-old writer. Her "childhood fables, religious meditations and fanciful science fiction transcended both genre and generation," writes Douglas Martin in the New York Times.

Slate's Meghan O'Rourke recalls how she was initially drawn into the Murrys' world, a world of "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." There is a magic to L'Engle's work that people never forget, so that the news of her passing wasn't something abstract -- it was more like the loss of a friend. You can sense a reverence in these obituaries, a real love for her books behind all the literary analysis and remarks (good versus evil, Einstein, the cosmos, religion, etc.) that are employed in an attempt to characterize her body of work. What I loved best about her books, besides her ability to create atmosphere, were the little phrases that stuck in your head long after a reading: "kything," "The Might-Have-Beens," "tesseract."

My personal favorite, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, was about the farandolae within the mitochondria, that is to say, about the small, seemingly inconsequential series of actions that can have a chain effect through the ages -- how a move in one direction or the other can change the course of history. The book examined a sort of biological butterfly effect, in which the future of the human race was dependent on the intermarriage and offspring of the two "right" tribes of people (just read it). Characters in the book stayed with me for a long time; a tragic and beautiful element of self-sacrifice in the heretofore written-off Mrs. O'Keefe, who knows far more than she appears to, resonated with me.

There was also something wonderful to me about reading the story of a grown-up Meg Murry, now married to her childhood friend Calvin O'Keefe. There's no reasonable explanation for why that element captivated me, since I was closer to Charles Wallace's age when I read it. I guess I just like the idea that maybe magic didn't disappear completely when you grew up.

But the loveliest thing of all was the connection Meg and Charles Wallace had -- a psychic connection that most siblings have to some degree or another. While we may not all be able literally to "kythe" with our siblings, most of us have created special universes with them, magical worlds created in basements and backyards, worlds only we knew, we named, and we understood. All children create universes of their own, and many, if not most, share them with siblings. I guess we all hope our childhood universes will continue to be magic, even now that we're grown up.

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