Women of Speculative Fiction: Madeleine L’Engle

The story of Madeleine L’Engle’s writing career might provide some encouragement to those aspiring authors in their 20s and 30s who wonder if they should just give up. She was a bright child, writing her first story at age five, but she struggled in school regardless, and her first two decades of adulthood brought no publishing success. By her 40th birthday, she had determined to abandon writing. Four years later her first novel (her resolution didn’t stick, obviously) was published. A Wrinkle in Time went on to win a Newbery Medal; it continues to hold a special place among fantasy/sci-fi children’s books quite a few decades later. She wrote dozens more, and her career spanned decades before she died in in 2007.

What is so special about A Wrinkle in Time? A large part of its appeal surely comes from Meg Murry, a protagonist who any intelligent but awkward girl could relate to. L’Engle was doubtless drawing on her own experiences as a young social misfit. How many of us have yearned to be understood and appreciated as Meg does, not in spite of our peculiarities and nerdiness but because of them? And it is Meg’s very uniqueness that allows her to be the hero of the story, saving her father and brother and bringing them safely home. She does have help from others – the dreamy Calvin O’Keefe (a rather obvious wish fulfillment, but hey, it works) – and the mysterious, otherworldly Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit.

The story is extravagantly bizarre, there’s no question of that – nor any doubt of why it was rejected thirty times before finding a publisher. There are arcane discussions of tesseracts, of traveling vast distances across dimensions. There are unicorns and many-tentacled creatures, a sinister planet whose citizens are compelled to live in utter conformity, and a giant pulsing evil brain. It’s weird, and it’s wonderful.

It is also religious, with frank acknowledgement of good and evil. L’Engle was an Episcopalian with a fervent belief in universal salvation. Her books have subsequently been disliked and/or outright banned both by some Christians and some non-religious critics, disapproving of her particular religious agenda. It’s not so specific or overt in her first novel as in later books (A Swiftly Tiling Planet, for instance, carries a troubling implication of genetic pre-determinism, and Many Waters depicts the Biblical story of Noah’s flood with some very peculiar, ofttimes unsettling interpretations), which is perhaps one of the reasons why A Wrinkle in Time continues to be the most popular.

When I was a young reader, however, it was nothing short of miraculous to find a book that celebrated a girl who was smart, shy but determined; who loved her nerdy family intensely; who was able to play a crucial role in the fight against evil in the universe. Meg was the kind of person I hoped I was, who I wanted to be as a child. And L’Engle’s imaginative, sensitive, prolific writing is something I’d be happy to emulate as an adult.

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