Madeleine L’Engle can teach us a lot about perseverance and patience. Born in New York City in 1918, she was a shy and bookish child who preferred writing and reading to just about anything else, which resulted in less than stellar grades in school. Her parents disagreed about how best to raise her, and as a result she was bounced around from boarding school to boarding school, and from governess to governess. The family also travelled quite a bit when she was a child, and so it’s not wonder that young Madeleine retreated into the world of books and writing in order to cope with all the upheaval in her life.
Madeleine had her first book published when she was twenty-seven, and a year later married her husband, actor Hugh Franklin. Through the years of raising a family and moving to rural Connecticut, where they purchased and operated a small general store, Madeleine continued to write, publishing several novels between 1946 and 1958. But real success was elusive, and despite books being published, she was haunted by rejections letters, as most writers are.
By the time she turned forty, in 1958, she was determined to give up writing all together, as the amount of time she had spent on it hardly translated into any financial gain at all. But fortunately, she found she couldn’t. Writing had become part of her nature. While on a cross-country camping trip preceding the family’s move back to New York City so that Hugh could resume his acting career, Madeleine got the idea for A Wrinkle in Time, and that, as they say, was that.
Or was it? Madeleine completed the book in 1959, and began sending it out to publishers. It was rejected over thirty times (!) until the publishing house of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux picked it up and published it in 1962.
What made this book such a difficult sell?
Well, I suppose a children’s book which included ideas of quantum physics, travelling through space and time, and some deep spiritual overtones was seen as a bit too much for children. As an article written on its 50th anniversary in 2012 explains,
L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, describes the publishers’ befuddlement… “Was it for adults, was it for children? What is this, science fiction? Oh, I know what science fiction is, but there aren’t female protagonists in science fiction. Are you sure you want to talk about good and evil — isn’t that a little bit philosophical? Can’t you just cut that part out?”
But it seems that much of the appeal to children was just this complexity. L’Engle doesn’t talk down to children, she assumes they are able to handle these themes and concepts, and I’d say that 10 million copies of the book in print proves her right.
I don’t remember exactly when I first read this book, like so many of the others on this list of Important Books this is a book I read so many times as a child that I can’t recall exactly when the first time was, or how old I was at the time. But I would guess that I was somewhere around 9 or 10, and I know I got it out of the library, as it wasn’t one of the books left over from my older siblings’ childhood.
I suspect I was first drawn by the shiny silver Newbery Medal on the cover. I had begun to understand that Newbery Medal books were special ones, and that medal introduced me to many great books, including this one. A Wrinkle in Time, after its many rejections, won the Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature” in 1963, and Madeleine L’Engle’s writing career took off.
Before I read the book again, I thought about what I remembered. Tesseracts, Meg and her mother, Charles Wallace…these jumbled together in my mind, along with the foreboding Black Thing that enveloped our planet that the children had to defeat.
But primarily I remember the astonishment I felt when I read the book. To have Meg, who, with her unruly hair, glasses, plainness,and awkwardness, was so like me in so many ways, be a genius in math was the first astonishment. Girls weren’t good at math, were they? And then there was her mother, the beautiful Dr. Kate Murray, who, with her husband, Meg’s missing father, were involved in some kind of science experiment that resulted in the disappearance of Meg’s father. A beautiful , brilliant woman who loved science? Huh?
I loved the concept of tessering, travelling through a “wrinkle” in time much like going through a wormhole. The little added illustration of the ant going between two fingers across a string, and then bringing the string together and having the ant step from one finger to another, gave me enough context as a child (and an adult!) to feel like I could understand the concept and move on in the story without struggling with understanding the “how”.
Meg and her brother, the odd five-year old genius Charles Wallace, are thrown together with Calvin O’Keefe, a popular athlete and the Mrs W’s (Who, Which, and Whatsit)- guardian angels – who help the children in their quest to find Meg’s father, and ultimately, to fight the Black Thing, the evil shadow that has enveloped our planet and others, as well.
The planet Camatotz, where Meg’s father is imprisoned, is a weird and creepy place where the people are all enthralled to the huge brain, IT. Here evil controls all, everyone does the same thing at the same time, and they are all enslaved to whim of IT. Any diversity is quickly punished, and the offender brought into line.
There are hints of Orwell’s 1984 here, which would make sense as L’Engle was writing in the shadow of the Cold War, and the threat of being taken over by a totalitarian government was pervasive. But it is amazing how this portrayal of evil still resonates today. “Thought police” are still alive and well, unfortunately.
Meg discovers in the end that her faults – her anger and impatience – can actually be used against IT to rescue her father and Charles Wallace, who also gets enslaved to IT. In the end it is she, alone, who has to do the task, which is probably another reason why I loved this book so much. As a young girl in the 1970s there were not many books out there that showed a girl by herself defeating the powers of evil, after all. Which is a whole other story!
Ultimately the book also shows us that although at times our weaknesses can be our greatest strengths, it also reveals the power of love, for it is love that frees Charles Wallace from IT – and not just a universal love, but Meg’s specific love for her baby brother, with all his faults and strengths.
A Wrinkle in Time is thoroughly based on a Christian worldview, and the deeper you dig into it the more you see how L’Engle’s faith informed her work. But although she is unapologetic about it (she quotes Scripture several times in the book, for example) she also manages not to be preachy about it. A good example for others to follow, including me!
This book gave me some hope that an awkward girl who didn’t fit in anywhere could somehow find a place where she could make a difference and do great things. And that is a powerful message that I, and so many others, need to hear.
I’m so grateful that Madeleine L’Engle didn’t give up her writing before she wrote the book that was to have such a profound influence on so many others. After Wrinkle she went on to write more books about Meg and Calvin, and their children, which I also devoured. And many other ones as well, including the marvellous Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (1980).
She is a great inspiration for anyone who feels like giving up when their hard work is not producing the results they seek. Keep going, I think she would say, stay true to your vision, and success might just find you after all.