Thursday, April 08, 2010

Madeleine L'Engle and Girls' Lit

I heard Madeleine L'Engle speak at a church when I was in my thirties. Why I didn't take notes I'll never know.  The pews were packed with long, slim white Episcopalians, Quakers, Catholics, agnostics, and atheists in khaki pants and sweaters.  Some were alums of Smith, L'Engle's alma mater; others bore the stamp of Berkeley, the University of Iowa, Northwestern, Stanford, or Wayne State.  
There was murmuring about her books. (Source: my journal, which is mostly full of complaints but occasionally recorded events or my responses.)
Quirky woman:  "I couldn't wait to start menstruating when I read The Moon by Night."
Laughter.  "But stopping was the best thing I ever did."  
I knew what they meant. At 11 I wanted to be like Vicky Austin, the heroine of Meet the Austins and The Moon by Night.  In the latter, Vicky both starts her period and has her first romance during a summer camping trip with her upper-middle-class family. I got the idea that if I started my period I would fall in love.   At our house there was much clamor of  “Mom, can’t we take a camping trip?”  
I didn’t even get an autograph at L'Engle's talk. It was in my anti-celebrity autograph period.  L’Engle projected a demeanor of calm and confidence as she described her career,  the repeated rejection of her Newbery-winning A Wrinkle in Time, and her interest in religion and physics.
A friend wouldn’t allow her child to read A Wrinkle in Time.  She thought it too scary.  This quirky science fiction classic, beloved by me as a child, is an astonishing story not only of three children’s fight for interplanetary peace but also about the essential heroism of misunderstood children whose genius and individuality alienate peers and teachers.  Meg Murray, the daughter of two ethical and liberal scientists, is much disliked because of her social awkwardness; her genius baby brother, Charles Wallace, didn't speak till age four and is considered mentally retarded in the public school system (probably today he would be diagnosed with Aspergers); and Calvin, a basketball star, carefully conceals his brilliance to survive.  On a dark and stormy night, the three are recruited by Mrs. Whatsit to travel to a dark planet to save Mr. Murray, who has been imprisoned by a terrifying giant brain that controls thoughts:  IT.   Conformity is the enemy...and don't we know it?
I treasured A Wrinkle in Time, but I also enjoyed her realistic novels about smart, brooding teenage misfits.  I identified with intense upper-class heroines like Camilla of Camilla, the dweller of a New York City apartment house which has a doorman, a girl excruciatingly embarrassed by her mother's flirtations who luckily meets her soulmate, a handsome teenage boy who takes her on ferry trips.  "We were very tired, we were very merry/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry."  Camilla introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry.  Perhaps Camilla and her boyfriend were an early version of Bella and Edward.
My identification with L’Engles thoughtful, politically green & liberal upper-class characters convinced me that I belonged not to the middle-middle but the upper and catapulted me (eek!) into a marriage to the upper.
Books.  They’ll do that to ya.
At the book sale I recently found a copy of A Live Coal in the Sea, an adult novel which is a 1996 sequel to Camilla.  The cover flap describes it as: “a gripping account of a family’s struggles with loyalty, faith, commitment, and identity.  Its central character is the noted astronomer Dr. Camilla Dickinson, who is married to Macarios Xanthakos (whose father is an Episcopal bishop)...”
I must admit I’ve never done well with L’Engle’s adult fiction--somehow the style has never matched the structure and ideas as adeptly as in her children’s fiction--but I am looking forward to reading it.
I considered rereading Camilla, but I read a few pages at Amazon and thought better of it.

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