Unicorns and old music. Starfish and sparrows.

Also, teddy bears and spiders.

After posting at Fantasy Matters about Madeleine L’Engle, I found myself needing to reread two of my teen touchstone books: L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet (last weekend) and The Arm of the Starfish (this weekend).

Nothing quite like revisiting early reads to help ground one and return one a little to oneself.

There are about 20 different directions in which I find oneself wanting to start L’Engle discussions now. My burbling about only a few of them is below, but consider this an open thread for any L’Engle discussions you might feel like having, too.


About gender roles: I was always a little troubled at Meg’s role being so deeply curtailed in The Arm of the Starfish, but now I’m noticing how much time Poly–the only one of the O’Keefe children who seems to have active roles to play in her father’s work–spends helping with the cooking and childcare, and just how little time the perfectly-competent seeming Charles does. The only other child to do anything in the kitchen is the next girl down, who is four, though there are three boys between her and Poly. And a few other quiet generalizations scattered through. And then A Swiftly Tilting Planet, where no one even really wants to let Meg out of the house, let alone to go on adventures, because she’s pregnant, which seems to subsume all other bits of agency even with the world at stake, though somehow in that book, unlike in Arm of the Starfish, her fundamental Meg-ness comes through. Though even when she’s fully Meg, in A Wrinkle in Time, everyone’s oddly protective of her in a way that one could argue goes beyond her flaws and also relates to her being a girl.

And yet. And yet. As a teen reader I saw none of this. What I saw and remembered and absorbed was Meg’s mother, Mrs. Murry, who cooked dinners on bunsen burners because being a mother didn’t make her any less a scientist. By A Swiftly Tilting Planet she’d won two Nobel prizes for her work, and throughout her doing that work was taken for granted, enough so that I took it for granted, too. Mrs. Murry was a different sort of role model for me than Meg, but a role model nonetheless.


About light and dark: I always loved the sense of light shining through darkness in these books, loved it so much it informed my own life and writing–or else affirmed what was already part of same, it’s hard to tell. What I remember about A Swiftly Planet is the shining light in it, the world being saved, the bad things not having to happen … yet rereading it I was struck by how many bad things do happen, how much darkness this is. All four of the stories Charles Wallace becomes a part of end on notes more tragic than not, for all that the greater tragedy is averted. This seems needed, a necessary balance … but it’s fascinating how the tone of the book overall still feels more light than dark, how I always finish this book smiling a little.

I don’t finish The Arm of the Starfish smiling. It’s a book that makes me cry and cry at the end, in the best of cathartic ways. It influenced my sense of how we act in the world. It also gave me this sense, as a writer, of why sometimes the hard things have to happen in stories, how sometimes that’s the right thing to make the story work, because as a reader I never actually wanted to undo any of it, even as I cried.

It’s also interesting to realize that the actual outer plot of The Arm of the Starfish can be argued to be a bit simplistic–generally, the people who kidnap children and hire thugs as chauffeurs are not the good guys, but also real bad guys rarely give such clear signs, and lots more people exist somewhere between clearly being on one side or the other–and yet the book itself is about how these things aren’t simplistic, and that still comes through, and feels true.

And yet. And yet. The very ending suddenly isn’t at all simplistic, and the hard choice made there, the choice to help even those who hurt us, rises out of and maybe needs that very plot, which is the whole reason who does the hurting is clear in the first place. And the book’s conviction that we do have to take sides, or at least, choose to care about things, in order to act in the world feels true, too. It’s like it’s the right sense, only with the lines drawn a little too sharply, until those lines break down, quite effectively and painfully, at the end.


About favorite books: I used to think A Swiftly Tilting Planet was my favorite teen book. Rereading, it and Arm of the Starfish now feel clearly tied, and I wondered if I chose a favorite in the same way when young one declares one friend one’s best friend, even though another friend might be just as good a friend, because as children and teens we believe we’re supposed to have favorites and bests.

Mostly, I love the way these long-time companion books make me feel when I read them. A little like I’m swimming in liquid light. I need to remember to reread them more often.


Like I said–feel free to talk about anything L’Engle-related you’d like to talk about in comments, too.

“It’s the fall of the sparrow I care about. But who’s the sparrow? We run into problems there, too.” –Madeleine L’Engle, The Arm of the Starfish

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