I first read A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle around age eleven or twelve. At the time, I was completely besotted with L’Engle’s works. Actually, I probably still am, but not on the same obsessed level. In an era before the internet, I tracked down every one of L’Engle’s books, even almost unknown titles, and purchased them one by one by ordering them through my local bookstore. The characters she created were people I related to. The questions she raised were ones that I wanted to think about.
On the first go around, I don’t think I thought much more about this book than any of the others. Madeleine L’Engle had certain characters she returned to over and over in her books. This one deals with Vicky Austin and her family when they go to stay with her dying grandfather one summer on the small Massachusetts island where he lives. Vicky is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, shown so well by her middle child status. She unexpectedly becomes the object of affection for three very different young men, one of whom is interning for the summer studying dolphins. On the first go around, somehow the poetry (Vicky reads and writes a lot of poetry), the romances and the dolphins took center stage for me.
But then I reread it at some point, perhaps a year or two later, at age thirteen or fourteen, and the whole thing just hit me smack in the face. This was a book about death. Death runs through the story on every level. The opening scene is a funeral. Each of the young men has suffered a loss – of a friend, a father and a mother respectively – and is in the midst of dealing with it in a different way. Vicky must face her grandfather’s impending death from cancer and must help with his care giving. She sees death at the hospital when runs errands. She even sees death among the dolphins and the birds. I remember very distinctly reading the whole book through in one sitting and just weeping over the story.
Many years later, I was living alone in China when, through sad coincidence, both of my grandfathers became ill and passed away within a short period of time. I went to Hong Kong for a weekend and visited one of the used bookshops packed with musty old editions brought from the U.S. and the U.K. There, at the top of a shelf, was a first edition of A Ring of Endless Light. I pulled it down and just holding it I teared up. I bought the book and reread it, feeling like it had found me when I really needed someone to talk to about death when I had no one nearby. It felt like this book had taught me things when I was young that I needed to return to as an adult to understand.
L’Engle was a Christian writer, solidly in the tradition of C.S. Lewis or George MacDonald. She used her books to explore ideas about God and morality. I’ve written just a little about my own religious beliefs here before (I was raised as a very liberal Baptist, but we currently attend a Unitarian Universalist church) but L’Engle’s very literary-leaning Episcopalianism has always been right up my alley spiritually. She’s never heavy handed or judgmental so I think those who don’t share her beliefs can still find a lot to enjoy in her works. In many ways, I would say she is one of the forces that most shaped my religious beliefs.
Our family lost someone last week, someone much loved and cherished. For the boys, I had picture books about death, like Susan Varley’s Badger’s Parting Gifts. However, as I looked on the shelf for something to bring for myself to read on the trip, somehow my hand reached for that first edition I found in Hong Kong years ago, as if it might still have yet another level of revelation for me, or maybe just so I could take comfort in the poetry of a familiar tale.