Tag Archives: madeleine l’engle

Two by Madeleine L’Engle You May Not Know

The other day, as a tack on to my post about Anna and the French Kiss, I mentioned L’Engle’s boarding school romance And Both Were Young.  I thought I might add in two other L’Engle YA titles that are similarly good.  Unlike her more famous A Wrinkle in Time, these books are more for young teens, because they deal with romance and growing up.  First, let me just say that Madeleine L’Engle is by far one of my favorite authors ever.  I appreciate nearly everything I’ve ever read by her, and that’s a great deal of her work.  When I was in 7th grade, I had to give a speech about heroes and I chose to talk about why she was my hero.  I lost the speech a long time ago, but I suspect that many of the things I said would still be true.  Her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, shaped a lot of my ideas about religion and morality.

In Camilla, L’Engle wrote a classic coming of age story.  Camilla Dickenson is a wealthy Manhattanite teenager in the 1950’s.  She has led a sheltered life, being babied by her mother.  As the novel begins, she has become aware of how troubled her mother is and how her parents’ marriage is in danger.  Things spiral downward from there.  A conflict with her best friend and a budding romance with her friend’s brother only makes things worse.  As the story goes on, Camilla seems to be falling apart, but in the end, she finds strength.  It’s hard to say now what exactly I loved about this book when I was younger.  In some ways, it comes off pretty melodramatically.  However, Camilla comes to a real understanding of her parents as individuals and herself as in charge of her own life, two things that are so simple yet so groundbreaking in adolescence.

A House Like a Lotus is sort of a sequel to A Wrinkle in Time.  Polly, the protagonist, is the oldest child of Meg and Calvin.  However, this book has no science fiction elements; it’s a straightforward coming of age novel.  Polly begins the story in Athens, where she has traveled on her own, thanks to the generosity of a family friend, a woman named Max.  Slowly, as Polly travels around Greece, then acts as an intern in Cyprus, all while being romanced by a rich young man, she tells the story of how she grew close to Max then broke with her.  This is a complex and layered story.  There are a lot of elements, including a sex scene that, at the time, drew criticism (though now seems tame compared to much of what’s out there in YA books).  The treatment of gay issues (did I mention there’s a LOT going on in this book?) is a little outmoded.  The book is decidedly pro-gay, but the way she writes about the issues feels old-fashioned to today’s much less homophobic world.  Overall, the theme of the story is redemption and forgiveness, something that is echoed in everyone’s actions, from Polly to Max to Polly’s love interests, to the school girls and teachers who torment Polly and down to the war torn Cypriot setting of Polly’s internship.

By the way, A House Like a Lotus seems to have been out of print for awhile, but it’s listed as being re-issued early next year, seemingly as part of the same re-issue that gave us the spiffy new cover to And Both Were Young.  Two of the prequels to Lotus, including the mystery The Arm of the Starfish, have already been recently re-issued.  The first is also worth a read, though the following book, Dragons in the Waters, is one of my least favorites by her, so I recommend skipping that one for all but the most die hard L’Engle fans.

A Ring of Endless Light

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.

Twenty Four Days Until…

One of my favorite Christmas books, by far, is Madeleine L’Engle’s The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas.  It’s part picture book, part chapter book, with old-fashioned illustrations and the sort of feel that a book issued by a lesser publisher often inevitably has.  I understand there’s a newer edition with new illustrations, but I admit that I’ve never seen it.  As a kid, I lived within walking distance of an independent bookstore that ordered any book I asked for.  Bless them.  Seriously.  They let me grow up as if I had Amazon before there was Amazon, back when they had to lug out big catalogs to discover if the book I was asking for could be supplied by their distributors.  When I got on a Madeline L’Engle kick in middle school, I ordered her entire back list, up to and including all her adult nonfiction writings about religion and philosophy.  I got this one and I can remember my joy that I could share it with my brother, who was probably about Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age then.

The story follows the Austin family, a family just a little too perfect and yet L’Engle always made them vividly real.  Anticipation, the right sort of theme for Advent, recurs throughout the story.  As with many of her books, L’Engle weaves in the religious themes subtly, but they’re unmistakably present.  First, there is the excited anticipation that Vicky and her brother John feel for Christmas, played out by how the family does something special to prepare and decorate every day.  There is also a feeling of anticipation for a real winter snow that might come with Christmas.  There is the nervous anticipation Vicky feels for her role as an angel in the church Christmas pageant.  Finally, there is the anticipation the family has for the new baby who is due soon after the holidays.  You can probably guess at least part of the outcome from that mix of events, but L’Engle’s writing is so elegant and poetic that it elevates what otherwise might be a predictable ending.