Monday, January 17, 2011

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

Lately, I've been following Sally Rippin's blog. Sally writes for children and young adults; and she recently asked her blog readers to list some of their favourite kids' books. I found myself remembering a great swathe of junior fiction, stories which my seven year old is now beginning to enjoy; and so this summer I have revisited a few of them. I am pleased to report that they are still wonderful: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; The Boggart; The Dark is Rising Sequence and others.

But my all-time favourite was always A Wrinkle in Time. It is the story of Meg, miserable and grumpy, ugly with her braces and thick glasses, and in perpetual trouble at school; her brilliant and strange youngest brother, Charles Wallace, who has an uncanny ability to read her mind; and their adventures through time and space.

Their father, a scientist engaged in top-secret government work, has been missing for several years. One dark and stormy night, a highly theatrical tramp is blown off course to their door. She is dressed in dozens of layers, calls herself Mrs Who, and demolishes a few tuna salad sandwiches before revealing that she knows something about their father. Shortly afterwards, she and her two eerie companions, Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Which, take Meg, Charles Wallace, and their new companion, Calvin, on a journey through time and space to find him.

They discover their father imprisoned on the planet Camazotz, where everything and everyone is under the control of IT: a large pulsating brain which controls all thought and action on the planet. They have to use their strengths, and find IT's weakness, in order to rescue their father.

Like all good speculative fiction, A Wrinkle in Time raises questions about how we live. As well as the heavily regulated Camazotz, the travellers visit several other planets. One is two dimensional; on another, creatures exist without the limitations of sight. The travellers are also exposed to the evil which has vanquished many planets and overshadows their own; and to the many ways evil is being fought. L'Engle uses these characters and situations to raise questions about what constitutes living well, here on earth.

The characters are richly drawn. Despite his gifts, Charles Wallace has the pride and arrogance of a little boy; Meg wails and snarls like a true pre-teen. To Meg's bitter disappointment, when they find their father not everything is fixed. He is no superhero, but mortal and confused; and they rely heavily on the kindness of strangers to assist them as they extricate themselves from Camazotz and find their way home.

For all its eeriness, the story is framed by the domesticity of an old stone home, a kitten, a dog and an apple orchard; Mother makes stew and Charles Wallace, cocoa and sandwiches. The reader is exposed to new things, terrifying and wonderful, but is brought back safe and sound, there to reflect on all that has happened.

A Wrinkle in Time can be read on many levels. A ten year old might read it as a straight adventure; but an older reader may draw out observations about who we listen to, who we trust, what choices we make, and what sort of society we want to build. Personally, as a miserable young teenager, awkward at school, ugly with braces, and with a loving but dominant mother, I resonated profoundly with Meg; like her, I drew a few conclusions about not judging people by their public face, and not relying on adults to make everything better. Meg's surliness was painful to read, but instructive; this was one of the books that really helped me grow up.

So many years later, I am still struck by its wisdom. By turns sad and hilarious, frightening and kind, this is a book for older children and adults alike. I highly recommend it.

(A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal in 1962.)

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