By Ian G. Wilson
Many years ago, when I was in elementary and junior high school, A Wrinkle in Time was one of the most frequently checked out books from the school libraries (yes, that was when schools had actual libraries and people to staff them). Everyone seemed to have read it, and I noticed that it especially resonated with the girls. Never having read it, and not being a huge science fiction fan at the time, I couldn’t quite figure out the attraction. Now that I have read it, I understand the reasons for its popularity.
The storyline itself is fairly straightforward. Meg Murry is having trouble at school, although she is very intelligent (both her parents are scientists, and she seems to have inherited an interest in the subject). During the course of one of his experiments, Meg’s father disappears, and Meg, her prodigious younger brother Charles Wallace, and Meg’s incipient boyfriend, Calvin O’Keefe, set out to find him. What they don’t know is that their father has been experimenting with space-time travel, and has popped off to another planet, where he is being held prisoner.
With the help of a trio of strange old women (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which), who are definitely more than they seem, the children are able to “tesser” through space to reach the planet on which their father is a captive. Tessering is a method of folding space-time (Mrs. Whatsit uses the pleats in Mrs. Who’s skirt to demonstrate how an insect would be able to move from one side of the dress to the other more quickly when the pleats were pushed together). I’m curious about the etymology of this term, so different is it from other more recent words for the same sort of thing. I suppose having exposed myself to stories of warp drives and hyperspace that the idea behind tessering seems a bit old hat, but one has to remember that the book was written in 1962, well before Star Trek, Star Wars, and a bit before Doctor Who, and it does put into practice a substantial number of the theories that physicists were bantering around at the time. Though it may not be a seminal science fiction novel overall, it certainly is a seminal science fiction novel for children.
There is much more to the story, of course, including a fight against a totalitarian society run by a malevolent thing known only as IT, but the book is relatively short, so I won’t go into further detail, except to say that the plot, though not overly complicated, is exciting enough to keep young readers interested. This also is a good book for parents to read with their kids.
Several critics have made analogies between the totalitarian society the children run across and the Communist governments of the Cold War. There may well be something in this idea, though L’Engle herself never acknowledged that that was what she was specifically trying to do. What is clear, though, is the level of empowerment given to the female characters. Meg is the brave protagonist, her mother is a respected chemist, and the three ladies who help Meg and her friends are also, of course, female. None of these is a stereotypical “weak” woman who can’t manage without a man around. Hence, I think, the popularity I noticed with young female students. It definitely is a good book to encourage girls to pursue their dreams, even when they are in male dominated fields. I hope there is a similar appeal for boys who like a good adventure story.
A Wrinkle in Time is straightforward in its writing style, though it sometimes describes concepts that are challenging to readers (though perhaps more to adults than children–see L’Engle’s quote below). It is a very emotional book—another appeal as it makes the human characters, particularly Meg, more three-dimensional than your average science fiction hero. She worries about her looks, her troubles in school, and her missing dad, concerns that any preteen would connect with. And L’Engle’s descriptions of the weird ladies make for entertaining reading; their otherworldliness is cemented by their very peculiar methods of speech (Mrs. Who can only recite famous quotes, and Mrs. Which—who does in fact look like a witch—is always in a partly dematerialized state and her words are stretched out by adding extra consonants, making it seem like she’s awash in static). Only Mrs. Whatsit is able to clearly communicate with the children, and she is the most “human” of the three despite (or maybe because of) her hilariously mismatched wardrobe. Here is a quote from late in the book which demonstrates one of the interesting conceptions L’Engle proposes, when Meg comes across a planet of blind creatures who have no idea of speech and converse empathetically:
“But she realized now that here on this planet there was no need for color, that the grays and browns merging into each other were not what the beasts knew, and what she, herself, saw was only the smallest fraction of what the planet was really like. It was she who was limited by her senses, not the blind beasts, for they must have senses of which she could not even dream.”
Madeleine L’Engle says that she went through twenty-six publishers before she was finally able to find a house which would take it on. A Wrinkle in Time went on to be the 1962 Newberry award winner, so I imagine the publishers who passed on it might have been kicking themselves. L’Engle said in her Newberry Award acceptance speech for the novel:
“A writer of fantasy, fairy tale, or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his own knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wiser. I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him. I know that this is true of A Wrinkle in Time. I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice. And it is only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.”
And L’Engle once said about the scientific aspects in the book:
“It’s often possible to make demands of a child that couldn’t be made of an adult… a child will often understand scientific concepts that would baffle an adult. This is because he can understand with a leap of the imagination that is denied the grown-up who has acquired the little knowledge that is a dangerous thing.”
L’Engle was born in 1918 and died in 2007. A Wrinkle in Time is the first in a quintet of books featuring Meg’s and Calvin’s families. The others are: A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) which won a National Book Award, Many Waters (1986), and An Acceptable Time (1989).
The recent movie version of A Wrinkle in Time has created interest and added more inclusivity to the novel than even L’Engle imagined (it is pretty clear all the book’s characters are white). I haven’t seen the film myself, though I can recommend the novel very highly for young adults. Greenville Public Library has a number of copies including an audiobook and the DVD of a television movie made before the most recent film. The book was originally published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.