A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L’Engle

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963

256 pages

A Wrinkle in Time is one of those books I think I have very clear memories of – and then I read it again and discover that I missed something entirely.

I first read A Wrinkle in Time – or, rather, had it read to me – when I was in elementary school. The school I attended, which housed grades K-8, placed a high priority on reading. Every day, the teachers focused on reading in three ways: they read aloud to their students (even in the higher grades), they had the students read aloud to each other, and they set aside time for the students to read on their own.

L’Engle’s science fiction novel was one of many inspiring books read aloud to me at that school. For whatever reason, my teacher didn’t continue with the series, but I came back to it as an adult and read the remaining four books in the quintet.

And then, just a couple of months ago, I read A Wrinkle in Time with my daughter. I prodded her into reading it with me because I remembered it as an inspiring book. And it was, but not in the way I recalled.

The story was as compelling as ever. Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry travels through space and time to rescue her father, who has been missing for years after taking part in some mysterious government project. Her brother Charles Wallace, her new friend Calvin, and three odd neighbors (Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit) accompany Meg on the trip.

Under the neighbors’ guidance, the children “tesser” to various planets in search of Mr. Murry. They learn that the universe is under attack from a Dark Thing – the embodiment of evil – and that Mr. Murry has become trapped on a planet, called Camazotz, that is wholly given over to the Dark.

Arriving on Camazotz, they find Mr. Murry imprisoned by IT, the disembodied brain that controls the planet and its inhabitants. He is a prisoner because he refused to succumb to IT, and the children are only able to bring him away because Charles Wallace yields to IT’s telepathy. Meg must then return to Camazotz alone to rescue her brother, if she can.

The travelers are a band of misfits if ever there was one. The neighbors, who sound as add as they look, turn out to be paranormal beings analagous to angels. Calvin is the most popular boy in school, but he’s also awkward-looking, deeply misunderstood and neglected by his parents, and unsure of how to handle his own inner gifts. Charles Wallace, a 5-year-old telepath and genius, has a reputation for being developmentally disabled because he rarely speaks to anyone but his family.

And then there’s Meg. She was the missing piece, the element I had forgotten. Sure, I remembered that she is the main character and (more importantly) the crucial operator in the rescues of both Mr. Murry and Charles Wallace. What I didn’t remember is that she is a complete anti-hero.

In short, Meg drives me nuts. For most of the book, she’s a whiny, entitled, hand-wringer with a near-pathological inability to control her own emotions. She wants everyone to do everything for her. She’s the kind of person you want to smack around or douse in cold water, the way cartoon characters do with blibbering hysterics.

But as the book progressed, I realized that’s the way many 13-year-olds are. Thanks to raging, roller-coaster hormones and the vicissitudes of adolescent neurological development, it’s completely normal for a child Meg’s age to be self-centered and emotionally volatile. L’Engle, being the mother of three children, was probably all too aware of this.

Once I had this epiphany, I started to feel grateful for Meg’s messiness. My own daughter is closing in on her tenth birthday, and I realized how edifying it is for her to read about a girl who’s fully in the grips of adolescent turmoil, yet is ultimately able to get beyond it when something important is at stake.

More than that, the very qualities that make Meg so hard to deal with are the ones that feed her ability to rescue Charles Wallace. She learns how to turn her weaknesses into strengths, how to redirect her liabilities into productive channels. She learns how to operate outside herself and attain maturity through the process of seeking a worthy and challenging goal.

And with adolescence looming on the horizon for my daughter, that is an inspiring example for her to have.

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