Friday, February 27, 2015

The Winner's Circle: A Wrinkle in Time (1963)

 In a sense, there's no point in reviewing A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle's first children's novel, and winner of the 1963 Newbery Award. It's securely ensconced in the upper echelon of the American children's literature canon, in the same realm as Charlotte's Web, The Giver, and Bridge to Terebithia. Indeed, the last time that Fuse #8 ran the Top 100 Children's Books poll, A Wrinkle in Time finished second, just below Charlotte's Web.

When I was a child, I loved A Wrinkle in Time, and read it through on several occasions. I hadn't picked it up in years though, and so I decided to read it again to refresh my memory of it.

Rereading my childhood favorites is always an interesting exercise for me. In some cases, I find that they're even better than I remembered -- that, now that I'm an adult, I find even more to appreciate in them. That's the case for Anne of Green Gables, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Hobbit, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, and many others.

On the other hand, sometimes I go back and fail to locate the magic that I once found in those titles. As a child, I adored The Chronicles of Narnia; as an adult, I find them almost unreadable. I was a huge fan of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator back then, while it now seems too full of misanthropic (and racist) nastiness to really be enjoyable. I even, uncomfortably, remember a time when I was much younger when I wasn't thoroughly creeped out by Love You Forever.

Upon settling in to read A Wrinkle in Time again, I found that what I immediately noticed were things in the book I didn't care for. I almost instantaneously lost patience with Charles Wallace, who felt more like an excerpt from a book about Indigo Children than an actual character, to the point that his existence in the novel threatened my suspension of disbelief. (It's possible this was exacerbated by his proximity to his sister Meg, who is eminently real and believable.) L'Engle's Christian-infused mysticism felt dated and creaky to me, and her extensive use of quotations started to feel more like a crutch than a considered stylistic device. And I'd forgotten how slow the book is to start -- the pacing never seemed quite right to me.

This isn't to say that I found A Wrinkle in Time a complete disappointment. Even now, after I've read Orwell and Huxley and Kafka and Ray Bradbury, the Camazotz scenes retain a striking aura of surreal menace. And I remain charmed by Aunt Beast, the gentlest and tenderest of the many extraterrestrial beings who populate the book's pages. The ending too, remains warm and fitting, even though by now I know its beats by heart.

Interestingly, the Time series was possibly the first series that I lost patience with as a young reader. I loved A Wind in the Door, possibly even more than A Wrinkle in Time, but I found A Swiftly Tilting Planet confusing and bizarre, and I disliked Many Waters so much that I never bothered to read past that one to the books featuring Meg's daughter Polly.

Having said all this, I'm not entirely sure what conclusions to draw. There's no question of whether or not A Wrinkle in Time was a deserving Newbery winner -- as I mentioned, it has one of the widest and most loyal followings of any American children's book. Additionally, it has little competition. Although the 1962 publishing year was an amazing one for picture books (The Snowy Day, Chicken Soup with Rice, and The Sleep Book, just to name a few), it was less impressive on other fronts. The two Newbery honor books, Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland, by Sorche Nic Leodhas, and Men of Athens, by Olivia Coolidge, are essentially forgotten. The one other "classic" novel published during that year was The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken, a British author who wasn't eligible.

My reactions may just say more about me as a reader than about A Wrinkle in Time as a book. I've come to be fairly skeptical of Good vs. Evil plots, and I place a premium on fully believable characters, and so A Wrinkle in Time may just not be the book for me anymore. It's certainly the book for a lot of other people though!

No comments:

Post a Comment