We were raised on Madeleine L’Engle.
We read and reread the Austin Family Chronicles, A Wrinkle in Time, and Camilla. We identified with the characters, whether they were awkward, brilliant adolescents like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time or Camilla in Camilla, the brooding daughter of a promiscuous mother. There is an intensity about L’Engle’s graceful novels that appealed to me as a child : her skillfully-plotted stories are interwoven with fervent discussions of ethics, religion, and poetry and music.
Yes, her characters quoted Shakespeare and listened to Bach. It gave me something to live up to.
A description I read recently of a cathedral led me back to L’Engle’s novel The Young Unicorns. Odd how it suddenly popped into my mind: published in 1968 and set in the future (though it’s not so different from then or now), The Young Unicorns is a terrifying page-turner, as the characters fight a battle of good vs. evil in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York without quite understanding what is going on. The cast comprises both children and adults: Dave, a brilliant musician, former gang member, and son of the Cathedral carpenter, has a set of illicit keys to the Cathedral that play an important role in the novel; the Austin family, who nurture Dave and other lost waifs, have moved to New York for Dr. Austin’s research (the family consists of 15-year-old Vicky, who has matured since The Moon by Night; the loud, pretty 13-year-old Suzy, who wants to be a doctor; Rob, the friendly seven-year-old whom his parents regard as safest of them in New York because he has so many friends on the streets; and Dr. Austin and Mrs. Austin, a former singer) ; their landlord’s daughter, a blind girl named Emily, who is a talented pianist; Canon Tallis, who is in New York to solve a mystery; Mr. Theo, a music teacher who loves Emily and Dave; and the Dean who was a gang member as a boy in Puerto Rico.
The Dean and Canon Tallis know something new is happening on the street. They’ve heard that the neighborhood gang, the Alphabats, is now controlled by someone on the outside. Canon Tallis thinks gangs are an epidemic and members show “the classic symptoms of psychosis.” But Dave, a former gang member, has problems with trust, and doesn’t know whether to trust them when the gang goes after him again.
Although they don’t understand what they’re confronting, they inadvertently work together to destroy a plot to take over New York by mind control, via a laser used in brain surgery that can be used to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain.
The frightening plot may seem simple and far-fetched, but it’s not. The future is today, no?
It’s a very moving novel. Simple, yes, as we expect of a children’s book, but there is powerful stuff here.
I have never had much luck with L’Engle’s adult novels, but decided it was time to continue my relationship with her. So I read A Live Coal in the Sea, a sequel to Camilla. I really love and admire A Live Coal in the Sea, a complex, painful novel about family secrets. It is not perfect, the structure is sometimes clumsy, but L’Engle’s style is elegant, her characters are thoughtful and unusual, her ideas are brilliant, and she has a vision of humanity that will amaze you.
It is not as smooth as L’Engle’s children’s books. It is not plot-oriented. It unfolds like a Greek tragedy, centered on emotion, with relationships between mothers and children broken, boundaries blurred, and shocking, unforeseen events.
There are plenty of the sophisticated discussions of religion and philosophy I love. (By the way, L’Engle also writes about mind-control here: the torture used in the Korean War for brainwashing. We forget that this issue has been around for a long time.)
Camilla, who in old age is an astronomer and a professor at her alma mater, has had a fulfilling life with her much-loved late husband, Mac, their children, Taxi and Frankie, and granddaughter, Raffi. But underneath the surface emotions are boiling up. After Camilla wins an award for astronomy, her son, Taxi, a neurotic actor, hints to Raffi that Camilla is not really her grandmother. Camilla has to figure out how to reassure Raffi about her complicated origins.
In a narrative that goes back and forth in time, L’Engle delineates the relationships that define Camilla’s life. They go back to her relationship with her mother, Rose, a promiscuous woman who shattered Camilla’s trust by having an affair with Camilla’s favorite college astronomy professor, Red Grange.
As a result of her mother’s affair with Red, which continues over the years, Camilla meets her husband, Mac, a young assistant minister. After she learns about her mother’s latest debaucherie, Camilla walks around the campus crying, and Mac takes her back to the church hall for coffee. They spend time together, they fall in love, and Camilla helps him with the youth group. But Mac is frightened by closeness: he was a prisoner in Korea, where he was almost brainwashed by mind control techniques, and he fears relationships. So he takes a job in Sudan.
Running away is what Mac does when things get complicated. But when he returns, they get married, and Camilla loves his parents, also a minister and his wife.
Then her mother gets pregnant when Camilla does. When Rose dies in an accident, the baby is delivered by Caesarian section, but Camilla’s father refuses to raise him after a DNA test discloses that Taxi is not his son. Camilla and Mac, badgered by her father, decide to raise him with their daughter, Frankie. But then a tragedy occurs: Red shows up with a note from Rose saying he is Taxi’s father. Red and his new rich wife, who can’t have children, use expensive lawyers to take Taxi away.
By the time he is returned to Camilla and Mac, he is a mess.
What is fascinating is how this family rises above it. They keep going, though Taxi never overcomes his problems. They can’t be perfect, but they are a unit. Their faith and work help them. They do their best.
Camilla’s friend, Luisa, a psychiatrist, says, “A lot of people get terribly wounded. The media saturates us with false images of happiness and securtiy, but it’s a lie. That’s why I and the rest of my ilk stay in business.”
And that’s what this novel is about. Dealing with real life, a little bit at a time.
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