Sunday, September 09, 2007

Goodbye, Madeleine

I've been expecting this news for years. But now that it's actually happened, I don't know what to say.

Madeleine L'Engle died on Thursday.

1960s edition of A Wrinkle in TimeTo most people, Madeleine L'Engle was the author of A Wrinkle in Time, a much-honored early 1960s science fantasy novel for children. In reality the book was only nominally for children; many of the book's most ardent fans are adults. Publishers didn't initially know who the book was for or how to market it. The most common figure given is that 26 publishers rejected the manuscript, because," as L'Engle wrote in A Circle of Quiet, "it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was too difficult for children, and was it a children's or and adults' book, anyhow?" Eventually the literary publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux took it on. It has since won a Newbery Medal, a Sequoyah Book Award, and a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. It's been assigned to generations of school children and homeschooled children, some of whom (presumably the former group rather than the latter) write rude things about the book on Wikipedia after using the site to help them write their book reports. Other kids have identified heavily with Meg or Charles Wallace Murry and their friend Calvin, and gone on to read other books in the series. Adults who read the book as a child tend to introduce their own children to it, and enjoy reading it all over again themselves. It's also been a perennial entry on banned book lists, ironically because L'Engle's brand of Christianity is viewed as anti-Christian by people who can't see past the literal interpretation of what they see. "Fundalits," L'Engle called such people.

I've told this story before, several times over: it was almost certainly in fifth grade that I came across A Wrinkle in Time in the school library, checked it out and read it. I was probably looking for more books by Lois Lenski. L'Engle's book turned out to be far more memorable than anything else I read in that era. I identified heavily with Meg, the intelligent, socially inept outcast who feels unattractive but finds people who love and understand her, and who makes a real difference in the battle against evil, without any special abilities to help her.

In college I discovered a sequel in a Christian bookstore, saved my money and bought it. The third book came out the year before I got married. Shortly after that I started collecting her books in earnest, buying the newest novels in bookstores as they came out, and picking up the older ones at library sales and used bookstores. This was long before eBay, of course. The rarest book in my collection, Ilsa, John's best friend from college tracked down for me. I paid $40 for it. It's worth over ten times that now, which is irrelevant to the fact that it's not a very good book. It was the second L'Engle novel ever published, and a total downer. I tried and failed to read it back in the Manlius Public Library, the only L'Engle book they had when I was in junior high, aside from Wrinkle itself. It's hard for me to explain the appeal of her later novels, save to say that they push nearly all of my buttons as a reader and a fan. They are full of intelligent, likable, decent, flawed characters, trying to do the right thing but also capable of making terrible messes in their lives. There is time travel and other fun science fantasy stuff, and a huge, consistent backstory built up over decades, with characters turning up in multiple books and even different series of books, sometimes thirty years after their initial appearances.

I've met Madeleine L'Engle exactly once, in an autograph line after a speaking engagement in Columbus in the mid-1980s. She signed my copy of A Ring of Endless Light. I wrote to her after Many Waters came out, and got a reply, written in the margin of a mimeoed form letter about the then-recent death of her husband. I wrote to her twice more, I think; actually I'm not quite sure. I definitely wrote to tell her about the online bibliography, and I definitely wrote to thank her for making such a difference in the lives of her readers, including me. I'm just not sure whether those were in the same card and letter, or two different ones.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, when my collection topped the 50 book mark and AOL made it easy for anyone to have a web site, I started an online Madeleine L'Engle bibliography, The Tesseract. (I've since made an attempt to move it to, but I'm not sure I've managed to update all the links.) My interest was mostly in the fiction (still is, really), so that was what the web site covered in the most detail. I never have gotten around to writing about the non-fiction in any depth. There a lot of it: poetry and essays, the autobiographical Crosswicks Journals and a number of books about Christianity, writing, the arts, the relationship between fiction and truth, the author's own life and philosophy, and combinations thereof. I never really finished the web site, but it's been a major resource for teachers, students and fans for about a decade now. Wikipedia has begun to eclipse it, of course, and that's where most of my L'Engle-related research and writing efforts have been concentrated since April 2006. Just tonight I dug through most of the books shown above in order to add inline citations to the Wikipedia article about L'Engle herself.

Am I upset by the death of my favorite writer? It's hard to say, but on the whole I think not. The fact is that her health has been declining ever since I started the Tesseract site. She had two hip replacement surgeries, her son died in 1999, and she had a cerebral hemorrhage a few years after that. She told Newsweek in 2004 that she was still writing, but the only books by her that came out after the 1990s were compilations and a picture book. She gave up public appearances of all sorts, and someone told me a year or two ago that she was in a nursing home. All in all, it's become clear in recent years that her quality of life was not very good, and that she was unlikely to write anything more, at least nothing of any length or significance. This means that The Eye Begins to See, a novel she started in the 1990s about Meg as a middle-aged adult, is unlikely ever to see the light of day. And that is a loss.

Another blow, at least for me, is that The New Yorker published an article about L'Engle in 2o04 that was very nearly a hatchet job. It was full of disgruntled family members acting all resentful of L'Engle drawing on real life in her fiction, and fictionalizing and whitewashing it in her non-fiction. After all the glowing things she'd written about her family over the years, the article read as if her children and grandchildren were all spoiled brats, intent on kicking her when she was down. I don't actually believe that's the case; her official website is definitely pro-Madeleine, and that's almost certainly run by one of her granddaughters. Even so, I got some rather nasty correspondence after that article from someone who claimed to know L'Engle and her ex-son-in-law, and who accused me of lying and whitewashing the truth about L'Engle unless I amended my web site to include the worst of the New Yorker accusations and interpretations as definite facts. It seems strange to say it, but that article and its aftermath were far more upsetting to me than this week's news.

Ultimately, Madeleine L'Engle's decline and death reminds my of my mom's final years. My mom, Ruth Anne Johnson, had been a psychologist and (before I was born) a professional singer, who wrote plays and music and saw them performed, both in Syracuse and in Florida. But by the year 2000 or so, her mental and physical health were both in decline, and she believed that nearly everything worthwhile in her life was behind her. By 2002, all that mattered to my mom were smoking and my daily visits to whatever facility she was in. On her 75th birthday she made her last-ever outing, in a wheelchair, to a Tony Bennett concert. Two months later she was dead, and I was more relieved than sad.

I don't know what L'Engle's final years were really like. She was still writing well into her 70s, and nearly 89 years old when she died, a world-famous, beloved author who still got fan mail, even if she was no longer up to the task of reading and replying to it. Despite the New Yorker article, I have no doubt that she still had family and friends who loved and supported her, and I suspect that her outlook was more positive than my mom's was. Even so, Madeleine L'Engle's body and mind were likely no longer the vessel for her talent as they once were. That being the case, her death is no tragedy, but a completion. Over thirty years ago she wrote a book about the decline and death of her own mother. The week it was L'Engle's turn to go on, and possibly find out whether the God she wrote about so extensively is there to welcome her home.



DesLily said...

wow, nice tribute Karen.. but then I totally expected this of you knowing how much you love her writing!

Astaryth said...

I was sad to hear of her passing... but, like you, have been expecting it for some time. I still have the first paperback copy of Wrinkle in Time that I got as a child... It is a little tattered from the many times it has been read :)

Paul said...

Knew I'd find an interesting tribute here after I heard the news. I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time when I was a child. I'm sure I enjoyed it, because I hung on to it. It still sits on my bookshelf over thirty years later.

However, for some reason, I never read it a second time (which is pretty odd if you know me, I have books I've read five times or more.) I'm confused by the incongruity here. It made enough of an impression on me that it has survived multiple cullings of my book collection, but not enough to ever invite a second reading. Maybe I'll give it another shot now.

Becky said...

I hadn't heard this. But I know what you mean. She had a long, full life and I've been a fan of hers since I was in grammer school. I sobbed like a baby when I heard Jim Henson died, but Madeline's passing just leaves me feeling a distant sort of loss with a tinge of depression.

Melissa said...

My love of fiction began with Madeline. I have since then created a collection of her books. She has inspired me to venture into the world of fiction. One of my other fav's is The Sapphire Pendant. I was happy to see that other authors could reach families the way Madeline did.