If you want to make the world a better place, there are many things you probably should do, and at least two that you must.
1) Read A Wrinkle in Time at least once.
2) When they are old enough, and they are ready, give this book to your children.
I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was in third grade. I loved it, but didn't read it again for a long time. Then a few years ago, I stumbled across a copy while browsing through a store which sold old books. It's not a hard book to find, by any means, but it seemed appropriate to find and remember it there, among those huge stacks of faded books. That place had eons of nostalgia stored away on crumbling yellowed pages, and I decided to take a bit home with me that day. I read the book again after I bought it, and for the third time the past couple of nights. It made me think about a lot of things. It's an incredible book about what it means to be human, to be alive. In retrospect, I have to wonder how much of who I am is tied to those books I read growing up.
"It's much too wild a night to travel in."
"Wild nights are my glory," Mrs. Whatsit said. "I just got caugt in a downdraft and got blown off course." ... "I shall just sit down for a moment and pop on my boots and then I'll be on my way. Speaking of ways, pet, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."
Tesseract. Take this word, and say it aloud. Feel how it forms on your tongue, seems almost to have weight and substance, and then rolls off the tip into the air. There's a glimpse into the brilliance of this book. There are tons of words, real and imaginary that would have sufficed for ending that paragraph. Tesseract is the only one that is perfect. But I'm not going to tell you what it means.
So, plot synopsis. I never was too great at this part.
The book is about three children, Meg, Charles, and Calvin. The story centers around Meg Murry, an intelligent, awkward girl, who can't quite seem to find her place. Charles Murry is her younger brother, a genius that everyone thinks is a moron. Calvin O'Keefe is a boy from school, a few grades ahead of Meg, who is quite intellegent, athletic, and comes from a home where he doesn't fit at all. Together, these three children are led by Mrs. Whatsit, and her friends, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, through the fabric of the universe in order to find and rescue the Murry children's father, who has been missing for several years. They learn a lot along the way, about what makes life beautiful, and about a terrible shadow of sameness which threatens to swallow the entire universe in its misery. It must be fought, at all costs. And it is.
Well, I guess that's enough to get you started. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't read the book, and anyway I have to get back to practicing my tessering. Keep reading, people.
"It was a dark and stormy night...
I don't know how many times I read those opening words before I realized they were an allusion--the first of many--in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. This classic Newbery Award winning children's book was written in 1962 and originally rejected as too complex by publishers. Although it is written on a 5th grade reading level, the science, fantasy and theology- related concepts it contains--travel through time and space, the dangers of unthinking conformity and scientific irresponsibility, and the saving power of love1 --make it a much more sophisticated read.
Meg Murry, the book's central character, is a bright, awkward, volatile 6th grader, daughter to a pair of brilliant scientists (Father is a physicist; Mother has doctorates in biology and bacteriology, and is stunningly beautiful, to boot). Meg has twin 10-year-old brothers, "nice, regular children," and a 5-year-old "genius baby brother," Charles Wallace, who hasn't started school yet and who everybody in town thinks is dumb. At the beginning of the book, Meg's father has been missing for more than a year and is presumed by the mean-spirited, gossipy townsfolk to have run out on the family. As it turns out, Mr. Murry has been working on a secret government project, experimenting with the 5th dimension. He has learned, however imperfectly, to tesser--to move through space instantaneously by wrinkling time--and has become trapped on a Dark planet. Meg, Charles Wallace, and a new friend Calvin O'Keefe embark on a quest to find and rescue him.
Guiding the children on their mission are three mysterious beings, crusaders for the light, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Because she finds it difficult to verbalize, Mrs. Who communicates almost entirely in idioms and quotations (presented in their original language along with a translation); she cites, among others, Seneca, Dante, A. Perez, Shakespeare, Horace, Euripides, Cervantes, Delille, Goethe, and my personal favorite:
Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing.2
Mrs. Whatsit appears first to Meg and her family as a disheveled tramp, and it later becomes apparent that the shapes taken by the "three witches" (a deliberate reference by the author to Shakespeare's Macbeth) are just forms they choose for their own amusement. Mrs. Whatsit confides later that she is "exactly 2,379,152,497 years, 8 months, and 3 days" old and that she had once been a star (in the literal, astronomical sense of the word). At one point, in order to carry the children and show them what they will be battling, she transforms herself:
"Now don't be frightened, loves," Mrs. Whatsit said. Her plump little body began to shimmer, to quiver, to shift. The wild colors of her clothes became muted, whitened. The pudding-bag shape stretched, lengthened, merged. And suddenly before the children was a creature more beautiful than any Meg had even imagined, and the beauty lay in far more than the outward description. Outwardly Mrs. Whatsit was surely no longer a Mrs. Whatsit. She was a marble-white body with powerful flanks, something like a horse but at the same time completely unlike a horse, for from the magnificently modeled back sprang a nobly formed torso, arms, and a head resembling a man's, but a man with a perfection of dignity and virtue, an exaltation of joy such as Meg had never before seen. No, she thought, it's not like a Greek centaur. Not in the least.
From the shoulders slowly a pair of wings unfolded, wings made of rainbows, of light upon water, of poetry.
Calvin fell to his knees.
"No," Mrs. Whatsit said, though her voice was not Mrs. Whatsit's voice. "Not to me, Calvin. Never to me. Stand up."3
"But what is it?" Calvin demanded. "We know that it's evil, but what is it?"
"Yyouu hhave ssaidd itt!" Mrs. Which's voice rang out. "Itt iss Eevill. Itt iss thee Ppowers of Ddarrkknesss!"
"But what's going to happen?" Meg's voice trembled. "Oh, please, Mrs. Which, tell us what's going to happen!"
"Wee wwill cconnttinnue tto ffightt!"
Something in Mrs. Which's voice made all three of the children stand straighter, throwing back their shoulders with determination, looking at the glimmer that was Mrs. Which with pride and confidence.
"And we're not alone, you know, children," came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. "All through the universe it's being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it's a grand and exciting battle. I know it's hard for you to understand about size, how there's very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won't seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it's a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it's done so well."
"Who have our fighters been?" Calvin asked.
"Oh, you must know them, dear," Mrs. Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who's spectacles shown out at them triumphantly. "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."
"Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!"
"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by."
"Leonardo da Vinci?" Calvin suggested tentatively. "And Michelangelo?"
"And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out, "and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!"
Now Calvin's voice rang with confidence. "And Schweitzer and Ghandi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!"
"Now you, Meg," Mrs. Whatsit ordered.
"Oh, Euclid, I suppose." Meg was in such an agony of impatience that her voice grated irritably. "And Copernicus. But what about Father? Please, what about Father?"
"Wee aarre ggoingg tto your ffatherr," Mrs. Which said.
"But where is he?" Meg went over to Mrs. Which and stamped as though she were as young as Charles Wallace.
Mrs. Whatsit answered in a voice that was low but quite firm. "On a planet that has given in. So you must prepare to be very strong."4
A Wrinkle in Time is Meg's coming of age story, from the loss of innocence that comes with her first viewing of the Black Thing to her "shattering yet ultimately freeing discovery" 5 that it is she, with all of her faults, who must rescue her father and her brother---that Father is not omnipotent, and that merely locating him does not make everything all better. A strong sense of love---for family, for all that is Good, and increasingly for Calvin---courses through the book:
Now instead of reaching out to Calvin for safety, Meg took his hand in hers, not saying anything in words but trying to tell him by the pressure of her fingers what she felt. If anyone had told her only the day before that she, Meg, the snaggle-toothed, the myopic, the clumsy, would be taking a boy's hand to offer him comfort and strength, particularly a popular and important boy like Calvin, the idea would have been beyond her comprehension. But now it seemed as natural to want to help and protect Calvin as it did Charles Wallace.6
Like St. Exupery in The Little Prince ("That which is essential is invisible"), L'Engle makes the point repeatedly that things are not always what they seem, or what they look like: "We do not know what things look like, as you say," (Aunt) Beast said. "We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing." 7 Not only is this a truth that bears repeating, a story that brings this message home is of great comfort to any "misfit" adolescent reading it who feels that s/he just doesn't fit in.
If you missed this book while you were growing up, find a copy. It won't take long to finish, and your life will be the richer for having read it.
1 The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
2 Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time 1962; Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, ISBN 0440228395, page 31.
3ibid, pages 57-58.
4ibid, pages 81-83.
5 book review on Amazon.com; no author cited
6 L'Engle, pages 88-89.
7ibid, page 170.