Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Wrinkle in Time

When I heard a few weeks ago that author Madeleine L'Engle had passed away, I was surprised, and then saddened. Surprised, because I thought that she had already passed on; saddened, because I remembered enjoying her writing very much as a youth.

The news story about her passing mentioned that her writing highlighted her Christian faith. This peaked my interest, because I had read perhaps her two most well-known books, A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, and I did not remember any sort of religious message in either. I then decided that it was because so many years had gone by since reading those books that I did not remember such an important aspect of them, and that I ought to re-read them to see if I could learn something new from them the second time around.

Quickly finishing the book that I was already reading, I sat down and read A Wrinkle in Time. Being more of a children's novel than anything else, it took me just one evening to finish. There was no doubt about it: It was meant to frame the universal struggle between Good and Evil on a religious note.

The designation of the book as being of a 5.8 reading level almost surely stems from the novel's simple sentence structure, basic plot, and mostly transparent characters. Very few fifth graders now-a-days could understand the educated diction of some of the characters; the science that forms the premise for some of the more fantastic aspects of the fiction; the frequent references by one of the characters to proverbs from around the globe and lines by Shakespeare, Pascal, Seneca, Dante, Perez, Cervantes, Delille, Euripides, Horace, and others; or the relatively advanced vocabulary that L'Engle scatters throughout her book, such as "ephemeral", "belligerent", "inadvertently", "omnipotent", "precipitously", and others. Also advanced are the morals and lessons presented in various stages of the novel, some more subtly than others.

When I first read the book as a child, I thought that the point was to tout the scientific notions that form the basis for much of the plot, such as the "tesseract". The tesseract is the employment of the fifth dimension to move about space with ease. The best way to explain it is like this: We all know the three dimensions - a line, a square, a cube. In the novel, time comprises the fourth dimension. The fifth dimension is a little more complicated. We all know that, at least in terrestrial reality, the shortest distance between two points is the first dimension, a straight line. However, if those two points could be brought together for a moment, then no travel would be necessary. Imagine an ant walking from one end of a piece of string to the other; though a straight line would get him there more quickly than if he swerved about, wouldn't it be faster still to join the two ends of the string so that with one step the ant could go from one end to the other? Well, imagine the joining of any two points of the entire universe so that travel through it could be done with ease. The condition of having two points of the universe joined as one comprises the fifth dimension.

When I first read A Wrinkle in Time, I was fascinated by this and other scientific concepts in the book. My young mind's interest in them, and their novelty to me, blinded me to the very possibility that there was another point to the book. The fact that I was relatively uneducated in my own religion, let alone in Christianity, did not help any in this regard. However, upon re-reading the book, I could see that the science, though important to the plot and to the enjoyment of the novel, was clearly not as important as the morals. There are a variety of themes upon which L'Engle touches, ranging from religious to political; the evil society in this novel has an eerie similarity to the totalitarian one that Lois Lowry depicts in her masterpiece, The Giver. However, the main theme that the author seeks to emphasize is that the importance of a just faith in G-d, and the struggle between Good and Evil, are truly universal. Mankind has been caught in the thick of this struggle since our arrival on the scene, and L'Engle stresses the importance of remaining vigilantly on the side of Good, even when it seems futile, because the struggle is very real, ever ongoing, and never hopeless.

When I put the book down after re-reading it, and while thinking about it soon afterwards, I was less-than-impressed. Though a wonderful thinker, L'Engle was hardly a great writer - not bad, not too good. However, as I think about it more and more, and as I write this review, I realize that there is something striking about A Wrinkle in Time. It is no Narnia, but it definitely deserves a place next to Maestro Lewis on the shelf. The writing may not have been terribly sophisticated, but it was good enough that this discerning and capricious reader did not put it down until the book had been finished from cover to cover. Furthermore, the writing hardly did L'Engle's ideas justice. In considering this, I am reminded of a favorite concept of mine, that language is the dress of thought. Sometimes, a woman's beauty is obscured by awkward make-up and ill-fitting clothing. Similarly, the philosophy and concepts that L'Engle seeks to expound are of high caliber, but she dresses them in the simplest language, making it all the more difficult to appreciate their importance and complexity.

All in all, I would recommend this book to parents who wish to offer their children (ages 12-14, in my estimation) good, wholesome reading. It is the sort of book that a child can read alone or together with a parent. Also, I would recommend this book to older or more sophisticated readers who would like a break from adult writing, if not from adult topics - in other words, if you would like a good book that will not put you to sleep with its academic language, then A Wrinkle in Time will provide you with a good couple of days of reading. Finally, given the universality of its messages, I would recommend the book to anyone of any age who enjoys an intelligent exploration of moral and/or religious themes.