Redux: Tesser Well

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When I first published this post, my daughter was six. Now, she’s eight-going-on-nine, and halfway through the Harry Potter series. But on dark and stormy nights, winter or summer, she still feels the pull of A Wrinkle in Time—and I do, too.

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It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

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The opening lines of the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time are never all that far from my mind. As a kid, I loved the book so much that given the chance, I would have crawled inside it and stayed. And this time of year—especially at night, when the wind is blowing and branches are scratching across the windows—I often think of Madeleine L’Engle’s archly purple curtain-raiser and its creepy, cozy promise.

Snuggle in, it says, and listen.

A Wrinkle in Time influenced me more than any single book should have. I didn’t so much as identify with its main character—nerdy, stubborn, flawed Meg—as gradually grow to resemble her. Calvin, Meg’s nascent love interest, was probably my first crush. (Well, it was either Calvin or MacGyver. Which explains a lot.) Madeleine L’Engle and her characters encouraged my appreciation for science and scientists—and my tendency to wander off, unsupervised, to other planets.

A Wrinkle in Time has always had its detractors, young readers who find it boring, or unbelievable, or annoying. But many more boys and girls dive in deep, as I did, and remember it as adults with a kind of desperate fondness.

Maybe those of us who love it think it still needs protecting. For Wrinkle, like its protagonist, is a very odd duck. Leonard Marcus, who interviewed many of L’Engle’s friends and colleagues for his book Listening for Madeleine, calls it an “aggressively unorthodox mongrelization of the genres of realism, science fiction, quest fantasy, and religious allegory.” The book was particularly unorthodox in the 1950s, when L’Engle was looking for a publisher. Realism ruled children’s literature, and science fiction and fantasy were suspect: a story about a group of kids who “tessered” through time and space was too B-movie for the literary world. The book’s religious overtones made publishers nervous (and with good reason: Wrinkle and its sequels are still criticized, and sometimes banned, for being both too Christian and not Christian enough).

L’Engle, in later years, gleefully turned the story of Wrinkle’s beginnings into a sort of creation myth. Maybe it was rejected 25 times—or was it 35? Maybe publisher John Farrar, who finally gave the story a home, really did pluck the manuscript off a pew in Manhattan’s Church of the Resurrection. Suffice to say that the book, like Meg, had to fight for a place in the world. But once it arrived, it was embraced. It won the Newbery Medal in 1963, and immediately entranced the first of its generations of fans. Children’s author Trish Marx remembers:

We did a tremendous amount of reading in our house, and when A Wrinkle in Time came out, it hit us like a bomb…it was science fiction, not realistic fiction in the usual sense, and yet it was infused with the most realistic emotion. Ordinarily, I didn’t enjoy science fiction, and I would not have chosen the book on my own. But there was something about the way she had put it all together: the combination of realistic emotion beautifully described and the theme of time travel, and the other world of possibilities she had created.

Today, as an adult, I can see the imperfections in A Wrinkle in Time. It’s often wordy, and in places its purple prose is not knowingly so. I could do without its Christian imagery, and I’ve got some issues with its gender roles (but the latter, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be fixed). In some ways, the recent graphic-novel adaptation by Hope Larson improves upon the original, freeing the story from its weightiest descriptions while remaining faithful to its action and dialogue.

And still. A Wrinkle in Time is still a terrific story of escape and adventure and fabulous winged creatures that, in the end, comes down on the side of responsibility and love. L’Engle was a bit of an odd duck herself—unlike her college classmate Betty Friedan, she emphatically avoided most mass movements—and Wrinkle still speaks to those of us who like to wander off, applauding our curiosity while gently reminding us that we do, in fact, have a place on earth. When L’Engle met her young readers, she often signed her books with the inscription “Tesser Well.” I like to think she meant: Go. Go, but don’t forget to come back.

So far, my six-year-old daughter and I have read the graphic novel twice. Just the other night, she asked if we could start it again. Snuggle in, I said, and listen.

Photo by Flickr user John Brian Silverio. Creative Commons.

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