Madeleine L’Engle‘s Kairos Novels

This Library of America collection includes the eight novels most readily associated with L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, including that book itself. These are divided in this instance into two smart little volumes, The Wrinkle in Time Quartet and The Polly O’Keefe Quartet. What sets the Library of America editions apart is a wealth of new and, relatively, lesser known material. The new appendices added to these volumes are fascinating, and Leonard S. Marcus has outdone himself in the notes, chronologies and added details to expand upon the texts. Indeed, in addition to listing the source texts for each volume, there are a number of notes about other important printings, as well as the occasional correction made in comparison to whichever printing was the primary source. Chronologies of the books, and of L’Engle’s life, are included as additional aids, and for a scholar these little details, even when they can be found elsewhere, are invaluable sources of understanding. Frankly, Marcus has gone to enough detail that had these comments been interspersed with the text proper, such comments as page 836’s 16.3 “A saying thought to have its origins in a proverb by the Cistercian abbot Saint Bernard of Clairvaux…” and the like would make it feel like a fully annotated volume, something a reader is thoroughly tempted to make use of if given the chance.

In addition to the editor’s meticulous notes, there is a lot of material from Madeleine L’Engle herself, including a number of articles, speeches, and other pieces. These include well known works as well as some forgotten pieces. In The Wrinkle In Time Quartet one such piece is L’Engle’s Newbury acceptance speech, “The Expanding Universe”, which features the author starting on the perplexing situation she, as an author of fiction, finds herself in when writing something more directly factual. Her passion is evident, as well as her unique relationship to the written word and beliefs regarding writing. I appreciated having a chance to read a speech I’d heard stories about from teachers and other authors from time to time, and think that its inclusion here, is beyond appropriate.

In The Polly O’Keefe Quartet the piece easiest to highlight among the extra material is “How Long is a Book”, a piece that even the editor of the collection finds difficult to place an exact date on, and it is a piece that speaks of talent, gifts, and books, and the complicated process of writing. It’s a fascinating little piece in its own right, particularly coming from an author who produced a fair body of respected work. Indeed the woman notes that “I’ll write a book….is always my way out of a problem.” While not the most philosophically charged set of words, they do speak to the authorial mindset better than many.

Overall, the new information in these volumes is quite appreciated, with appendixes of deleted material, further speeches, previously unpublished essays, and other forgotten fragments nestled at the end of each volume, and are very welcome to a reader of the fantastic, or of L’Engle’s work specifically.

As to the books within each volume, the interesting tale in The Wrinkle in Time Quartet is the one that seems most unusual in relation to the others. The book about a world on the brink of nuclear war due to an unstable world leader seemed appropriate. That volume is A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and it represents an interesting turn in L’Engle’s work. If I am honest, while I’ve always admired her themes and prose, this book has always interested me in the way it pushes elements that just didn’t’ work, or elements that seemed so alien to her work, to the forefront.

I will note on the Wrinkle in Time series that the books focus on one odd individual, Charles Wallace. He is not odd because he is young and insists on his full name, nor because he is intelligent and off-putting. No. I can sympathize with many of these things, and have seen them in enough other people that even if odd this would be entirely reasonable to me. Instead he’s odd because no matter how many wonderful, gloriously good books I read featuring the character, I find myself wishing I was reading about almost any other figure in the book. It’s as though someone made a protagonist out of Styrofoam. He’s there, he fills space, but he’s uninteresting and probably not worth my time, all told, save that items of actual interest are held in place by him. This does not change in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, though Gaudior, his unicorn guide through much of the novel, is a more interesting character if only for his alien nature.

Chapter 4 was interesting for the trading of information between a man of European descent and a man of more “New world’ Native or First Peoples heritage, both in a distant past where it was something very much akin to a first meeting between them. It’s interesting, we see two people exchanging ideas, and while the European individual has something to do, it creates an interesting look at the world around.

From here it leads to the brother against brother element, and the attempt to pull the world into a clear moral focus. The result is instead that the lost brother, in addition to being of darker skin and hair and eye than his sibling, is cartoonishly evil, training those on the other side of a lake to be warlike and demanding his sibling’s wife as a form of payment. While such instances as using women as traded pieces of status certainly existed, the overall impression of this goes from a story that is looking at the long term development of a world, and the use of this setup makes the reader roll their eyes instead. Rather than having attempted to flee evil in one form or another, now “Mad Dog” simply has an ancestor who was a monster, and that’s the only reason he has for being evil. It’s a completely ridiculous setup, and even the flat good vs. evil elements of any of L’Engle’s other stories could do better than this presentation.

Further, the use of the darker brother physically as evil would not, in and of itself, be particularly disturbing, but it does raise questions in connection with the fact he’s depicted as the end-all-be-all of genetic evil. One has a hard time not noticing that in terms of hair, skin, and eyes, there is a dangerous move towards the blonde haired blue eyed ideal of many racists. Meanwhile the “evil” one is Gwydyr, a man who’s described as dark skinned repeatedly throughout the story, and given this over the top evil personality, to the point one honestly expects him to grow a mustache solely to twirl it.

This subtext was likely unintentional, but it is extremely hard to avoid seeing. Further, given that Charles Wallace spends this whole book subverting a number of individual people’s free will, the only difference between his forceful actions and those of Gwydyr seem to be that one, they use magic, and two, they’re performed by a slightly more traditionally “white” individual and therefore must, under some bizarre bit of logic, be better. True, there is the ultimate result, namely the prevention of a likely nuclear Holocaust, but I cannot help but note that aside from brief visions of a future that might be, one never actually sees “Mad Dogc” cause the horrific event in question, and as a result I can’t separate it from any of the dozens of other near-doomsday events regarding nuclear standoffs.

From The Polly O’Keefe Quartet, while The Arm of the Starfish is the most famous, Dragons in the Waters features Polly O’Keefe and her brother Charles, as well as a mix of other members of the family in question, heading on a trip back to South America to learn a little something about oil damaging the environment, only for that little detail to barely enter play.

Dragons in the Waters begins with a young man named Simon leaving home, and meeting Polly and her brother Charles. It also features the O’Keefes helping the young man on his first journey away from home, to give up a family heirloom, and Charles’ steady feelings that something beyond a little wrong is happening, which is quickly proven as the heirloom, a painting of Simon Bolivar, is stolen. This complication deepens as the painting’s newest owner, a man claiming to be a cousin of the young Simon, is found dead shortly thereafter, on a ship travelling south, with a very limited group of people. There was a possibility that a reader could see tragedy coming, but what does occur is not quite what one would expect, even factoring in the early incidents.

Anti-racism is a major theme of the book, down to flashbacks in the form of journal entries where a man who is still somewhat racist looks at how wrong it is leaving behind a mixed race child and the woman he had the boy with, despite being normal practice at the time. He frets a good deal about this, but ultimately does more or less exactly that and the reader is left to realize this was a poor decision. It’s an odd detail, and the use of a native population has the reader a little worried in relation to depiction, whether a fictional tribe or an actual one the odds of a good depiction of a native group are necessarily of concern.

At the same time, this is the volume that includes page 298’s literal use of a group of natives “waiting for a young white savior” and being unfriendly to outsiders. The latter is understandable in light of what they’ve seen before, and given the group is described as relatively unchanged, expected. The former, however, is a phrase that has become synonymous with a type of problematic racial storytelling, and as such brings to mind the issues that A Swiftly Tilting Planet ran into. However even from these statements some clever subversion comes into place. Almost immediately after, we meet people descended partly, and quite recently, from this allegedly insular tribe, proving that the white woman’s assumptions are clearly not accurate. This is well timed from a general or current day reader’s point of view, deflating some of the concerns about stereotypes, although the idea of the “noble savage” is at least a little uncomfortably close, given that the ending of this story features a relatively modern bit comparable to someone, as the saying goes, going native.

This particular volume in the O’Keefe series is fascinating in part for the fact that while the reader is given consistent suggestion of the supernatural, from visions that seem almost real to prophecies to dreams with special significance, there is almost nothing of it that cannot be explained through mundane means. There is a boy who is taken as the fulfillment of a prophecy, but he is considered so due to his resemblance to an ancestor, something that is all but unheard of. There are a number of people who have visions and premonitions, but these amount to little more than the classical “gut” feeling that one can experience. While a number of coincidences are needed to make this story hold up without supernatural elements, it works surprisingly well in the mind in such a fashion, and in that respect makes it interesting as a part of a well known and highly celebrated series of fantasy novels.

Madeleine L’Engle is iconic, and The Kairos Novels is a set of staple YA fiction novels, and of fantasy fiction in general. These stories are placed into the kind of brilliant package I have come to expect from The Library of America. The stories are as evocative as one remembers, and the ways they have aged even prove to make them fascinating reading. The editing is superb, with Leonard S. Marcus being an excellent editor who put material relating to the fiction and the author into a package that, thanks to design work by Kimberly Glyder, is sure to make the reader unlikely to find a better copy of these books. The Library of America’s The Kairos Novels is brilliant as a package, containing brilliant books that remain interesting even when they aren’t exactly perfect. There is no better presentation of the stories within that I am aware of, and the added material greatly increases appreciation of the author and her work. This set is thoroughly recommended.

(Library of America, 2018)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.