A Wrinkle in Our Moral Fabric
THE DEFENDANT: A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
THE VERDICT: A Wrinkle in Time came in at #23 on the ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-1999 and #90 from 2000-2009. The award-winning classic has been the subject of numerous challenges, attracted the attention of various groups taking issue with the material, and nearly wasn’t published.
THE CHARGES: A Wrinkle in Time seems to have something to offend everyone. To start, according to Banned Books Awareness, the book was rejected by no less than 26 publishers for tackling evil, a concept deemed to difficult for children; having a strong heroine before female leads were commonplace; and confusion over just what age demographic the book was targeting.
Since it’s publication, A Wrinkle in Time has drawn generations of fans, both young and old. It has also been decried by all manner of opposition. Issues with the book include but are not limited to: a pro-communist stance; Christian content; anti-Christian content; liberalism; “Satanic undertones”; coarse language; and all manner of issues witchcraft, black magic, paranormal content, Hinduism, Buddhism, and New Age/Eastern philosophy (see above link).
THE REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time is a YA speculative fiction adventure that mixes magic, quantum physics, and political/philosophical commentary. Meg Murry, a smart but misunderstood girl, is upset after the disappearance of her father and her increasing disillusionment with adults, public education, and figures of authority. Meanwhile, Meg’s brother, Charles Wallace (who likely has what we might now refer to as Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum Disorder), befriends three strange women, Mrs Who, Mrs Whatsit, and Mrs Which. The three women are revealed to have some knowledge of the whereabouts of Meg’s father, causing Meg, Charles Wallace, and local jock Calvin O’Keefe to go on an interplanetary adventure to recover him.
A Wrinkle in Time is the first in the Time Quartet (or, more accurately, Quintet as there are five), which tells the further adventures of the Murry family as they witness Biblical floods, circumvent nuclear holocausts, and encounter Druids. However, this review will only deal with the first book. I’ll leave tackling the others for another day.
The much-beloved classic is a staple of both summer reading and school curricula. In addition to this being one of my mother’s favorite books, I was assigned to the A Wrinkle in Time reading group while serving as a Classroom Volunteer/Writing Tutor at a private elementary school. I know firsthand what an excellent teaching tool it can be, whether to encourage literacy, develop critical thinking skills, or facilitate discussions where students both engage with the text and use it as an opportunity to explore real world issues.
The story is a heartfelt one that stresses family, love, loyalty, courage, intelligence, and thinking for yourself. It begins with the relatable struggles of a young girl dealing with problems at school and in her family, then takes the reader on a fantastic journey to worlds and ways of being vastly different from our own, and wraps up with a sort of kid’s 1984, all without ever losing its grounding in well-written characters and genuine feelings.
Thus, fans of children’s classics, YA, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Dystopian Literature alike can all find something to enjoy in this perennial favorite that redefined genre and expectation. Though it may seem standard and safe now, when it first hit the shelves (and the query letters), A Wrinkle in Time, like Meg, was a misunderstood misfit. Yet, by refusing to conform and marching to the beat of its own drummer, it is now recognized for its brilliance and creativity.
If the groups protesting her book are to be believed, L’Engle is simultaneously too Christian, anti-Christian, pushing Christianity, spreading liberal Christianity, attacking Christ, questioning God, and indoctrinating kids into Eastern philosophy and witchcraft/black via New Age and Eastern religions. Once again, I turn to YouTube’s Alex Day to sum up L’Engle’s predicament. To start, astral projection, psychics, and other magic opponents have taken issue with are staples of the genre(s). They are purely secular in this novel, so I have no idea where they’re getting the New Age/Eastern philosophy/Hinduism/Buddhism idea and not sure why it would be a problem even if the novel did contain these ideologies/worldviews.
Anything that could qualify as witchcraft is explained as science (with a dash of Jesus), so I’m not even going to get into that. Mrs Which, Mrs Whatsit, and Mrs Who serve as the archetypal crone magical aid, but they are neither witches, nor women for that matter, and they have a benevolent worldview that is either Judeo-Christian-friendly for the benefit of the children’s understanding or just Judeo-Christian. In fact, this book is purported by some religious groups as one of the best Christian books for kids. Take the win, guys. Unless it’s women practicing science that’s the issue here, since the non-gendered beings appear as women and Mrs Murry is a brilliant scientist herself. I like to think this is not the case, but it’s entirely likely.
Also, let’s get one thing clear: L’Engle is Christian. She worked for a Christian organization. She references Jesus. Her Light vs. Darkness/Good vs. Evil dichotomy is hardly foreign to Christian readers. Yes, Jesus is mentioned in the company of other worldly philosophers, artists, and men of peace when the children give examples of people who brought light to the darkness ever-encroaching upon the universe. However, this is far from an attack of Christianity and in no way denies God or questions the divinity of Christ. It places him as a prime example of light and benevolence in the fight against evil (and the first thing that springs to the children’s mind), hardly a notion incompatible with Christianity. In addition, Bible quotes and allusions are peppered throughout. Anyone who honestly thinks this book is offensive to Christianity, or even neutral to Christianity, is either extremely sheltered or incredibly paranoid.
So is it too Christian? While the other books in the series do become increasingly religious, this first novel is perfectly acceptable in a secular school environment. It is clearly written from a Christian perspective, but it does remain accessible to non-Christian readers, as L’Engle wished it to. Many classics are written from such a perspective or contain Christian allusions and ideologies, so it is better (and far less of a headache) to address the book in its cultural context as it is relevant, rather than relegate all such books to private, religiously affiliated schools. After all, addressing and contextualizing the books we read has proven a far more effective method than avoiding anything that could be controversial.
Some have likened L’Engle to C. S. Lewis due to the Christian tone of her speculative adventure. However, I feel this is an unfair comparison. Lewis actively pushes Christianity at the expense of and by demonizing other religions and peoples. His books contain overt Christian messages that give disastrous consequences for incorrect behaviour, pushing the punishment/test aspects of Christianity that many, including some Christians, may find uncomfortable, alienating, or inappropriate (particularly in a classroom setting).
L’Engle on the other hand, though operating under Christian concepts, leaves her book and its morals fairly non-denominational. Perhaps Jesus is an awesome, divine being, perhaps the children use him as an example because they think he is. Similarly, the struggle between the light and the dark can be read as Christian, but can also be interpreted as a generic good vs. evil struggle that is fairly universal in 20th century Fantasy, as well as many world religions. Therefore, I think everyone screaming about the religious issues of the book all need to step back, take a breath, and take the book for what it is: a benign fantasy/sci-fi adventure with a message of love, friendship, family, and hope. I should hope any reader could get on board with those morals.
I honestly have no idea where the “pro-communist” assertion is coming from, since the whole thing on Camazotz with IT is blatant political commentary, decrying communism and fascism alike. The political aspects of this book as far from ambiguous, as seen in the not-so subtle “Alike and equal aren’t the same thing at all!” Meg even clings to the Declaration of Independence in her attempts to keep from IT’s mind control.
Some may think dystopian political commentary is too mature for a children’s book, but it’s practically a requirement in genre fiction. Genocide, tyranny, oppression, dictatorships, and all manner of corrupt or dystopian world orders run rampant in everything from Harry Potter to The Wizard of Oz to Avatar: The Last Airbender to The Hunger Games to Eragon (itself distilled from the lifeblood of a thousand fantasy novels). Many children’s books with realworld settings carry similar themes, though often with a parent, legal guardian, or headmaster serving as the authoritarian figure in place of an actual government.
Which brings us to the real issue at hand. A struggle between good and evil is in no way too complex for kids and exists in countless books they’ve already read. However, A Wrinkle in Time does not decry communism or fascism because COMMUNISM IS BAD, but because blind obedience to authority or the statues quo are dangerous and counterproductive to both the society and individual. This idea, that people (especially children) should think for themselves, has always scared people. It likely always will. It’s why people ban books in the first place.
A Wrinkle in Time does not just tell kids to stick it to authority for shits and giggles, but rather points out that not all adults are infallible or know what’s best. For example, the Mrs Ws, the Drs. Murry, and Aunt Beast serve as benevolent authority figures that it would be wise to listen to, while the science teacher who doesn’t know much about science, Mrs. O’Keefe, and IT are neither benevolent nor wise.
This book encourages children to think for themselves; be cautious before believing or trusting in something implicitly; and stand up for what is right, even if it means standing up to those in power. I think all of these are important lessons that raise thoughtful, critical thinkers. Furthermore, one of my favorite parts was the scathing commentary on how formal schooling sometimes getting in the way of education, such as in the case of Charles Wallace, who is dismissed as stupid for not talking when he is actually brilliant, or Meg, who doesn’t do well in school even though she is smarter than the other kids but just doesn’t do things the same way.
However, as much as A Wrinkle in Time values intelligence, it also shows that even intelligent people can be led astray by charismatic people, manipulation, or flattery. IT succeeds in controlling Charles Wallace after treating the long-undervalued and ostracized child as special and smart. Finally receiving validation for his gifts, Charles Wallace is all too happy to be taken in and even Meg struggles not to give in to IT when he twists her words and makes arguments she finds all too compelling. Thus, it is not enough to be smart, but one must be wise and careful.
The idea that evil can make a valid point is something I have long loved to see in literature but that may unsettle those wishing for a more black and white morality (though having your villain be called The Black Thing is pretty black and white already). Yet corrupt authority figures and governments have long relied on the assistance of good people who think they’re doing the right thing. Thus, this is a valuable lesson to learn.
This book shifts both responsibility and agency onto people who often serve as passive characters in literature, with children and women getting most of the heroing done themselves. The Mrs Ws must rely on children, Calvin is entirely out of his element and relies on Meg, etc. Meg’s father and Charles Wallace are brilliant but are the ones in distress and require Meg to save them, a rather radical change from the status quo for a book published in the early 60s.
I, for one, applaud this, as Meg not only serves as a strong heroine herself but paved the way for countless others to come. L’Engle deserves similar praise. She was a woman writing genre fiction in a time when very few did. Even today the glass ceiling remains in place, if vaulted. However, unlike legendary fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle did not try to break into the boys’ club by imitating their sexism.
As for the objection to coarse language, I don’t recall any cursing or swearing in the book. If there was, it obviously wasn’t that big of a deal, especially over fifty years later. The only objectionable term I recall is “gyp”. While those more familiar with the American spelling “jip” may not be aware, the term “gyp”, used to describe being swindled or cheated, is a derogatory term, referring to Romani Gypsy stereotypes. However, the term is used by Sandy and Dennys, young boys who are not above inappropriate language or meatheadedness. I think this is also best addressed with historical and cultural context, much like the racially loaded language in one of the all-time most censored books in American Literature, Tom Sawyer.
In the end, A Wrinkle in Time is a ground-breaking and imagination-fueling classic that has inspired many a young person to become a writer or lifelong reader. It will no doubt continue to withstand the test of time.