I Knew Charles Wallace Should Have Stayed Home Today

Shhh, I'm reading!

Hello blog-readers, it’s me again! Don’t worry, Shannon will return you to your regularly scheduled programming soon. I had to take this opportunity to talk about one of my favourite series growing up: The Time Quintet by Madeline L’Engle, and specifically Book Two, A Wind in the Door.

THE DEFENDANT: A Wind in the Door, Madeline L’Engle

THE VERDICT: A Wind in the Door has never been challenged as a lone book, but being the second book in the series after A Wrinkle in Time, it is often included in the challenges against the entire series.

THE CHARGES: Like A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door addresses the concept of good and evil, has a female protagonist, references a Christian belief system, and contains terrible threats to the stability of young minds by talking about magic and science.

THE REVIEW:

Now, I don’t mean to underrepresent the originality of this book and this entire series, which really is striking in terms of imagery and setting, but A Wind In The Door is basically an episode of The Magic School Bus. An awesome episode, in which a class consisting of our protagonist Meg Murry, her charmingly self-effacing boyfriend Calvin, a cherubim that looks like a Koosh ball covered in eyes and wings, and a tiny aquatic mouse who is kind of a jerk, all go inside of Charles Wallace’s cells to try to save him from a fatal disease and incidentally restore balance to the universe.

L’Engle’s strengths as an author are unashamed emotion, writing families, and originality of setting, and this book showcases all three of them well. In the originality corner, A Wind in the Door blends science and mythology/religion skillfully together into something very vivid and engaging. The power of naming channeled into the discipline of scientific practice! Evil forces of entropy defeated by the power of compassion! Tiny mouse-creatures that turn into trees that enable the Krebs cycle in the human body!

(Side note: I think it’s great that the book introduces younger readers to scientific concepts that they might not have encountered before, such as mitochondria. Unfortunately for some young readers that may or may not have included present company, it pairs scientific theory so seamlessly with scientific concepts that aren’t actually real that one might find oneself reporting farandolae as fact to one’s second grade class. Maybe. Not that that happened to me or anything.)

Meg’s family is the focal point of the series, and there are some great scenes of interactions between them which come across as very natural. Small details (Meg’s mother’s nickname for her is “Megatron.” B’awww) are well-chosen to give a sense of who this family is and how they relate. Some of the dialogue is a bit strange; Meg’s twin younger brothers, Sandy and Dennys, talk in an oddly stilted way that is meant to communicate that they’re the “normal, unintelligent” ones in the family but just comes off as jarring. Their perpetual focus on food and sports as the otherworldly happens all around them is a cross between heavy-handed and hilarious. But Meg’s role as the older sister in the family informs her character in a strongly authentic way, and her mother’s personality comes through clearly despite how little time she spends “on-screen.”

Also, let’s talk for a minute about Calvin. He was present for the events in Book One, but in Book Two we really see some of the qualities that make him one of my favourite fictional boyfriends. Point one: he doesn’t try to grab the spot of protagonist away from Meg. When she needs help, he helps her, but when she doesn’t need help, he gets out of her way! Well done Calvin. Point two: he obviously thinks Meg is amazing, and not in that unspecific, generic way some romances can fall prey to. He pinpoints the things that make her unique and special and awesome, and appreciates them even when she doesn’t (Tell me honestly, is there any more romantic gesture than preserving someone’s intellectual autonomy using telepathic trigonometry?). Point three: L’Engle uses him and Meg to challenge some of the most pervasive gendered stereotypes about personality and ability. In contrast to messages that empathy and emotional literacy are inherently feminine traits, Calvin is the one who naturally and easily connects with people and seems to know exactly the best way to reach out and respect their needs even when they’re different from his own. Meg, on the other hand, is much more interested in pointing out when people are being illogical or cruel than in understanding their feelings. Neither of them is shown as being better or more virtuous because of this; it’s just a difference between them, and both are valid ways to be. I love it.

Unfortunately, there are parts of this book that didn’t hold up well on the re-read, chief among them the pacing. In a book of 211 pages, the main action/conflict of the story doesn’t start until page 93. More than half of the story is devoted to set-up or exposition, and much of it is annoyingly repetitive. As a result the climax, which is vivid and strong and ties together the themes of the book well, is also rushed. Important character moments and ideological realizations get only a sentence or two of exploration, while earlier in the book we were spending paragraphs on the vegetable garden. There are beautiful moments of self-sacrifice, and Meg has a wonderfully transcendental moment of joy in creation, but it’s 6 pages from the end and directly afterwards the book moves right into the everything-is-fine-now conclusion. There’s no time to process. I wish an editor had sat down with this novel and said, “See how slow we’re moving here, and how fast we’re moving here? Is this really what we want?”

And, while the overall message of love and teamwork and celebration of individuality is great, there’s one message in A Wind in the Door that is so far from great it’s actively upsetting. Charles Wallace, a six-year-old with accelerated reading and verbal comprehension and an interest in science, gets beat up at school on at least a weekly basis. And the reaction from his siblings, parents, doctors, teachers and basically the entire town? Yep, you asked for it, kid.

We first learn that this child is being assaulted on the fourth page of the book, and the immediate response from the older sister who loves him deeply is: “If you were talking about dragons in the garden or wherever, I suppose that explains it.” Those reactions continue through the entire novel. “Well, what did you expect, when you say weird things?” is the general consensus, and guys, that is straight-up victim-blaming. It is putting the responsibility for his own assault onto the one being assaulted, and telling him that he is the one who needs to change, not the people hurting him. In fact the benevolent teacher of the book, Blajeny, who is presented to the reader as a position of authority that we should trust in, tells Charles Wallace that what he needs to do is to learn to blend in; to adapt.

Uh, no. If the people in this novel can vanquish galactic forces of evil with their strength of will, I’m pretty sure they can handle calling up a kid’s parents and telling them “If your child hits my son again, we will press charges.” Or moving to a different school system that doesn’t accept student violence in the first grade as “the normal procedures of democracy” (what? No. That’s not…that’s not even what that means…). Anything is better than telling your own kid that it’s his fault. You know whose fault it is? The children that decided it was their social duty to, on a regular and sustained basis, beat to the point of bleeding a terminally ill six-year-old. This is not normal behavior, and the narrative’s insistence on normalizing it is disturbing.

Overall, A Wind in the Door is strikingly original, with a relatable protagonist and a compelling storyline. Aspects of characterization and narration may be hit-or-miss, but it’s certainly worth it for the sheer imagination.

THE DEFENSE: Surprisingly, I come down more on the side of censorship with this book than one might expect. It certainly belongs in libraries and schools and homes, don’t get me wrong. But if I were asked by a teacher or parent who they should and shouldn’t give this book to, I would say: do you think the kid feels like a misfit? Have they felt isolated, have they been bullied, have they been hurt because of something they said or did? If so, maybe give this one a pass and hand them Stargirl instead. Because any kid who is going to identify with Charles Wallace in this story doesn’t deserve to hear from all sides that their pain is a direct result of their personality.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

About Elliot Oberholtzer

Elliot Oberholtzer likes reading speculative fiction, satire, young adult novels, and overly academic books about myth and narrative theory. They have a particular interest in queer narratives and in books with magic and spaceships and hopefully explosions. Banning a book is a good way to make sure they read it. In the small fraction of their life that they do not spend reading they are a freelance data analyst/consultant for nonprofit organizations and small businesses, and also eat lots of pizza.

2 responses to “I Knew Charles Wallace Should Have Stayed Home Today”

  1. boundandgaggedbooks says :

    I actually just happened to watch a crime drama tonight about a girl who was getting harassed in school (and murdered, ’cause, y’know, it’s a crime drama. Luckily my school bullies only scarred me emotionally) and she was a Madeleine L’Engle fan. Weird little coincidence. Ah, the 70s, when evil children harassing you day in and day out built character (or prosecution cases in this instance). Such a simpler time.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A Year of Banned Books | Bound and Gagged - August 25, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: