A Swiftly Derailing Story
Hi, folks. So, I was almost done with this review, but then when I went back to finish it, all of my work from the day before had vanished, despite me saving it multiple times. Alack the day! So, here is my second attempt at writing this thing. I blame the Echthroi. They clearly don’t want me remembering what “Might Have Been Written”.
THE DEFENDANT: A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L’Engle
THE VERDICT: A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the third book in the Time Quartet/Time Quintet series, which is a frequent subject of book challenges and has long attracted scrutiny or outrage from a variety of groups.
THE CHARGES: The main issues with the series center around its religious and fantastic content, either because it is too Christian or because its supernatural content and Eastern-influenced philosophical concepts offended some Christian religious groups. Other issues include the use of a female protagonist; its mixture of science and religion; and the struggle of good versus evil, which some deem to complex for young readers.
THE REVIEW: A Swiftly Tilting Planet returns us to our beloved Murry family just as they’re about to have a Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone one is there–the Drs. Murry, a pregnant Meg, Sandy and Dennys back from law and med school, a fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace, and even a bitter Mrs. O’Keefe–, save for Calvin, who is off giving a lecture at some medical conference.
Just before dinner, Dr. Murry gets a call from the president about imminent nuclear war. It seems Mad Dog Branzillo, the dictator of a fictional South American country called Vespugia, has decided to ensure their mutually assured destruction.
After a suddenly important Mrs. O’Keefe has an Irish Catholic style break with reality, Charles Wallace is charged with preventing the apocalypse. With the help of a unicorn named Gaudior, he sets out on a journey through time in an attempt to change what “Might Have Been” and avert disaster.
While it’s great to see the Murrys again, their level of high-achieving intellectualism has become more caricatured than character-building. Between the Nobel Prize, the presidential advising, and the fact that everyone of age has or is working towards an advanced degree is a bit much. Surely one of the children is either an average joe with no noteworthy accomplishments or a drug addict with a unicorn ass tat.
In an uncomfortable reminder of when these books were written, Meg and her mother are known as Mrs. O’Keefe and Mrs. Murry. One might have thought that after two doctorates and a Nobel Prize Mrs. Murry would have earned the right to be Dr. Murry by now, but alas. (Also, can I just point out how irresponsible it is that she does her cooking in the lab? That risks both compromising her results and killing her children.)
However, the class tensions between Mrs. O’Keefe and her son’s new family and shiny new degree add a welcome depth to a familiar character. This tension is further driven home when Mrs. O’Keefe’s childhood unfolds. Here we see a family not so unlike the Murrys. In fact, in what is either lazy writing or brilliant commentary, Beezie (Mrs. Branwen O’Keefe) and her brother, Chuck, are nigh on interchangeable with Meg and Charles Wallace.
This implies that the difference between the “O’Keefe losers” and the overachieving Murrys is due to inequality of opportunity not because the Murrys are inherently better or more intelligent. Yes, Calvin is able to break free and make a better life for himself, but clearly the O’Keefe’s destitution and dysfunction is not solely out of a lack of ambition, desire, or work ethic.
This storyline also does a brilliant job of showing why women settle for undesirable or abusive men, especially in a time before Mrs. Murry could get a doctorate, let alone be addressed by the honorific she deserves. Beezie’s mother marries Mr. Mortmain to avoid losing the house and the children. Meanwhile Beezie, who earlier stated she wanted nothing to do with the lowlife Patrick O’Keefe, winds up marrying him.
All we get is the moment he offers her protection if Mortmain gives her trouble. The rest is history. This scene was perhaps the strongest in the whole novel, at least for me, as you see what’s going to happen. You know it won’t end well and you want it to go differently, but, like Beezie, you know its inevitable and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
But enough about the Murrys. On to the actual story. I have complex feelings about this book. Perhaps I should explain things a bit. When I was a kid my mom read the Time Quartet with my brother. I didn’t like to be left out and so would try to read over their shoulders. However, I was a slower reader and wasn’t always around, which meant I read about 3/4 of some of the pages of A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters more than a decade before I first read A Wrinkle in Time.
Thus, reading this book was less of a literary endeavor than an attempt to fill in the gaps of my fragmented childhood memories and finally make sense of the whole Zillie/Zilla/Branzillo madness I had only gotten bits of. This is rather apropos for a story about unraveling global and family histories lost to time. Between this and L’Engle’s ability to write compelling characters, I kept wanting to read more. However, I became increasingly frustrated the further I read.
I love intergenerational sagas, be it Holes, The Namesake, or Chronicles of the Cheysuli. I have always been a fan of pivotal moments in history, divergent timelines, personal moments that shape world events in unforeseen ways, and ancestral memory/genetic memory/past life regression. By all accounts, I should love this book. Yet what sounds fascinating on paper quickly veered into strange directions and sloppy storytelling.
For starters, I get the whole parallel stories and cyclical events/history repeats itself thing, but does every generation have to have a similar set of characters with the exact same names? If I see one more Madoc/Maddok/Maddox/Madog/Mad Dog, Bran/Brandon/Branwen/Branzillo, Zyll/Zylle/Zilla/Zillie, Chuck/Charles, Gwen/Gwydyr/Gedder, or Ritchie/Rich/Richard, I’m going to snap. Was L’Engle just really into etymology when she wrote this or did she honestly not think the readers would get it.
Then there’s the fact that each generation’s set of characters looks exactly alike, adding insult to unnecessary repetition. They’re related, we get it. We’d get it without them being carbon copies with the same names. And we’d get it without the characters exclaiming, ‘Gee! There must be some connection between Zyll and Zylle!’ a hundred and some odd pages into the book.
The strength of A Wrinkle in Time was in its intelligent writing that did not condescend to young readers. Given this, it was disappointing to see this book doing exactly that.
The novel by Beezie’s ancestor is also a weak bit of exposition and plot point dumping. As is the fact that everyone is weirdly knowledgable about their family history. Assuming that one family would, in fact, emigrate to the exact same small town three separate occasions, the family should not be this well-informed about it, about their specific ancestors, and about the geography of the area centuries before they arrived,.
I have my genealogy traced back to 1506 and have nowhere near this level of detail, let alone accurate, embellished detail. It beggars belief and just makes the story seem more expository and condescending towards its reader (we’d get that it was the same town even if every generation didn’t mention the lake that hasn’t existed since before Columbus).
This is most noticeable in Beezie’s grandmother. This woman is allegedly from Ireland, but because she has one Welsh great-great-someodd-grandmother however many generations back, knows that she’s actually from British stock. 1) No nationality exists in a vacuum; there was plenty of emigration, immigration, and exchange going on at any given point in history. 2) No Irish person talks like this. Ever. 3) I have some French ancestry about five centuries back; you don’t see me walking around saying how I’m really French and every generation since then is null and void.
The similar appearances, particularly of the women in the family cause similar problems. Awesome, you have a Native American ancestor several centuries back. So does 2% of the population of England. You don’t see them running around discussing their super attractive kinswoman with her cheekbones and her straight, shiny black hair and how she looks SO very Native American. This is not how genetics works. This is not how you science.
The whole thing with Gwydyr is beyond ridiculous. Madog Branzillo should not look or act like either Madoc or Gwydyr, regardless of which Zill* Bran marries. Facial features, eye color, and a desperate hunger for all mankind to worship you like the god among men you are are not inherited every single generation for a thousand years. It also makes human morality less of a choice to do the right thing than a question of never interbreeding with anyone descended from that one Welshman. His line is tainted forever. There is no redemption.
This theme, along with the constant references to blue eyes and Zyll/Zylle/Zilla/Zillie’s beauty start to wander into the uncomfortable territory of physiognomy, exoticism, and just what kind of exogamy is allowed. There is an implication that intermarriage with Native Americans is cool, so long as it’s only with native women. Choosing the blue-eyed Zilla from the good Welsh/Native line over the brown-eyed Zillie from the bad Welsh/Native line in order to avoid producing a cursed line of tyrant babies did not help this.
I’m sure Madeleine L’Engle did not intend this message, given impassioned pleas for tolerance and peace between cultures elsewhere in the book, but it is there nonetheless. It’s a bit like Green Lantern/Green Arrow. What was likely once intended as a progressive stance seems problematic today. I tried to put these issues in the context of when this book was written, but I will admit that it made me increasingly uncomfortable as the book went on.
The positive stereotype of Native Americans being more spiritually pure or serving as vestiges of an older mode of existence that is primitive yet less corrupt is also present. Whether or not this is uncomfortable is up to the reader, but it does make for some heavy-handed moralizing when everyone keens for a younger age before the world was corrupted and has the exact same term for “the old music” that once held the world together. It’s like L’Engle discovered that Native Americans and Vedic Hinduism existed and ran with it. Although, to be fair, it was the 70s. L’Engle was hardly the only one.
And what is up with the identical Mortmains? Are the Mortmains just licentious jerks for all time with no hope for change or improvement at all? Are they so bound and determined to marry into this family that they will bide their time across the centuries to do so?
This whole family saga is more than a bit incestuous. Maybe it’s not Gwydyr’s doomed line that causes Mad Dog Branzillo. Maybe it’s the fact that these people keep marrying their distant cousins in order to create a brood of doppelgangers with no genetic variation. Learn from the Targaryens mistakes there, guys.
In addition to some convoluted time travel, I was not as much of a fan of the other fantastic elements in this book as I was with A Wrinkle in Time. I found Gaudior annoying. His irritation at Charles Wallace for asking questions and being curious seemed to undo the message of the first book that questioning authority is good and needed. However, the witch trial does help mitigate this somewhat, as questioning blind allegiance and corruption masquerading as faith is a moral imperative there.
I’m also not a great lover of fantastic elements that rely on unexplained surrealism or a condescending superiority to humans. And what gives Gaudior such a sense of superiority? If he and the Mrs Ws and all the other superior lifeforms out there are so much better than we barbaric, violent, irrational humans, why do they always need a couple of school kids to solve their problems and uphold the fabric of the universe?
In the end this is one of those books that had some intriguing ideas that were better in concept than in execution. Problematic elements, stilted dialogue, and awkward exposition make this installment a weak link in a much beloved series. However, fans of L’Engle or the Murrys will likely still find it worth the read.
Even with all my qualms, I still found it enjoyable and was invested in unraveling the puzzle (convoluted as it was), as well as the storyline with Meg and Ananda. If only there’d been a little more grounding in the well-written characters and settings and a little less wandering off contemplating philosphical concepts thatwould benefit from a dash of subtlety.
THE DEFENSE: Anyone who objects to a female protagonists can get out of my library right now. Besides, the women in this book are largely confined to domestic spheres, more so than they were in A Wrinkle in Time. There a brief mentions to it being neat that the Vespugians treat women like equals, but if this is a radical idea to you, get out of my library, or any library. It will only upset you.
Any concerns over this book being too complex for children should be moot at this point, either because of my aforementioned objections to the book’s assumption that its readers are slow in figuring things out or because YA is a much established genre/reading level now than it was when this book came out. The morality in this book is not exactly complex either.
As for the religion issues, this book is more overtly Christian than the comparatively nondenominational A Wrinkle in Time. However, I was not raised Christian and I didn’t find it too alienating, though perhaps I may have in my teen years when I was more sensitive to people pushing Judeo-Christian worldviews as the default or correct option.
However, L’Engle’s brand of Christianity is a bit Shaker, in that it seems to be a path to spirituality, morality, and the love that holds the universe together rather than the one, definite path.
This is best shown in the scene where the crazy witchhunter accuses Zylle of not being a Christian. She has converted after marrying a white man, but insists her tribe’s beliefs are not irreconcilable or at odds with Christianity, saying that Jesus sang “the old music”. This implies that Jesus was an enlightened person more in tune with how things should be and once were, leaving the option for other people of other faiths to have that same understanding despite different paths to it.
L’Engle also points out the potential for corruption within Christianity and denounces the madness and extremism that led to the Witch Trials. There’s also a bit of a pagan leaning in Patrick’s Rune and some Vedic concepts floating around. This book does not shy from its author’s religious beliefs, which seem to be a benevolent, love-centric Christianity that sees commonality and shared purpose in other religions, even if it insists on contextualizing them in its old worldview.
Anyone who complains that this book is not Christian enough should also never set foot in a library. This will be the least upsetting thing they will find there. The Eastern influences do not mitigate the overt Christian beliefs in this book. The only reason I can find for a Christian to get offended is either because they dislike L’Engle’s respect for other religions that jive with hers or they are on board with witch burnings and are upset that L’Engle critiqued it.
Either way, address your issues and deal with them yourself. Not every book has to be 100% in line with all of your beliefs and this is a very Christian book so stop complaining and take the win. If the potential for other religions to have some validity so offends you, your problems extend far beyond this book.
Others may have their own feelings on the matter, but I think this book should be accessible in the library, though is not appropriate for a secular classroom curriculum. Unless of course your class is specifically looking at novels that use religious themes or framework, Christian fiction, religion in sci-fi/fantasy, banned books, or some other relevant subject that would place this book in an objective context.