Many Waters, Little To No Research

Unofficial subtitle: Flannel in the Desert, and Other Bad Ideas

Unofficial subtitle: Flannel in the Desert, and Other Bad Ideas

THE DEFENDANT: Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle

THE VERDICT: Many Waters has actually been challenged both together with the rest of the Time Quintet series and separately. It doesn’t quite make the list of most-frequently challenged books the way A Wrinkle in Time does, but it has certainly had its share of dissension.

THE CHARGES: The unique controversy of Many Waters comes from its much more overt Christian themes, particularly its decision to re-tell a Torah story with its own fantasy/time-travel spin. The most common challenge to it alleges that “An unofficial version of the story of Noah’s Ark will confuse children” (American Library Association).

THE REVIEW:

On the most basic level, the message of Many Waters is the same as all of L’Engle’s other books: compassion, selflessness and peace are good, greed and violence are bad, and by the way have you considered how awesome angels are? But upon this re-read, I kind of came away with the impression that if you just focus on the plot, the message of the book becomes: “God was angry that there were demons on earth making demon-babies, so he drowned all the unicorns.”

The premise of Many Waters is that Sandy and Dennys Murry (a switch in protagonists from the rest of the series, which focuses on their older sister Meg) accidentally send themselves back in time to the story of Noah and the Great Flood. While there they play out a strongly traditional coming-of-age story: they go through physical trials, fall in love, learn to stand up to manipulative or exploitative people, have spiritual/metaphysical awakenings, lose an important mentor figure, and come to understand key facts of life like “everybody dies.” None of it is really surprising, and I found the plot much better-paced but much more typical and trope-laden than that of A Wind in the Door.

Like many people attempting to write about Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious stories as actual historical events, L’Engle is unwilling to specify within the text of the story where it occurs, what year it is, or who exactly the people involved are. That leaves the setting drifting unmoored as a non-specific desert area with non-specific dark-skinned people, which as one might expect raises some problems. Instead of researching the actual geography, architecture, customs and societal configurations of the Black Sea area in the year 5,000BCE-ish (according to midrash scholars and archeologists’ projections of when the flood was mostly like to have occurred), L’Engle chooses to create a setting that seems mostly based on Hollywood’s Middle East and similar stereotypes. She makes sure to mention frequently how dirty it is, and when she does throw in a specific fact about how the people there live (for example, that they bathe with perfume instead of water), her two protagonists react with surprise and then disgust or superiority—the Ugly Americans at their finest. This shallowly-described and alien culture is also home to a host of magical creatures (such as unicorns and manticores), a staple of the fantasy genre that unintentionally reinforce the impression that the past, particularly a past that is not Western European-centric, is not a real place.

Even worse is her writing of the people that live in this generic desert culture (who are, according to the Torah, the ancestors of the Tribes of Israel, and according to various religious scholars were probably Babylonian). A tip for anyone out there writing time-travel fantasy? If you decide to have most of the people in the culture that your modern white dude protagonists visit be selfish, ignorant, greedy, hedonistic and….hm, how shall I put this…oh, savage? Maybe you shouldn’t. No, not even if it’s the role of your white dude heroes to teach them how to be rational and compassionate. Not even if there are a few good, noble, mystically spiritual people in that society that are the exception, because that’s just the trope of Good Native/Bad Native. And while you’re at it, you probably shouldn’t have the only women described by the narrative as both sexually desirable and morally good be the lightest-skinned women around. Reading this book was like playing “Racist Portrayals of a Culture You Know Nothing About” Bingo, and when I say I won I mean Madeleine L’Engle lost.

This is too bad, since some of the secondary characters she writes are actually pretty interesting in their own right. Most compelling to me is Oholibamah (whose name you might recognize from Genesis), who discovers over the course of the story that her father was a nephil; basically, she’s half-demon. Which is awesome! If I was writing this story, she would have gone on to become a superhero, saved the oasis from its general decline into anarchy with her mystic demon powers, and prevented the flood altogether. Failing that, I at least wanted her to play a larger role in the nephilim-human diplomacy that goes on in the story, but that role too is taken on by Sandy and Dennys.

As for the main characters, the twins are much less interesting protagonists than Meg.  This may be partly because we get to see less of how they connect to other important people in their lives; with Meg we see her role in her family and in her school life and how that feeds into her decisions and emotions. But with the twins, we barely even see how they interact with each other. The story tells us that they’re strongly dependent on each other, and some of the best character moments do in fact come when one of them is wishing the other one were there, but they’re actually separated for most of the book. I would have liked to see more demonstration of how they deal with the world when they’re together versus when they’re apart, and more illustration of what they want, what motivates them, etc. It was hard to get a fix on their personalities, especially when a good, interesting piece of characterization (they both react in the same way to problems they don’t know how to solve: they wait and try to get more information) might disappear the next chapter (once they’re back together, Dennys wants to wait and Sandy suddenly doesn’t?). I think L’Engle was trying too hard to develop them as people who are sometimes the same and sometimes different, and didn’t focus enough on developing them as people who have spent their lives together and had a massive impact on each other.

On the plus side, Many Waters gets my vote of approval for portraying polyamory in a compelling and YA-appropriate way. Yalith likes three guys, and that’s totally okay! They all like her back but never imply that she’s somehow a bad person for not choosing, even if Sandy and Dennys have mostly-unspoken cranky teenage boy angst about it. Several people in the story do try to pressure her into choosing one of them (or choosing a guy she’s not actually into so that she doesn’t have to choose between them? Not really sure about the logic there…) but the narrative is pretty clear that those people’s opinions are off-base. And when two of Yalith’s love interests indicate that they don’t feel ready for sex, not to mention that the third one is an angel that’s understood not to have a sex drive, it’s never suggested that that invalidates their interest in each other. She ends up with none of them because she gets airlifted into Heaven instead, but whatever, things like that happen sometimes.

Speaking of Heaven, a major feature of the story is the presence of seraphim and nephilim (aka angels and demons), who with their references to a celestial Presence and a Fall from grace are L’Engle’s most overt reference to Christianity in the series. Although their presence is pretty uncomfortable on a symbolic level (gosh I’m glad these tall, light-skinned beings are there to teach the short, primitive dark-skinned natives about proper healthcare!), I enjoyed them anyways, mostly because they’re kind of hilarious. The seraphim wander around acting superior and talking about how the Prime Directive means they can’t interfere with the course of events, with the end result that people get annoyed with them and yell at them until they interfere anyways. The nephilim are the antagonists of the story but they spend most of their time having support group meetings in the desert where they whine about how no one tells them anything and how they have no idea what’s going on.

It’s unclear what happens to the supernatural presences on Earth when the flood waters come, but for the people and animals that we meet throughout the story, it’s safe to say that almost all of them die horrible, drowning deaths. Which is pretty dark, for a series of books that usually likes to end with uplifting messages about how wonderful God’s creation is. As for Sandy and Dennys, they wrap the story up on an almost upsettingly cavalier note: perhaps they’ll always be a little homesick for the oasis, but now it’s time to focus on things like getting their drivers licenses. They’re back in the real world now…you know, the one with white people in it.

THE DEFENSE: If we chose to censor books because of unconsciously racist portrayals of people and societies, we would not have very many books left. Many Waters is certainly not the first or worst Young Adult book written about a society the author had no idea how to talk about accurately. Were I a teacher in a religions course, I might even assign the book as part of a discussion on adaptations of Genesis stories, but I certainly wouldn’t do so without pairing it with one written by someone with a more personal connection to and nuanced view of the place and time portrayed. Similarly, the charge about another version of the Noah’s ark story confusing children is pretty ridiculous—Genesis itself contains two different stories of the Garden of Eden right next to each other, after all—but I wouldn’t use this book to talk about the story of Noah’s Ark with children unless I had another source ready to give a more accurate portrayal of the people involved.

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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.

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