Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Adventure classics -- Coping with unanswerable questions

The Moon by Night

By Madeleine L’Engle


While their family was growing, Madeleine L’Engle Camp and her actor husband Hugh Franklin settled in the village of Goshen, Connecticut. But small town life couldn’t support Franklin’s career. So after the birth of a daughter and son, and the adoption of the orphaned daughter of friends, the family decided in 1959 to move to New York. But first, why not take advantage of a few weeks of free time between job changes and school sessions for a long-distance camping trip?

Along the way, L’Engle, who was famous (in her family, notorious) for using lightly disguised real life in her fictional stories, transformed her family’s trip into the adventures of the fictional Austin family.

L’Engle later said the trip gave her the inspiration for her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time. But the Austins -- adolescent daughter Vicky, her parents and assortment of brothers and sisters -- were as much alter egos of Wrinkle’s Murry family as both were of Madeleine, Franklin, and their real life children. And although L’Engle famously proclaimed herself to be the adolescent heroine of Wrinkle, she was just as obviously the quiet, plain daughter Vicky, unpopular and uncertain whether she possesses any talent.

The first book of the Austin family saga appeared in 1960, followed in 1963 by The Moon by Night. The Austins decide to move from their home in rural Connecticut to New York to further the father’s career. In between house changes, they take a cross-country camping trip. And Vicky, “on the way” to fifteen, is as out of sorts with her family and herself as L’Engle may well have been after finding herself at a low point in her writing career.

Who is she, really, Vicky wonders, questioning and sometimes rejecting her family’s received truths on life and religion. But she’ll have months on the road, from Connecticut to Canada to California and back again, to gain experience with her all too rapidly shifting emotions. Along the way, her naïve and sheltered view of life will be stretched by interactions with more people and opinions than she has met in her whole previous nearly fifteen years of life. That psychic stretching will take place in settings more beautiful and terrible than any she has imagined, images of the hills of Psalm 121 that give the book its title, until her world is literarily torn apart.

L’Engle took advantage of a major earthquake in the Yellowstone region in November 1959, fortunately after her family had reached home, that caused massive changes in the landscape, such as the rock slide that will trap Zachary and Vicky in the book’s climax, leaving both young people wondering whether there are answers to their questions.

In the aftermath of nature’s destruction, Vicky cries, “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. . . But the moon was smiting us. Its light, cold and impersonal, was splashing me, so that I shivered, and the Lord was doing nothing about it.”

In an interview Christianity Today reprinted after L’Engle’s death in 2007, she said the high school students she taught in Sunday school in turn taught her that “cosmic questions do not in mortal terms have mortal answers.” Leaving Vicky at last to say, “I looked up at the sky and at the stars and at the moon, and the moon was no longer smiting me. I didn’t know why. . . The point was that now I knew I didn’t matter whether or not I understood. It didn’t matter because even if I didn’t understand, there was something there to be understood.”

For more on L’Engle's life, often more complex than she was willing to let her readers see, I liked “Ironing Out the Wrinkles--The Complexities of
Madeleine L’Engle,” at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a December of spirited adventures with C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.)

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