A look back 10 years after Madeleine L’Engle’s death
By: Dr. Jaime Anne Earnest
10 months ago
Meg Murry came to us all on a stormy night, in the opening scene of Madeleine L’Engle’s much-beloved children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. It would have been called a young-adult novel, but back in 1962 when it was first published, they weren’t using that term yet. Meg, the teen heroine of L’Engle’s dimension-twisting adventure, is fiercely intelligent, anxious and brave at the same time, struggling with an angry nature even as she’s surrounded by a loving family. It’s no secret that the author considered Meg to be a reflection of herself.
Tonight, as I sit here reflecting upon the 10th anniversary of L’Engle’s passing, it is a similarly brooding evening, punctuated by rollicking thunder and flashes of brilliant light. I appreciate the coincidence — because this real-world callback to the book’s lightning storm reminds me just how electrified I was by my first encounter with Meg, a character I could, at age 12, finally relate to.
Never mind that I personally hadn’t ever been tasked by a celestial being to embark on an interstellar quest to save both my missing father and the entire universe from having their souls erased by a giant, disembodied brain that sought to dominate every living thing.
What mattered was that, through the sci-fi details of A Wrinkle in Time’s story, I saw Meg, a girl for whom the disorienting landscape of early adolescence — a world that often feels alien, demanding of conformity, and frighteningly uncertain — provides the backdrop for her deepest expressions of love and courage.
She conquers that heartless, power-hungry brain-monster, of course. And while she draws on her own human strengths to do so, she also heeds the erudite wit of her cosmic guides: the unearthly Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which, who all offer sometimes inscrutable guidance that helps Meg along her path.
Looking back now, it strikes me how L’Engle trusted children to glean deep understanding from adult wisdom, even when the grown-up language or knowledge being shared might be considered beyond their capabilities. The genius of L’Engle’s intuition about science fiction, specifically, as a vehicle to communicate profound life lessons is particularly touching. The strange, fantastical nature of her would-be mentor characters, the three Mrs W’s, so perfectly evokes the bewildering feeling children experience when adults are trying to help them learn something but can’t quite find the right words.
I didn’t consciously realize this as a 12-year-old reader, but as a grownup, I now understand that Meg’s coming-of-age-in-space helped me confront the very adult challenges of questioning my place in the universe — particularly at those times when I found myself in challenging circumstances.
In Wrinkle, Meg’s gender-stereotype-defying bookishness, scientific and mathematic gifts, and spirited rebellion against authority prove to be strengths that far outweigh the social liabilities of her outward awkwardness and inner insecurities. Driven by her desire for intellectual growth, rather than any easy physical grace, she let her sense of justice, and her love of family and friends, open her world to fantastic adventure and her heart to transformative human connection.
Finally, this was a character with whom I could identify (and not just wish to be like): a bold misfit who, despite her own misgivings about her place in the world, learned to leverage her considerable intellectual talent for the greater good.
This inspired in 12-year-old me a fascination with the limits of my own abilities, a lifelong questioning of received wisdom and authority, and a clear call to act out my scientific ambitions in good faith and with love. It was an indelible lesson, the guiding principles of which stuck with me through my own travels through space-time.
Surely it was my inner Meg who gave me the strength to endure the sudden loss at 31 of my brilliant and fierce best friend, a young lawyer who I had known since adolescence. And I am sure, too, that it was Meg I heard when my own quest for knowledge and growth in the subsequent years seemed too overwhelming, and the equations in front of me blurred with tears of frustration and self-doubt. Of all the beloved female characters of young adult fiction, it was the unruly, unexpected brilliance of Meg Murry that shone brightest from the pages of my memory and lit the way forward.
Famously, A Wrinkle In Time was rejected by numerous major publishing houses after L’Engle completed it in 1960; that, too, has become a part of its mystique, yet another testament to perseverance through the harrowing halls of critical self-appraisal and uncertainty. Meg Murry’s story has inspired not only generations of scientists and thinkers and writers to heights of imagination, moral character, and accomplishment, but has served as a means by which millions of casual readers, so many of them children, have encountered ideas formerly relegated to textbooks on Einsteinian physics and Greek philosophical treatises.
Perhaps this is the greatest moral achievement of L’Engle’s work. It’s not just the creation of a feisty and beloved female protagonist in a science-fiction universe that makes the world of Wrinkle so timeless and beloved, but the trust L’Engle placed in her young readers to interact with such heady material in a meaningful way.
On the 10th anniversary of her passing, we have a new retelling of Wrinkle to look forward to. Director Ava DuVernay will be bringing L’Engle’s Meg to the big screen next spring in a hotly anticipated Disney adaptation. The build-up to the film’s release isn’t just the result of box-office hype, thrilling casting choices, and the appeal of sumptuous visuals — beneath all that, it’s the enduring ideas that L’Engle brought into our collective understanding that make revisiting the material in uncertain times so appealing.
I will be there, in the darkness, with my popcorn, following Meg and her companions on their quest, knowing that I’ll return to their story again whenever I need to be reminded of my own unique gifts and the conquering power of human love. And somewhere, I’m sure, sitting in the rows around me, will be a science-obsessed young girl, by turns brave and doubtful, confident and unsure, learning for the first time that, “A book, too, can be a star,” explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, “a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”