Or, rather, let's talk about me. I was raised--as a lot of you already know--in a conservative Christian atmosphere that felt very strongly about censoring books but the powers-that-be (my parents) were a little confused regarding what was Okay and what was Not, since they were so busy with parenting that they were often forced to literally judge my library books by their covers. So Patricia C. Wrede was forbidden to me after I'd already read the first three (but not the last fourth) books of her Enchanted Forest chronicles (imagine going over a decade before you were allowed to read the last Harry Potter book, you guys) because the books had dragons on the cover and dragons were sinful. On the other hand, Piers Anthony's Xanth books got in because the library had, like, a million of them and the covers were deceptively saccharine. All I can do as an adult now is kinda shake my head at all of that.
But sometimes books weren't snuck in under the radar like Xanth. Sometimes they were not only allowed in but even came pre-stamped with Christian approval. These were important books because it meant I could read them without shame (no sin involved! no fretting that I was lying-by-silence if I didn't volunteer information to my parents about the contents!) and I didn't have to stress over whether the books might be summarily taken away from me if my parents suddenly judged them inappropriate (the way they had with the Wrede books). These approved books came with baggage of Safety and Authority that made them important and formative for me regardless of all other personal feelings regarding the content. These books include (and are listed here roughly in order of acquisition):
* The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
* The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
* The Time Quintet by Madeleine L'Engle
* The Princess and Curdie books by George MacDonald
* The Mandie Books by Lois Gladys Leppard
* The Cooper Kids Adventure Series by Frank Peretti
Most of these authors were Christian and their works were viewed in my community as containing Christian messages that would enrich our faith through the reading. We've talked before about how some of ya'll didn't connect Aslan's Stone Table incident with the crucifixion, which I think is perfectly valid but also boggles my mind because I was raised believing these authors deliberately and enthusiastically inserted their religion into their works. So we, the readers in my community, couldn't really miss the Jesus metaphors because we were already looking for him in the pages.
You'll also probably notice that many of the above authors were Protestant and white. Which (a) ended up with a lot of racist and colonialist conditioning that had to be undone, and (b) meant there were a lot of side-swipes at Catholics. Which was always a little weird to me as a kid. I wasn't raised to hate Catholics, to be clear, but I was raised to understand that their religion was capital-W wrong. At the same time, I didn't know any Catholics so they seemed like a thing of the past--a historical group more than a contemporary one--and eventually came to feel like a bygone underdog, if that makes any sense. An author beating on their own anti-Catholic stereotype character felt, to me, like an author picking a bone with an ancient Greek philosopher. It seemed childish and silly, but not harmful.
Later, of course, when I grew older I came to realize it was childish, silly, and harmful. And often really racist. (Yes, Catholicism is not a race. But anti-Catholic attitudes are often wrapped in accompanying racism. Or, to put it another way: We got both kinds of music, country and western.)
That brings me to A Wrinkle in Time which is a lovely book (much lovelier, I would argue, than the Narnia books we've tackled recently) by a lovely woman (much lovelier, I would argue, than C.S. Lewis in terms of personality) with an... arguably lovely religious outlook (more on that later) who just happens to be... kinda... sometimes... a wee bit... racist and also anti-Catholic in that "lol Irish Catholics are so awful" kinda way. And, well, I wanna talk about that and it's my blog so I'm gonna.
But first let us drape a disclaimer over all this: I think A Wrinkle In Time is a good book and I have no reason to believe Madeline L'Engle was a bad person and I really want everyone to go to the movie when it comes out and for it to be very successful because I think they are going to make an amazing adaptation. I'm not trashing the book, but I do want to talk about some of the aspects that troubled me as a reader (including bits that troubled me as a young reader) because movie adaptations often bump book sales and I think people should be informed before they read and/or encourage other people to read a book.
Everyone got that? Excellent! Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.
[Content Note: Ableist slurs. References to homeless / home-insecure people with a term that is also probably a slur.]
A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 1: Mrs Whatsit
I'm going to try to not quote huge swaths of text in this decon, partly because I don't think this book needs that level of hyperfocus. We do need hyperfocus with Narnia because Lewis contradicts himself every third word so I feel like I have to give you guys everything so we can sort out the puzzle together. But L'Engle is a much more coherent writer than Lewis, so I feel confident summarizing more than I do with him. If you've read Erika's and Will's Short and Snappy posts, you will be familiar with this summary format. (And if you haven't, you're missing out! I spent all last weekend re-reading Will's Speaker for the Dead posts and it was like wrapping myself in a warm comforter straight from the clothes-dryer.)
So how does Chapter 1 open?
It was a dark and stormy night.
Let it be noted that L'Engle had a sense of humor about her writing. Yes, it's a cliche opening. Yes, we're allowed to think as much. Cliches aren't bad, they just need to be deployed with care.
We're introduced to Margaret Murry, she of a thousand nicknames. Usually the book calls her "Meg" but we also get some cute ones from her (missing) father later and you may or may not catch me calling her the Megster and/or Nutmeg. She's ugly (but not really), she's stupid (but not at all), she's the neglected child who nobody really understands or notices (ish), she's everything for nerdy girls that Ender Wiggin was for nerdy boys. L'Engle knows her audience, and this is not a criticism. It works and it works well.
Meg is in her attic bedroom with a patchwork quilt wrapped around her while a storm lashes the trees outside her bedroom window. Let me just say, this scene is about as magical in itself as any of the implausible adventures that are about to happen--at least if you're a little girlkin growing up in Texas where there were no attic bedrooms, no quilts, and no storm-lashed trees. (Obligatory Note: Your Texas May Vary.) She's freaking out a wee bit because this storm might tear the attic off (and her in it) and also she had a shitty day at school.
School. School was all wrong. She’d been dropped down to the lowest section in her grade. That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, “Really, Meg, I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.”
We learn that Meg is failing in school and she has the unenviable curse of being compared to her genius parents. And, again, this works so well. Even if we've not failed a grade in school, I suspect most of us had the experience of being told we weren't Living Up To Our Potential, and of course it is very easy to feel like our parents seem, vexingly, to have more book-knowledge than we do.
Meg's day then continued to worsen because her girl-peers feel like she's not acting mature enough for her age and then her boy-peers needed beating up because they insulted her little brother, Charles Wallace, who is five-years-old and accused here of being "dumb". Her other brothers--10-year-old twins Sandy and Dennys--tell her to "let us do the fighting when it's necessary".
A note on age becomes necessary here. We don't know how old Meg is in this book, only that she is "the oldest" of four children: herself, the 10-year-old twins, and 5-year-old Charles Wallace. She may be 14 years old in this book, but no one is entirely sure. Wikipedia notes this her age is "not definitively established in the book or elsewhere" and tactfully states that: "The chronology of the Murry-O'Keefe books is problematic at best. This is most likely because the books about Meg and her various family members were written over a period of decades and L'Engle did not take care to create a coherent timeline. Any attempt to tie character events and ages to real world chronology results in discrepancies."
May we all be so kind to our writers of today and their inevitable discrepancies, lolsob.
This does run into the usual problems with authors writing small children, however, because nobody acts or talks their age. Meg feels younger (to me) than a fourteen-year-old, and if I absolutely had to place her age I'd peg her at eleven or twelve. Charles Wallace, Professional Child Genius, feels much older than five. Here is a stock image of a five-year-old boy (assuming it is correctly tagged and I have learned never to assume that with stock images but that's a rant for another time) so please assume he is saying and doing all the things that Charles Wallace says and does in this book.
What this interlude does capture is the very "small community" feel of the area. The boys in Meg's class needle her about the intelligence of a little boy they probably haven't even met (Charles Wallace isn't in school and there's never any mention of church attendance), so presumably they have heard about him through the grapevine of parental gossip. The principal and teachers and postmistress and so on will all be very up in Meg's grill about her missing father and practically salivating for gossip. It's a nice touch, again; that feeling many children have of being the constant center of attention but in a bad way: Meg burns with dual shame and loyalty for the oddities of her family. Since all families have oddities and since many of us know that shame/loyalty dichotomy, it rings true.
—A delinquent, that’s what I am, she thought grimly.—That’s what they’ll be saying next. Not Mother. But Them. Everybody Else. I wish Father—
But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears. Only her mother could talk about him in a natural way, saying, “When your father gets back—”
Gets back from where? And when? Surely her mother must know what people were saying, must be aware of the smugly vicious gossip. Surely it must hurt her as it did Meg. But if it did she gave no outward sign. Nothing ruffled the serenity of her expression.
—Why can’t I hide it, too? Meg thought. Why do I always have to show everything?
I re-read this book over the weekend (it's a quick read!) and was struck by how... well, I wouldn't call this "great" writing in the sense of something I'd linger on every page lavishing my eyes over again and again. (That is a very subjective measure, for the record, and doesn't mean that this isn't great writing for someone else.) But I would absolutely call this skilled writing. If we were in Narnia right now, we'd get an infodump paragraph about how Meg's father was missing and little-minded people gossiped about it and it bothered her. L'Engle instead wisely chooses to convey that same information in a very tightly written internal dialogue scene that shows us Meg's father is missing, her mother is keeping the family together, the community is small and nosy and judgy, and Meg is frayed at her emotional edges. It's efficient and punchy and well-executed and it's really interesting to re-read after being immersed in Narnia for so many years.
Anyway, sorry to gush, back to the narrative. The storm worsens and Meg is fearful and she notes that there were hurricane warnings on the radio all day and she mopes a bit about how the family can sleep through this when she's in danger up here all by herself, but it's a good moping. (She reminds herself that she asked for the attic bedroom and she was allowed to have it as a privilege because she's the oldest.) There's an interesting hook here that her brother, Charles Wallace, really ought to be here because he always senses when Meg is sad and creeps up to comfort her, but he isn't here tonight and that hurts too. Then we get a description!
“Go back to sleep,” Meg said [to the kitten on her pillow]. “Just be glad you’re a kitten and not a monster like me.” She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with braces. Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair, so that it stood wildly on end, and let out a sigh almost as noisy as the wind.
And, okay, the look-in-a-mirror-and-describe-the-character is also a cliche, but (a) this book was published in 1962 so I'll cut it some slack, and (b) there really are a finite number of ways to describe a character in the natural flow of the story and I'm not as jaded about the mirror thing as some folks are. The more interesting thing we get is that Meg has braces and glasses and plain hair. Ugly Duckling status is a go, we can all imprint on the character now. (I know I did.)
Their dog (Fortinbras, which I assume is a Hamlet reference but it seems a little odd coming from a family that emphasizes Science! To The Max! but seems to care about literature not at all) (so perhaps its an authorial affectation and I will allow that) starts barking downstairs and Meg remembers overhearing at the post office that a "tramp" stole twelve sheets (I presume from a clothes line?) (although I'm not sure who washes twelve bedsheets at once??) (so maybe they broke in the house?) from "Mrs. Buncombe, the constable’s wife."
Meg hadn’t paid much attention to the talk about the tramp at the time, because the postmistress, with a sugary smile, had asked if she’d heard from her father lately.
She left her little room and made her way through the shadows of the main attic, bumping against the ping-pong table.—Now I’ll have a bruise on my hip on top of everything else, she thought.
Next she walked into her old dolls’ house, Charles Wallace’s rocking horse, the twins’ electric trains. “Why must everything happen to me?” She demanded of a large teddy bear.
I include the above because--and this will become clearer later--the Murrys are not poor. They have a ping-pong table and while I can't vouch for the 1960s, I can vouch that this was a luxury in my own childhood. Their father has a government job (Doing Science) and their mother... well, I'm not sure what she does because she seems his equal in Doing Science but the government seems not to have hired her or she didn't want the job. She seems to do something, though, and it seems to pay pretty well (Because Science). There's nothing wrong with being comfortably upper-middle class, but it's something to keep in the backs of our heads when another character appears. So, well, hold on to that.
Meg heads downstairs, passing the rooms of her other family members.
At the foot of the attic stairs she stood still and listened. Not a sound from Charles Wallace’s room on the right. On the left, in her parents’ room, not a rustle from her mother sleeping alone in the great double bed. She tiptoed down the hall and into the twins’ room, pushing again at her glasses as though they could help her to see better in the dark. Dennys was snoring. Sandy murmured something about baseball and subsided. The twins didn’t have any problems. They weren’t great students, but they weren’t bad ones, either. They were perfectly content with a succession of B’s and an occasional A or C. They were strong and fast runners and good at games, and when cracks were made about anybody in the Murry family, they weren’t made about Sandy and Dennys.
Meg heads down to the kitchen, and now I'll start quoting a wee bit more.
—I’ll make myself some cocoa, she decided.—That’ll cheer me up, and if the roof blows off at least I won’t go off with it.
In the kitchen a light was already on, and Charles Wallace was sitting at the table drinking milk and eating bread and jam. He looked very small and vulnerable sitting there alone in the big old-fashioned kitchen, a blond little boy in faded blue Dr. Dentons, his feet swinging a good six inches above the floor.
[...] “Why didn’t you come up to the attic?” Meg asked her brother, speaking as though he were at least her own age. “I’ve been scared stiff.”
“Too windy up in that attic of yours,” the little boy said. “I knew you’d be down. I put some milk on the stove for you. It ought to be hot by now.”
How did Charles Wallace always know about her? How could he always tell? He never knew—or seemed to care—what Dennys or Sandy were thinking. It was his mother’s mind, and Meg’s, that he probed with frightening accuracy.
There's a kind of Twilight fantasy going on here that I recognize immediately now: the fantasy of being intimately and wholly known by someone who loves you. Most of us are familiar with being loved by someone--a parent, a friend, a lover, or so on--but that doesn't mean those loved ones always understand us. And sometimes, maybe most of the time, those misunderstandings are frustrating and even isolating. Meg earlier fretted that everyone had forgotten about her in the attic and didn't care that she was in danger up there, but here her brother was waiting for her all along. Not only did he know she would not be able to sleep, but he knew she would come down here to the kitchen. For cocoa, even, which he is already in the process of making for her.
I don't want to imply that this is a Universal Fantasy, but I do think it's one that a lot of us have indulged in once or twice. The Twin Fantasy is a subset of this--the idea that if we just had another person with the exact same DNA as us and the same parents and the same room and the same interests, then we would be known. Twilight accomplishes this with Edward, but with an interesting telepathic twist: he knows, intimately and instantly, everyone he meets except Bella. Since she presents a challenge to him, the pursuit of knowing her becomes his driving goal. He knows her enthusiastically, as it were, rather than passively. Charles Wallace has echoes of that here; he's not quite telepathic (or is he, dum dum dunnn) but he "probes" Meg's and their mother's mind. Because he cares. (I don't mean that sarcastically, but it is worth pointing out that the fantasy of being known can be terrifying for people who don't share that fantasy. See, again, Twilight.)
Was it because people were a little afraid of him that they whispered about the Murrys’ youngest child, who was rumored to be not quite bright? “I’ve heard that clever people often have subnormal children,” Meg had once overheard. “The two boys seem to be nice, regular children, but that unattractive girl and the baby boy certainly aren’t all there.”
It was true that Charles Wallace seldom spoke when anybody was around, so that many people thought he’d never learned to talk. And it was true that he hadn’t talked at all until he was almost four. Meg would turn white with fury when people looked at him and clucked, shaking their heads sadly.
I really cannot recommend enough Will Wildman's Ender's Game posts, in part because this should look familiar to a lot of us. A small community is going to gossip, yes, but we will see a especially lot of gossip directed towards the Murry family. We're a handful of pages in and already we've seen Charles Wallace's intelligence and/or their father's fidelity questioned by fourteen-year-old boy-peers in Meg's class, the postmistress, and "people" in general. There's a lot of nerd-fantasy currents running here: being seen and watched by hostile others; genius being unappreciated and even punished; the small (in terms of size) and small-minded (in terms of capacity) Others judging those who don't conform. This is mother's milk to a lot of us nerdy folk.
It's also partly true, especially for people perceived as girls. I was ostracized for being smart, so I could latch onto Charles Wallace's (and Meg's) (even though she's not smart, but it will soon turn out that she is) smarts and I identified with the cruelties they experienced for being smart. This is real and true and reads as so real and true that I don't doubt for a minute that L'Engle (who wrote vociferously even as a child) probably experienced it herself. It is honestly sad that anyone should experience bullying at all, but there's definitely a special hole in my heart over bullying designed to tear people down for being smart. What the fuck is up with that? That sucks.
Buuuuuuut. Okay. There's a... a thing that happens when we talk about bullies who bully people for being smart (and/or not-smart) or ugly (and/or not-ugly) and this thing is about to happen here and now and... I have a lot of complicated feels.
“Don’t worry about Charles Wallace, Meg,” her father had once told her. Meg remembered it very clearly because it was shortly before he went away. “There’s nothing the matter with his mind. He just does things in his own way and in his own time.”
“I don’t want him to grow up to be dumb like me,” Meg had said.
“Oh, my darling, you’re not dumb,” her father answered. “You’re like Charles Wallace. Your development has to go at its own pace. It just doesn’t happen to be the usual pace.”
“How do you know?” Meg had demanded. “How do you know I’m not dumb? Isn’t it just because you love me?”
“I love you, but that’s not what tells me. Mother and I’ve given you a number of tests, you know.”
Yes, that was true. Meg had realized that some of the “games” her parents played with her were tests of some kind, and that there had been more for her and Charles Wallace than for the twins. “IQ tests, you mean?”
“Yes, some of them.”
“Is my IQ okay?”
“More than okay.”
“What is it?”
“That I’m not going to tell you. But it assures me that both you and Charles Wallace will be able to do pretty much whatever you like when you grow up to yourselves. You just wait till Charles Wallace starts to talk. You’ll see.”
How right he had been about that, though he himself had left before Charles Wallace began to speak, suddenly, with none of the usual baby preliminaries, using entire sentences. How proud he would have been!
Chapter 1 (which is a long chapter!) establishes very quickly that Meg is ugly and not-smart but then very quickly turns around and assures us that she's actually very smart and she's a secret looker and both these things need time to flourish. I think--no, I fully 100% believe--that L'Engle means these things in positive ways. We all have a perfect flower inside of us bursting to be free and it just needs nurturing. I love that philosophy and I love that she just wanted to give the world a hug.
Buuuuuut. There's a real chance of coming away from something like this with the message that it really isn't good to be ugly and not-smart, and the problem here isn't that the bullies' values are wrong; the problem is that the bullies are too not-smart to recognize how smart and pretty Meg and Charles Wallace is. This will be a major theme running through this book and the next one; the twins (and another character we will soon meet!) discuss how they camouflage their smartness to avoid bullying; Charles Wallace has to be taught to hide his smartness to avoid bullying; and Meg is told to hide her "dream-boat eyes" to avoid suitors beating down her door.
I understand the impulse to tell not-smart children that they are smart inside and not-pretty children that the prettiness is coming. But it's also okay to tell children that being not-smart and not-pretty isn't a moral failing. We see this with "crazy" and "fat" as well: people reassuring us that we (the people with value) aren't those things because obviously being those things would be bad. I quote Will Wildman here from his Speaker for the Dead posts:
Then it's time for some casual ableism as Ela says her mother is "crazy" and Ender says that "whatever else Novinha is, Ela, she is not crazy", because heavens forbid anyone entertain the shocking idea that a person raised in a series of deprived and abusive environments be accused to having suffered any kind of psychological damage when all of her decisions can just be explained by her choosing to be an arrogant megalomaniac. I mean to say: it's one thing to say 'don't dismiss a person by accusing them of a compromised mental state' and another to say 'don't imply that this person has anything so distasteful as a mental disability.'
(I'm reminded of an incident in high school--I don't remember what the class was talking about, but a fat girl made some comment about a type of negative treatment she got because she was fat, and a well-meaning classmate responded by expanding on the main point being made and then finished by saying to the first girl "Also, you're not fat". Now, what she meant was obviously "You don't deserve that kind of terrible negative treatment, please have positive self-image", but what she said was "I will deny the reality that we are both aware of because I can't conceive of a world where your body fat isn't considered deserving of hatred and shame". Cognitive dissonance: it's what's for brunch.)
Imperfect children have value. They deserve to hear that, not just that they might not be imperfect forever if they're really lucky. I feel like a lot of that message is lost when Meg's father is telling her about her secret-high I.Q. scores and her mother reassures her (later in the chapter) that she's going to be a knockout when puberty hits her like a truck. (Spoiler alert: I stayed fat and plain, unlike our dear Meg. I do still have dream-boat eyes, but they haven't gotten me as far in life as you might think.)
Incidentally, this is a good time to note a piece of probably-accidental racism but I.Q. tests are frankly quite terrible at assessing intelligence. What they tend to actually test is how well the taker lines up with the socioeconomic and racial makeup of the testers. Testing itself has been used extensively for a lot of really racist policies in education and employment, to the point where there are now laws on the books forbidding the use of I.Q. tests in certain situations. I don't think those laws were in place in 1962 and I can absolutely understand why a scifi author wouldn't necessarily be aware of racial bias in testing and I can certainly understand why a For Science! parent like Mr Murry wouldn't know or care about racial bias when it came to testing his own children, but just... yeah. Be aware of that.
Wow, that was a tangent. Back to Charles Wallace, who is I remind you, a five-year-old boy:
“You’d better check the milk,” Charles Wallace said to Meg now, his diction clearer and cleaner than that of most five-year-olds. “You know you don’t like it when it gets a skin on top.”
“You put in more than twice enough milk.” Meg peered into the saucepan.
Charles Wallace nodded serenely. “I thought Mother might like some.”
“I might like what?” a voice said, and there was their mother standing in the doorway.
“Cocoa,” Charles Wallace said. “Would you like a liverwurst-and-cream-cheese sandwich? I’ll be happy to make you one.”
“That would be lovely,” Mrs. Murry said, “but I can make it myself if you’re busy.”
“No trouble at all.” Charles Wallace slid down from his chair and trotted over to the refrigerator, his pajamaed feet padding softly as a kitten’s. “How about you, Meg?” he asked. “Sandwich?”
“Yes, please,” she said. “But not liverwurst. Do we have any tomatoes?”
Charles Wallace peered into the crisper. “One. All right if I use it on Meg, Mother?”
“To what better use could it be put?” Mrs. Murry smiled. “But not so loud, please, Charles. That is, unless you want the twins downstairs, too.”
“Let’s be exclusive,” Charles Wallace said. “That’s my new word for the day. Impressive, isn’t it?”
“Prodigious,” Mrs. Murry said. “Meg, come let me look at that bruise.”
I understand why L'Engle didn't want Charles Wallace in school yet (that comes up as a plot point in the next book), but I have a lot of concerns about Charles Wallace cutting up tomatoes for sandwiches. Maybe it's just me. We get a really tender scene with Mrs Murry tending Meg's bruise, and then we get a description of Mrs Murry.
Mrs. Murry gently touched Meg’s bruised cheek. Meg looked up at her mother, half in loving admiration, half in sullen resentment. It was not an advantage to have a mother who was a scientist and a beauty as well. Mrs. Murry’s flaming red hair, creamy skin, and violet eyes with long dark lashes, seemed even more spectacular in comparison with Meg’s outrageous plainness. Meg’s hair had been passable as long as she wore it tidily in braids. When she went into high school it was cut, and now she and her mother struggled with putting it up, but one side would come out curly and the other straight, so that she looked even plainer than before.
Here is your mandatory red-headed violet-eyed stock image. I like to believe that Mrs Murray cosplays Jessica Rabbit every Halloween but I'm bad like that. Mrs Murray tells Meg she needs to learn a "happy medium" (this will come up later) and notes that she defended Meg to the outraged mother of the boy Meg socked earlier after school. She is cool and understanding and beautiful and perfect and I like this better than the Nagging Harridan mothers we get in fiction, but... well. Hold on to this, too. Okay? Hold on to it.
“I hate being an oddball,” Meg said. “It’s hard on Sandy and Dennys, too. I don’t know if they’re really like everybody else, or if they’re just able to pretend they are. I try to pretend, but it isn’t any help.”
“You’re much too straightforward to be able to pretend to be what you aren’t,” Mrs. Murry said. “I’m sorry, Meglet. Maybe if Father were here he could help you, but I don’t think I can do anything till you’ve managed to plow through some more time. Then things will be easier for you. But that isn’t much help right now, is it?”
“Maybe if I weren’t so repulsive-looking—maybe if I were pretty like you—”
“Mother’s not a bit pretty; she’s beautiful,” Charles Wallace announced, slicing liverwurst. “Therefore I bet she was awful at your age.”
“How right you are,” Mrs. Murry said. “Just give yourself time, Meg.”
This is more of the genuinely-nicely-meant philosophy that, sure, you feel like a "monster" at fourteen when puberty is still trying to decide what to do with you but eventually everything sorts itself out and you get confidence as an older person and you learn how to dress and makeup in ways that flatter your shape and it gets better. Which is a really valuable lesson that a lot of us needed to hear! Buuuuuut it was also kind of a lie for some of us who stayed fat and disabled and genderqueer and never could get the hang of makeup and clothes aren't made to flatter us and the few that are cost too much to acquire and wear anyway.
None of that is L'Engle's fault, nor does it make her philosophy of "it gets better!" bad. But it would be nice, I think, to hear more about the kids who don't grow up into gorgeous geniuses because they have good genes and good attitudes (more on that later!) and money in the bank. This isn't a nitpick of what L'Engle wrote, really, so much as a nitpick on how our society treats the people who turn out to be Ugly Ducks after all rather than swans in disguise.
He cut the sandwich into sections, put it on a plate, and set it in front of his mother. “Yours’ll be along in just a minute, Meg. I think I’ll talk to Mrs Whatsit about you.”
“Who’s Mrs Whatsit?” Meg asked.
“I think I want to be exclusive about her for a while,” Charles Wallace said. “Onion salt?”
Now we kind of dive in Charles Wallace, who will spend the first half of the book cagily withholding information. I like Charles Wallace and I'm very fond of him (and he is five-years-old), but this is always a tricky thing to do in a book. He's a very Ender character, with super-smarts and an empathy so deep and wide and encompassing that it borders on supernatural telepathy. But it's that very special type of "empathy" that gains insight into another person without really caring about them.
Will has talked about this before on his Ender posts and I've talked about this on my Will Graham post and there's a very good comment on Will's blog that I cannot find because Disqus won't play nice with Google but I'll try to recreate it here: there is a Thing that writers keep doing where they call a character empathic but the "empathy" they have is Insightful Empathy. Insightful Empathy is the ability to climb into another person's viewpoint and figure out why they do what they do. If it's done well, it can be used to figure out what the other person may do in the future, which is useful for profiling serial killers and Charles Wallace's early-version telepathy.
Insightful Empathy isn't the same thing as Sympathetic Empathy, though they can live side by side. Sympathetic Empathy involves understanding another person's weak points and vulnerabilities and motivations (much like Insightful Empathy) and then not hurting them because you empathize with them as a person and you care about their well-being. You really don't want to do this if you're an FBI profiler because serial killers do need to be stopped and locked up, but you probably should levy this a bit when your empathy target is your beloved sister. And this distinction is a bugbear of mine because most of the literary world's Super Empathic characters (Will Graham, Ender, Charles Wallace) act like assholes to people who have less power than they do.
Which is a long way of saying that Charles Wallace is going to drag the plot out by basically not answering Meg's questions, making her feel stupid, and speaking condescendingly to her. So he's empathic enough to know she feels vulnerable and self-conscious about her smarts right now, but not empathic in a way that makes him behave sensitively to her out of love. Book-Meg mostly won't notice or care because it's chalked up to Charles Wallace just being that way and whatcanyoudo, but I will note that this is the usual short-ended stick that female characters get handed around these male empathy wunderkinds: they empathize up, but never down.
Charles Wallace doles out some hints about Mrs Whatsit: he met her and her two friends at an abandoned haunted house and, well, that's about all we get for now. They talk about the storm a bit and then the dog begins to growl again. Meg frets over "the tramp" and Mrs Murry says if it is a tramp she'll "offer him the barn till morning" which is neighborly but also they have a barn, I guess? I'm from Texas, I don't know if this is standard equipment for northwest coastal-ish (coastal enough to fear hurricanes on a regular basis) homes in the 1960s. Mrs Murry comes back with "the tramp" in tow.
After a few moments that seemed like forever to Meg, Mrs. Murry came back in, holding the door open for—was it the tramp? It seemed small for Meg’s idea of a tramp. The age or sex was impossible to tell, for it was completely bundled up in clothes. Several scarves of assorted colors were tied about the head, and a man’s felt hat perched atop. A shocking pink stole was knotted about a rough overcoat, and black rubber boots covered the feet.
“Mrs Whatsit,” Charles said suspiciously, “what are you doing here? And at this time of night, too?”
“Now don’t you be worried, my honey.” A voice emerged from among turned-up coat collar, stole, scarves, and hat, a voice like an unoiled gate, but somehow not unpleasant.
She says she was blown off course and knew this was Charles Wallace's house "by the smell" and Mrs Murry offers her a chair.
“Do sit down.” Mrs. Murry indicated a chair. “Would you like a sandwich, Mrs Whatsit? I’ve had liverwurst and cream cheese; Charles has had bread and jam; and Meg, lettuce and tomato.”
“Now, let me see,” Mrs Whatsit pondered. “I’m passionately fond of Russian caviar.”
“You peeked!” Charles cried indignantly. “We’re saving that for Mother’s birthday and you can’t have any!”
Mrs Whatsit gave a deep and pathetic sigh.
“No,” Charles said. “Now, you mustn’t give in to her, Mother, or I shall be very angry. How about tuna-fish salad?”
No one remarks on this later and it's not taken as being unusual in any way, which I feel is effective writing in the sense of heightening reader tension (something weird is clearly going on here!) and fleshing out Charles Wallace's characterization (he's accustomed to weird things happening and they don't unsettle him) but this characterization comes at a detriment to Meg and Mrs Murry who seem... a little odd for accepting this without a peep? Like, if someone came to my house and knew my children and knew what my own hidden birthday present is (which I assume comes as no surprise to Mrs Murry because surely she was involved in the procurement of said caviar?) I... would have some minor concerns to work through? Well, and there's also this:
“Mrs Whatsit,” Charles Wallace demanded severely, “why did you take Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets?”
“Well, I needed them, Charles dear.”
“You must return them at once.”
“But Charles, dear, I can’t. I’ve used them.”
“It was very wrong of you,” Charles Wallace scolded. “If you needed sheets that badly you should have asked me.”
Mrs Whatsit shook her head and clucked. “You can’t spare any sheets. Mrs. Buncombe can.”
Mrs Murry doesn't respond to any of this. She doesn't speak up again until Mrs Whatsit telepathically reads Meg's mind (which is not quite as shocking as it seems here because Meg is probably not hiding her ire as well as she thinks she is while she makes a sandwich for this person) (because, I mean, she is fourteen) (but still, it's definitely telepathy you guys):
“Tell your sister I’m all right,” Mrs Whatsit said to Charles. “Tell her my intentions are good.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Charles intoned.
“My, but isn’t he cunning.” Mrs Whatsit beamed at him fondly. “It’s lucky he has someone to understand him.”
“But I’m afraid he doesn’t,” Mrs. Murry said. “None of us is quite up to Charles.”
“But at least you aren’t trying to squash him down.” Mrs Whatsit nodded her head vigorously. “You’re letting him be himself.”
And this is... kind of weird to me? There's a line between telling your kid that he's smart and special and wonderful versus telling him that he's better than the entire family (two of whom are Scientists who Science the Best Science in the world) and none of them can even hope to understand him. Like? That's kind of creepy and especially in the juxtaposition of the opening of this chapter where Meg was struggling under the unfair expectations of her teachers who demand that she be extra perfect because her parents are smart so why isn't she. Only here it's supposed to be a cool understanding mom who is humbly saying only true things out of love.
This is going to be a running theme in the series, that Charles Wallace is so special and so clever that none of his family can ever pass that bar or ever understand him. They can love him, and they can accept him, but they aren't on his level or intellectual equals in any way. "None of us is quite up to Charles," Mrs Murry says. Charles Wallace is literally elevated above them, he is a higher being, he is up there and we are down here. It's a hell of a way to isolate a little kid and it should be noted that pedestals are uncomfortable places to be. It is also an almost outright worship of intellectual ability which we will see more of (and more blatantly) and which seriously undercuts any hope of a message that "not-smart kids are valuable too".
Because, again, the problem with calling Charles Wallace "dumb" (pardon the ableist slur) seems not to be that it's ethically wrong to dismiss him for his mental state, but rather that it's a factually wrong assessment of him. If he were not-smart, if he wasn't literally raised above the rest of the family, then... maybe it would be okay? I don't think L'Engle would agree with that at all, but it's hard to shake the unintended message.
Annnnyway, this post is getting long. Mrs Murry helps Mrs Whatsit take her boots off (which seem to have more water in them than an occupied boot should be able to contain and this too goes unremarked upon by the Scientist in the room), then she immediately declares she will put her boots back on and leave now, thank you for the sandwich.
“Don’t you think you’d better stay till morning?” Mrs. Murry asked.
“Oh, thank you, dearie, but there’s so much to do I just can’t waste time sitting around frivoling.”
“It’s much too wild a night to travel in.”
“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”
“Well, at least till your socks are dry—”
“Wet socks don’t bother me. I just didn’t like the water squishing around in my boots. Now don’t worry about me, lamb.” (Lamb was not a word one would ordinarily think of calling Mrs. Murry.) “I shall just sit down for a moment and pop on my boots and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, pet, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”
Mrs. Murry went very white and with one hand reached backward and clutched at a chair for support. Her voice trembled. “What did you say?”
Mrs Whatsit tugged at her second boot. “I said,” she grunted, shoving her foot down in, “that there is”—shove—“such a thing”—shove—“as a tesseract.” Her foot went down into the boot, and grabbing shawls, scarves, and hat, she hustled out the door. Mrs. Murry stayed very still, making no move to help the old woman. As the door opened, Fortinbras streaked in, panting, wet and shiny as a seal. He looked at Mrs. Murry and whined.
The door slammed.
“Mother, what’s the matter!” Meg cried. “What did she say? What is it?”
“The tesseract—” Mrs. Murry whispered. “What did she mean? How could she have known?”
And that's the end of the chapter! Isn't that an effective ending? If this were Lewis, we'd have another three pages of them standing around talking about Mrs Whatsit being odd and we'd learn nothing new and characterization wouldn't advance but the tension would be removed with surgical precision as long as the surgeon was heavily drunk and the scalpel was replaced with a rusty broadsword.
Tune in next time for moooooore!
Edit: I have belatedly recalled that this is the Time Quintet, not Quartet, and updated the post title and label. The link wrongness will live in shame. (I never read book #5, hence my mistake.) (Also there are only three Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books.)