Time Quintet: The Unlovable

[Content Note: In-text slurs for ableism, racism, and references to homeless / home-insecure people, Anti-Catholicism, Anti-Irish racism, Child Abuse.]

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 2: Mrs Who

Chapter 2 introduces a new character who I have a great deal of affection for but who also brings the series' anti-Irish-Catholic baggage with him along for the ride. And I've been really struggling over how to deconstruct the character because a lot of the prejudiced stuff is spaced out neatly over the book so you might not even notice it, really, if you didn't know to look. For better or worse, L'Engle didn't go the Lewisian route of huge wall-of-nopes for us to point and gape at.

So I've decided what I would like to do is tackle Chapter 2, introduce the character, and then we'll have a biiiiiiig breakdown of things that are coming with regards to him and his family. Buckle in, this will be a long one.

   When Meg woke to the jangling of her alarm clock the wind was still blowing but the sun was shining; the worst of the storm was over. She sat up in bed, shaking her head to clear it.
   It must have been a dream. She’d been frightened by the storm and worried about the tramp so she’d just dreamed about going down to the kitchen and seeing Mrs Whatsit and having her mother get all frightened and upset by that word—what was it? Tess—tess something.

This is again extremely efficient writing. We last left off with Mrs Murry being shocked to whiteness at the drop of the word "tesseract", then Meg wakes up wondering if it were all a dream. We're left to infer that Mrs Murry bundled the kids off to bed without answering any questions. Now Meg dresses and heads downstairs to find the twins already at the table and her mother is making French toast. Because it would be stupid to drag out "was it a dream" longer than a few sentences, L'Engle does not do that.

   “Where’s Charles?” Meg asked.
   “Still asleep. We had rather an interrupted night, if you remember.”
   “I hoped it was a dream,” Meg said.
   Her mother carefully turned over four slices of French toast, then said in a steady voice, “No, Meg. Don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be. I’m sorry I showed you I was upset. Your father and I used to have a joke about tesseract.”
   “What is a tesseract?” Meg asked.
   “It’s a concept.” Mrs. Murry handed the twins the syrup. “I’ll try to explain it to you later. There isn’t time before school.”

Competency in writing and pacing, how I have missed you in the long forays into Narnia! Let me snuggle you. Here we don't devolve into an infodump--much as the reader might crave one--but we're promised one later. It's a good way of heightening tension without making Mrs Murry seem like a jerk for withholding information or Meg stupid for not asking. Information is coming, just not right now, and everyone is being sensible and working together for each others' best interests. It's a loving family scene that I think is well done.

There's a slur here which I point out because I know there will be a lot of new readers for these books; Dennys says “It’s a gyp we missed out on all the fun.”  Please don't use that word. It means to cheat or swindle someone and comes from the same root from which we get "gypsy", which is why it's now a racial slur. Some folks are choosing to reclaim "gypsy", though many are not, but ultimately only in-group members can opt for reclamation so it's on the rest of us to not use that word. And while "gyp" is the root from which we get the slur, yeah it's ruined now too, please don't use it. (I make no case here whether L'Engle did or didn't know any of this. I'm simply pointing out that it's here because people deserve to be warned.)

Back to the text, Sandy and Dennys urge the geniuses in the family to rely on them for brawn and sense and practical smarts, which will be a running theme with them in the next book as well.

   “If you’re going to let old tramps come into the house in the middle of the night, Mother, you ought to have Den and me around to protect you.”
   “After all, Father would expect us to,” Dennys added.
   “We know you have a great mind and all, Mother,” Sandy said, “but you don’t have much sense. And certainly Meg and Charles don’t.”
   “I know. We’re morons.” Meg was bitter.
   “I wish you wouldn’t be such a dope, Meg. Syrup, please.” Sandy reached across the table. “You don’t have to take everything so personally. Use a happy medium, for heaven’s sake. You just goof around in school and look out the window and don’t pay any attention.”
   “You just make things harder for yourself,” Dennys said. “And Charles Wallace is going to have an awful time next year when he starts school. We know he’s bright, but he’s so funny when he’s around other people, and they’re so used to thinking he’s dumb, I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. Sandy and I’ll sock anybody who picks on him, but that’s about all we can do.”
   “Let’s not worry about next year till we get through this one,” Mrs. Murry said. “More French toast, boys?”

This is the second reference in as many chapters to a "happy medium", which L'Engle was salivating to use in a massive upcoming and arguably offensive pun and we can all be grateful that her career trajectory didn't fly off into Xanth wackiness. But we get the gist here: Sandy and Dennys aren't stupid, they're just very good at blending in. Which is a little back-to-front for the usual twin narrative (twins tend inherently to stand out rather than blend in), but they're charming and folksy and athletic and smart (and also, let's be real, boys) and they manage to float along on a cloud of seeming averagosity.

Meg goes to school and gets in trouble for not being able to name "the principal imports and exports of Nicaragua" and is then surly about it, asking who would care about such a thing. I... honestly can't tell if we're supposed to agree with her or not. I'm pretty sure that her Science! To The Max! parents couldn't care less the the principal imports and exports of Nicaragua or anywhere else, and everyone at Meg's school is a hostile antagonist that we're not supposed to like. So it's hard not to read this interlude as a statement on public schools focusing on the wrong things and nurturing people in the wrong way, but it's an odd example to pick here. Why not something local or in literature? (Which Meg will also later be 'hopeless' in.)

Incidentally, the answer to this question for 2013 is knit apparel, electrical machinery, woven apparel, precious stones, spices, coffee, and tea. One might take a glance at that and think thoughts over whether the country is being exploited for non-renewable resources (precious stones) and cheap human labor (fabrics and farming). That might be an interesting thing to highlight in a book that is about human suffering under loveless authority. In 1962, when A Wrinkle in Time was published:

In 1962 foreign investment and control, of which American interests control the overwhelming amount, was in the following sectors: mining, 80% commercial fishing, 80%, lumbering, 90%, commerce, 50%, manufacturing 33%. These figures vividly illlustrate the exploitative nature of foreign investment, for investment is concentrated in the natural resources, which are exported from the country, rather than the manufacturing sector, where benefits to the Nicaraguan people would be felt. Foreign investors in Nicaragua are interested in making money and not in developing the economy. [Source]

It is just shy of possible that L'Engle knew this and was trying to make a point ("who cares? we all should!") but if that was the case, I think the point was not made well enough or this is one of those time-and-context dilation things where people in 2016 have different frames of reference than those in the 1960s. Either way, Meg herself is hostile to Nicaragua and its hard-to-memorize imports and exports and we get no mnemonic to help her (and the reader) learn about US imperialism. Instead, she is sent to the principal's office for mouthing off.

The principal is Mr. Jenkins, who will be a major character in the second book but just has a passing role here. He is polite and kind, but Meg is wary of his kindness and believes it to be an act of superiority. This is more nerd-fantasy standard fare of the sort that I lapped up as a kid in part because there was a kernel of truth in it: some adults do "act nice" (because we kids aren't always very nice to be around, and to its credit Book #2 will point out that Meg wasn't giving Mr. Jenkins much to work with, attitude-wise) and some adults do bring baggage of superiority and such to the table with them. I think this book is probably unfairly unkind to Mr. J but Book #2 goes a little overboard in making it up to him, so we'll call this a wash. Brief wall of text:

   During study hall the principal sent for her. “What seems to be the problem now, Meg?” he asked, pleasantly enough.
   Meg looked sulkily down at the floor. “Nothing, Mr. Jenkins.”
   “Miss Porter tells me you were inexcusably rude.”
   Meg shrugged.
   “Don’t you realize that you just make everything harder for yourself by your attitude?” the principal asked. “Now, Meg, I’m convinced that you can do the work and keep up with your grade if you will apply yourself, but some of your teachers are not. You’re going to have to do something about yourself. Nobody can do it for you.” Meg was silent. “Well? What about it, Meg?”
   [...] “Meg, is something troubling you? Are you unhappy at home?” Mr. Jenkins asked.
At last Meg looked at him, pushing at her glasses in a characteristic gesture. “Everything’s fine at home.”
   “I’m glad to hear it. But I know it must be hard on you to have your father away.”
   Meg eyed the principal warily, and ran her tongue over the barbed line of her braces.
   “Have you had any news from him lately?”
   Meg was sure it was not only imagination that made her feel that behind Mr. Jenkins’ surface concern was a gleam of avid curiosity. Wouldn’t he like to know! she thought. And if I knew anything he’s the last person I’d tell. Well, one of the last.
   The postmistress must know that it was almost a year now since the last letter, and heaven knows how many people she’d told, or what unkind guesses she’d made about the reason for the long silence.
   Mr. Jenkins waited for an answer, but Meg only shrugged.
   “Just what was your father’s line of business?” Mr. Jenkins asked. “Some kind of scientist, wasn’t he?”
   “He is a physicist.” Meg bared her teeth to reveal the two ferocious lines of braces.
   “Meg, don’t you think you’d make a better adjustment to life if you faced facts?”
   “I do face facts,” Meg said. “They’re lots easier to face than people, I can tell you.”
   “Then why don’t you face facts about your father?”
   [...] Meg ignored this. She leaned over the desk toward the principal. “Mr. Jenkins, you’ve met my mother, haven’t you? You can’t accuse her of not facing facts, can you? She’s a scientist. She has doctors’ degrees in both biology and bacteriology. Her business is facts. When she tells me that my father isn’t coming home, I’ll believe it. As long as she says Father is coming home, then I’ll believe that.”
   Mr. Jenkins sighed again. “No doubt your mother wants to believe that your father is coming home, Meg. Very well, I can’t do anything else with you. Go on back to study hall. Try to be a little less antagonistic. Maybe your work would improve if your general attitude were more tractable.”

This is efficient! We are just tearing through the characterization here! Meg is hostile (understandably so, given her missing father), her mother has two doctorates in biology and bacteriology (not terribly relevant in Book #1 but it'll come up in Book #2), and interestingly enough, though I don't think we're intended to view Mr. Jenkins kindly here, we certainly can choose to? He's not saying anything that Sandy and Dennys didn't already say over the breakfast table: Meg isn't (apparently) applying herself and she needs to try to moderate her behavior a little better.

I think this works in the context of the book because we receive enough hints that Meg does have more potential and could be trying harder. I certainly accepted the framing well enough as a kid. I think it falls down more as an adult because I've come to understand (and experience firsthand) that these are things people say even when it's not true. I've been on the receiving end of these "pep talks" (you're so smart! you can do so many things! you could do this to if you only tried a little harder!) when I couldn't do the thing and the problem became compounded by pressure and the low-key insistence that I was lying or deluded about my own capabilities.

Anyway, Meg goes home after school and Charles meets her with food (because he knows she's hungry) and says they need to go see Mrs Whatsit.

   “Oh, golly,” Meg said. “Why, Charles?”
   “You’re still uneasy about her, aren’t you?” Charles asked.
   “Well, yes.”
   “Don’t be. She’s all right. I promise you. She’s on our side.”
   “How do you know?”
   “Meg,” he said impatiently. “I know.”
   “But why should we go see her now?”
   “I want to find out more about that tesseract thing. Didn’t you see how it upset Mother? You know when Mother can’t control the way she feels, when she lets us see she’s upset, then it’s something big.”
   Meg thought for a moment. “Okay, let’s go. But let’s take Fortinbras with us.”
   “Well, of course. He needs the exercise.”

We find out later that Charles already got an explanation of a tesseract out of their mother. This isn't revealed to the reader now because it would slow down the narrative and it isn't revealed to Meg now because... Charles doesn't think to tell her? It's the sort of self-centered casual thoughtless selfishness that makes sense in a child but doesn't fit with his perfect Jesus-like empathy. But we soldier on because I don't want to get too bogged down in that right now. Speaking of, we get some wonderful scenery porn (cold weather and pine trees, ya'll. Texas practically salivates in response.) and then a brief description of Charles' powers.

   “School awful again today?” he asked after a while.
   “Yes. I got sent to Mr. Jenkins. He made snide remarks about Father.”
   Charles Wallace nodded sagely. “I know.”
   “How do you know?”
   Charles Wallace shook his head. “I can’t quite explain. You tell me, that’s all.”
   “But I never say anything. You just seem to know.”
   “Everything about you tells me,” Charles said.
   “How about the twins?” Meg asked. “Do you know about them, too?”
   “I suppose I could if I wanted to. If they needed me. But it’s sort of tiring, so I just concentrate on you and Mother.”
   “You mean you read our minds?”
   Charles Wallace looked troubled. “I don’t think it’s that. It’s being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees. You tell me, you see, sort of inad—inadvertently. That’s a good word, isn’t it? I got Mother to look it up in the dictionary for me this morning. I really must learn to read, except I’m afraid it will make it awfully hard for me in school next year if I already know things. I think it will be better if people go on thinking I’m not very bright. They won’t hate me quite so much.”

There's a whisper here of "it isn't real telepathy, it's just that your body language tells me things", but don't be fooled because it is 100% telepathy and there will be more telepathy in the series later and Charles can already pull words out of Meg's head so it's definitely not body language at all. If anything, this is probably more an example of him being unable to explain his powers as opposed to an attempt at a scientific handwave. I mean, this book has a flying centaur in it, there are not going to be handwaves to justify anything so relatively mundane as telepathy.

Now we get to meet Calvin!

   Ahead of them Fortinbras started barking loudly, the warning bay that usually told them that a car was coming up the road or that someone was at the door.
   “Somebody’s here,” Charles Wallace said sharply. “Somebody’s hanging around the house. Come on.” He started to run, his short legs straining. At the edge of the woods Fortinbras stood in front of a boy, barking furiously.
   As they came panting up the boy said, “For crying out loud, call off your dog.”
   “Who is he?” Charles Wallace asked Meg.
   “Calvin O’Keefe. He’s in Regional, but he’s older than I am. He’s a big bug.”

I... do not know what "a big bug" means in this context. Do we have someone conversant in 1960s northeastern-US slang? Nevermind, no time to stop and google these things and anyway Google is notoriously wrong about slang so moving on and up!

   “Tell me about him, Meg,” Charles Wallace demanded.
   “What would I know about him?” Meg asked. “He’s a couple of grades above me, and he’s on the basketball team.”
   “Just because I’m tall.” Calvin sounded a little embarrassed. Tall he certainly was, and skinny. His bony wrists stuck out of the sleeves of his blue sweater; his worn corduroy trousers were three inches too short. He had orange hair that needed cutting and the appropriate freckles to go with it. His eyes were an oddly bright blue.
   [Charles asks how old Calvin is.] “Fourteen.”
   “What grade?”
   “Junior. Eleventh.”

A-ha! Wikipedia lied to us when it said Meg was probably 14 and I was right when I pegged her as 12. Of course, that's assuming "a couple of grades above me" means Calvin is also a couple years older, which isn't a given--he could have skipped a grade, she's already been threatened with being held back a grade, her parents could have started her later than usual, etc.--but it's a valid point to start from.

Okay, let's now back up. Calvin is:

* Irish (or so his surname O'Keefe suggests)
* Tall
* Skinny
* Bony
* Wearing trousers which are "three inches too short", implying poverty and a home without a seamstress able to fix this.
* Orange hair
* Freckles
* Blue-eyed

   “Tell us what you’re doing here,” Charles Wallace said.
   “What is this? The third degree? Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to be the moron?”
Meg flushed with rage, but Charles Wallace answered placidly, “That’s right. If you want me to call my dog off you’d better give.”
   “Most peculiar moron I’ve ever met,” Calvin said. “I just came to get away from my family.”

* Doesn't like being around his family.

Gosh. That's something of an indictment given how loving and nurturing the Murry family seems to be so far. We've already noticed how beautiful and reasonable and smart Mrs Murry is--it has arguably been a major theme of the two chapters so far--so it definitely stands out. Well, what kind of family does Calvin have?

   Charles Wallace nodded. “What kind of family?”
   “They all have runny noses. I’m third from the top of eleven kids. I’m a sport.”
   At that Charles Wallace grinned widely. “So ’m I.”
   “I don’t mean like in baseball,” Calvin said.
   “Neither do I.”
   “I mean like in biology,” Calvin said suspiciously.
   “A change in gene,” Charles Wallace quoted, “resulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to its offspring.”

Oh. So he's a fourteen-year-old boy who considers himself so different from his family that he thinks he's a biological offshoot with mutated genes. Well.... haven't we all been there once or twice? I mean, even Charles Wallace says that he is a sport so they're practically the same, right? Let's hold on to that for the moment. But we need to update the characterization counter with these two new factoids.

* Ten siblings (strongly implying no birth control is being used in the house)
* So estranged from his family he considers himself a biological offshoot, or sport.

But we're all wondering, why is this beautiful smart talented athletic blue-eyed boy here today, near the haunted house, just in time to meet Meg and Charles (they of the loving and accepting family Calvin so desperately craves to be a part of)? Well, there is in fact a perfectly good reason!

   “What gives around here?” Calvin asked. “I was told you couldn’t talk.”
   “Thinking I’m a moron gives people something to feel smug about,” Charles Wallace said. “Why should I disillusion them? How old are you, Cal?”
   “What grade?”
   “Junior. Eleventh. I’m bright. Listen, did anybody ask you to come here this afternoon?”
   Charles Wallace, holding Fort by the collar, looked at Calvin suspiciously. “What do you mean, asked?”
   [...] “Okay, old sport,” Calvin said, “I’ll tell you this much. Sometimes I get a feeling about things. You might call it a compulsion. Do you know what compulsion means?”
   “Constraint. Obligation. Because one is compelled. Not a very good definition, but it’s the Concise Oxford.”
   “Okay, okay,” Calvin sighed. “I must remember I’m preconditioned in my concept of your mentality.”
   [...] Calvin tried now politely to direct his words toward Meg as well as Charles Wallace, “When I get this feeling, this compulsion, I always do what it tells me. I can’t explain where it comes from or how I get it, and it doesn’t happen very often. But I obey it. And this afternoon I had a feeling that I must come over to the haunted house. That’s all I know, kid. I’m not holding anything back. Maybe it’s because I’m supposed to meet you. You tell me.”

Once in a blue moon--in fact, only twice in this book and I think never again in this series--Calvin has a compulsion to do things and he does them. This is essentially no different than "I'm here because the author wanted me to be here" which is delightful and amusing to me as a writer but it's also meant to work here because this book is explicitly religious (even if it's easy to miss because you kind of need the secret decoder ring to see it).

Calvin's compulsions come from the author in a Doylist sense, but they come from the universal godbeing--my word, not L'Engle's, and the universal godbeing is not the God you're used to in Left Behind or Narnia--in a Watsonian sense. In both cases, it is incredibly contrived but in the in-universe sense it is supposed to be contrived. Calvin's presence here was contrived by a universe who wants him to be a part of the Murry family.

Hold on to all that.

   Charles Wallace looked at Calvin probingly for a moment; then an almost glazed look came into his eyes, and he seemed to be thinking at him. Calvin stood very still, and waited.
   At last Charles Wallace said. “Okay. I believe you. But I can’t tell you. I think I’d like to trust you. Maybe you’d better come home with us and have dinner.”
   “Well, sure, but—what would your mother say to that?” Calvin asked.
   “She’d be delighted. Mother’s all right. She’s not one of us. But she’s all right.”
   “What about Meg?”
   “Meg has it tough,” Charles Wallace said. “She’s not really one thing or the other.”
   “What do you mean, one of us?” Meg demanded. “What do you mean I’m not one thing or the other?”
   “Not now, Meg,” Charles Wallace said. “Slowly. I’ll tell you about it later.” He looked at Calvin, then seemed to make a quick decision. “Okay, let’s take him to meet Mrs Whatsit. If he’s not okay she’ll know.” He started off on his short legs toward the dilapidated old house.

Ha, and here we see another example of Charles Wallace's backhanded empathy: he correctly divines that Meg is in-the-middle (neither normal nor sports like he and Calvin) and even sympathizes with her, but not so much that he doesn't say potentially hurtful things like this. It's an effective characterization for a five-year-old who doesn't know what is and isn't going to sting, but it... kinda undermines the telepathy thing because you'd think it would sting and he'd pick up on it.

Okay. Now. Let's... talk about Calvin.

I like Calvin. I'm incredibly fond of him as a character. I will tell you right now that his entirely character is about being everything Meg craves and then giving her those things freely and without drama. He's smart, he's athletic, he's handsome, he's still got that slightly awkward growing-phase look about him that often fleshes into conventional attractiveness, he seems normal despite being able to keep up with her genius family. He's affectionate (a thing she desperately needs), his super-power is communication (making him an early Peeta Mellark), and he serves as a security blanket for much of the series. He almost literally walks up and says in so many words "I want to join your family and tell you how smart and pretty you are, may I?"

I approve of this! I like male characters who are kind and affectionate to women. I like romances that are cooperative and warm and deepen quickly rather than four books of verbal jousting and playing tug-o-war on jackets. (Not that there isn't a place for Twilight.) I like male love interests who will sit quietly in the backseat and help read the map instead of backseat drive. If nothing else, it evens out all those female love interests who do that without complaint since time immemorial.

But the reason Calvin imprints so quickly on Meg and her family is because his family is awful. And not just "awful" in that "I'm a teenager and ashamed of my impoverished upbringing", they are actually morally awful. Calvin wants to avoid them all for the rest of his life and, when he marries Meg, I'm pretty sure they never see the O'Keefe clan again. Instant adoring husband, without all those pesky in-laws. I see the appeal, believe me. [Edit: Mrs O'Keefe does appear in Book #4 and I just forgot. See comments below.]

Throughout this book, Calvin's mother will be characterized as ugly, mean, churlish, and stupid in contrast to the beautiful, kind, loving, smart Mrs. Murry. Calvin wants to escape her clutches, but this kind loving empathy-powered beautiful boy with social power in spades and communication super-powers never thinks twice about the younger children he's leaving behind--he wants to get away from all his family. In Book #2, which we'll get to, we learn that at least some of his siblings are bullies going after the sainted-and-sickly Charles Wallace, and their home life is so vile and vicious that plants can't thrive there because of the things the plants "overhear". There is no wee little brother, no innocent baby sister, no burgeoning Charles Wallace O'Keefe that Calvin longs to bring with him out of this environment. They're all bad.

So let's get some of these quotes out of the way so we have a nice Problem With Calvin omnibus post here. I'm not going to pull everything (it's scattered all over and I'd miss stuff), but I'm going to pull some things that stood out at me.

Calvin on calling home to say he'll be eating dinner with the Murry family:

   “I don’t know why I call [my mother] when I don’t come home,” Calvin said, his voice bitter. “She wouldn’t notice.” He sighed and dialed. “Ma?” he said. “Oh, Hinky. Tell Ma I won’t be home till late. Now don’t forget. I don’t want to be locked out again.” He hung up, looked at Meg. “Do you know how lucky you are?”
   She smiled rather wryly. “Not most of the time.”
   “A mother like that! A house like this! Gee, your mother’s gorgeous! You should see my mother. She had all her upper teeth out and Pop got her a plate but she won’t wear it, and most days she doesn’t even comb her hair. Not that it makes much difference when she does.” He clenched his fists. “But I love her. That’s the funny part of it. I love them all, and they don’t give a hoot about me. Maybe that’s why I call when I’m not going to be home. Because I care. Nobody else does. You don’t know how lucky you are to be loved.”
   Meg said in a startled way, “I guess I never thought of that. I guess I just took it for granted.”

Calvin on how pretty beautiful Mrs Murry is:

   “Are you like Charles?” Meg asked.   “I? Heavens no. I’m blessed with more brains and opportunities than many people, but there’s nothing about me that breaks out of the ordinary mold.”   “Your looks do,” Meg said.   Mrs. Murry laughed. “You just haven’t had enough basis for comparison, Meg. I’m very ordinary, really.”   Calvin O’Keefe, coming in then, said, “Ha ha.”

Calvin on no-but-for-real-she's-gorgeous:

   “Tell me about your father.”
   “He’s a physicist.”
   “Sure, we all know that. And he’s supposed to have left your mother and gone off with some dame.”
   Meg jerked up from the stone on which she was perched, but Calvin grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her back down. “Hold it, kid. I didn’t say anything you hadn’t heard already, did I?”
   “No,” Meg said, but continued to pull away. “Let me go.”
   “Come on, calm down. You know it isn’t true, I know it isn’t true. And how anybody after one look at your mother could believe any man would leave her for another woman just shows how far jealousy will make people go. Right?”

And Calvin's shame, a glimpse into his daily home-life:

   “Calvin’s mother first,” Meg whispered to the Medium.
   The globe became hazy, cloudy, then shadows began to solidify, to clarify, and they were looking into an untidy kitchen with a sink full of unwashed dishes. In front of the sink stood an unkempt woman with gray hair stringing about her face. Her mouth was open and Meg could see the toothless gums and it seemed that she could almost hear her screaming at two small children who were standing by her. Then she grabbed a long wooden spoon from the sink and began whacking one of the children.
   “Oh, dear—” the Medium murmured, and the picture began to dissolve. “I didn’t really—”
   “It’s all right,” Calvin said in a low voice. “I think I’d rather you knew.”

Remember that list for Calvin? Let's make one for Mrs O'Keefe:

* Has eleven children.
* Doesn't notice when Calvin is gone / out late.
* Missing all her upper teeth. Refuses to wear corrective dental cosmetics over her toothless gums.
* Doesn't comb her hair, which is gray and stringy.
* Doesn't love Calvin.
* Her kitchen is untidy.
* Her sink is full of unwashed dishes.
* She screams at children.
* She beats them with a wooden spoon. (Which is clearly here a weapon of opportunity wielded in rage--it's a dirty spoon, even--so presumably she beats them with other things as well.)

Let's go back to Calvin's list:

* Irish, orange hair, freckles
* Tall
* Blue-eyed
* Skinny, Bony (confirming he's impoverished and underfed, not just puberty-ing)
* Wearing trousers which are "three inches too short" (poverty and an unloving, lazy mother)
* Doesn't like being around his family, who he loves but doesn't love him back.
* Ten siblings. None of them are close to him. This is because he is a biological offshoot of goodness, fundamentally mutating him from the pack.

Well, that's... that's kind of a problem. And it's not a problem we can resolve with "well, okay, but Charles Wallace is also a sport". Charles Wallace comes from a loving family that nurtures him (Mrs Whatsit even said so in chapter 1!) and while he is seen as different from his family, his difference is presented as though he's the next logical step up from their evolution. The Murry family is good, and Charles Wallace is Good. The Murry family is smart, and Charles Wallace is Genius. The Murry family is loving, and Charles Wallace is Love.

This doesn't compare to Calvin's family at all, where they are bad and stupid and ugly and full of hate and Calvin's "sport"ishness is that he's not those things. Charles Wallace is everything his parents are, plus more of the same in higher concentrated qualities. Calvin is nothing his family is, and he is good because of that. He abandons them--freely, whole-heartedly, without regrets--and clings to the Murry family without ever looking back. It's an effective fantasy for folks who imprint on Meg (your weird family looks loving and wonderful to someone who will love you for it!) and for folks who imprint on Calvin (your family may not be like the Murry family but you are a smart and beautiful sport and you will escape someday!).

But that fantasy was attained by basically punching all over and down on Irish Catholic folks for being poor, slovenly, hateful, violent people that only biological mutations can ever hope to escape. (And only then if they slash-and-burn all contact with their family forever.) That's... guys, that's not actually loving at all. And it's jarring in a series that is explicitly about loving everyone and hating no-one. Like, I'm not making that up: Book #2 establishes that, per the world-building rules, hate will literally destroy the person you aim it at and so you should never do that or you're part of the destructive forces of the universe.

I don't think L'Engle made the O'Keefe's for us to hate, exactly. I think she felt she needed an awful family for Calvin to escape and this was what she ended up drawing for her readers. But that's why all the unicorn-and-rainbows intentions in the world can't save you from writing something hateful and offensive because in her attempt to draw an awful family, she drew an anti-Irish-Catholic stereotype based in hate and racism and cruelty. Probably didn't mean to! I hope! Who knows! I'm just doling out benefits of the doubt because I can! But it's here anyway and we need to be aware of that before we recommend this book to little kids.


Post a Comment