[Content Note: Child Abuse. Cultural and Religious Appropriation and Stereotypes.]
A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 6: The Happy Medium
When we last left Chapter 6, the children were visiting with the Happy Medium and she'd shown them a supernova--the death of a star--to prove that the darkness can be beaten back and there are small victories in this fight against good and evil. Since the supernova meant the death of a star, the children were less than totally enthused by this scene, though we did get to learn that a star's death doesn't mean they don't continue on existing as angels, which are what the three Mrs are.
I've been kind of putting off the rest of Chapter 6 because it's a lot of ugly religious and cultural stereotypes and I'm kind of honestly tired of litigating those every time I post. Like, the Calormen in Narnia have dialogue ripped wholesale out of the Thousand Nights, they have silk turbans and curved swords and curly beards straight out of Aladdin, they're dark-skinned and described in exactly the same way Muslims are always described by white people like C.S. Lewis, they use honorifics almost exactly like the subḥānahu wa ta'āla, but are they really Muslim if he never uses that word? And, like, sure, the Happy Medium has all the trappings of every Romani fortune teller stereotype, but is she really a Roma stereotype if the "g*spy" slur is never used in text? (*sigh*)
Then you have Calvin O'Keefe in this series who has an Irish name; has orange hair and freckles; is the first of eleven children in a family that pretty clearly doesn't use birth control; has a mother who doesn't notice or care when he's out late; who doesn't love her children (at least according to Calvin, with no indication given that he's wrong); who has no upper teeth and gray, stringy, uncombed hair; who keeps an untidy kitchen with a sink full of unwashed dishes; who screams at her children and beats them mercilessly with whatever she can find at hand to wield; the family is impoverished such that Calvin is underfed and under-dressed; the father beats the children, too; and Calvin is ostracized by his family for daring to be smart and educated. And we point at that collection of Irish-Catholic stereotypes and inevitably someone is like, but are they really Irish-Catholic?
And I don't know how to answer that. Stereotype "coding" is something you kind of either get or you don't, I think. Either you're sensitive to the signs or you're not. We can point to the millions of indicators but at the end of the day, sure, it's possible to say "okay but the word was never used". Maybe it's a matter of what you've been exposed to growing up. Maybe you didn't see the eleven million children in Every Sperm is Sacred. Maybe you didn't watch the opening of Caddyshack where Danny Noonan (Michael O'Keefe) wakes up in a house full of more siblings than any one human family could produce before going to meet his girlfriend who has holy cards and doesn't use birth control. They never say "Irish-Catholic" but the coding is there slapping you in the face.
So all that to say, if you don't see racial and religious coding, I can't help you. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
With all that said, let's get this chapter underway!
The Happy Medium wakes as they try to quietly shuffle out. She offers to feed the children, and the angels tell her that no, thank you, they're fine. Meg realizes she's hungry and Charles explains that the angels don't need to eat and that they'll have to remind the angels later to feed them. It's not clear why they can't eat now (they're about to be sent on a dangerous mission with an empty stomach, their host is offering to feed them first, and their hunger will lead to Charles' capture later) nor is it clear how Charles knows that the angels don't need to eat, but... look over there, a puppy!
The Medium smiled and nodded. “It does seem as though I should be able to do something nice for you, after having had to show those poor children such horrid things. Would they like to see their mother before they go?”
“Could we see Father?” Meg asked eagerly.
“Nno,” Mrs Which said. “Wwee aare ggoingg tto yourr ffatherr, Mmegg. Doo nnott bbee immpatientt.”
This makes no sense. There are good reasons why they can't see their father; he's in the darkness and the Happy Medium can't pierce the darkness easily (if at all?), but Meg knows those facts and it would be simple enough to remind her. "Don't be impatient" as an explanation makes zero sense at all; at the very least seeing their father would give them a clue where to go to find him, what condition he's in, what sort of guard he's under, etc. You know, basic reconnaissance.
SPOILERS: The plan to rescue their father, by the way, is for the angels to just drop the children on the planet where he's being held and let the kids bumble their way around until they trip over him. I can't tell if the angels are inept at this because the story needs them to be or because they're just supposed to be that bad at human logic and things. If the latter, then it's hard to see how the Darkness hasn't won this cosmic battle; its enemies appear to be about as crafty as plankton.
“But she could see her mother, couldn’t she?” the Medium wheedled.
“Oh, why not,” Mrs Whatsit put in. “It won’t take long and it can’t do any harm.”
“And Calvin, too?” Meg asked. “Could he see his mother, too?”
Calvin touched Meg in a quick gesture, and whether it was of thanks or apprehension she was not sure.
You'd think that might be worth checking, but of course this is Foreshadowing that Calvin's home life is dreadful.
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.”
Look. I grew up in a religious community that contained a lot of abuse. I'm not going to say something ridiculous like "abusive families which are also religious don't exist". Of course they do. But Mrs. O'Keefe--ugly, dirty, slovenly, violent, and producer of eleven unruly children (who will later be revealed to be the bullies of the school)--has been continually contrasted in this book against Mrs. Murry, who is beautiful, pretty, clean, gentle, and best most sainted mother of the world, she who bears the christlike Charles Wallace and understands him better than all others saving perhaps his sister and the angels themselves.
It's a bit fucking much. And, yeah, it ties closely into stereotypes about Irish-Catholic people. There are worse prejudices to engage in, yes, but it's here and I'm not going to say it isn't or that it didn't do any harm. Did I notice this in the book as a child? No, not really. Is it nearly overwhelming here now, to the point where I wish L'Engle would get it out of her system and just make out with Mrs Murry already? Yes. Yes, it is and I do. Edward Cullen was described in less glowing terms than the flame-headed violet-eyed creamy-skinned Mrs Murry.
Calvin's humiliating and painful family life gives Meg a chance to feel more on equal terms with him.
Now instead of reaching out to Calvin for safety, Meg took his hand in hers, not saying anything in words but trying to tell him by the pressure of her fingers what she felt. If anyone had told her only the day before that she, Meg, the snaggle-toothed, the myopic, the clumsy, would be taking a boy’s hand to offer him comfort and strength, particularly a popular and important boy like Calvin, the idea would have been beyond her comprehension. But now it seemed as natural to want to help and protect Calvin as it did Charles Wallace.
And I must say that I understood this fantasy as a child, the idea that the popular attractive out-of-my-league crush could have secret hurts of their own and I could comfort them as an equal. But here and now, the way it's presented, it feels... kinda uncomfortable. Calvin didn't ask to see his mother--Meg volunteered the idea and he didn't verbally object. Then when his ugly secret of abuse was revealed, she felt emboldened by her new knowledge of him to comfort him as an equal now, no longer viewing a gap between them.
As an abuse survivor myself, that... hits close to a thing people actually do do when they think they "know" you after learning about something you lived through. And the thing is, hearing about something I've been through doesn't make people "know" me or give them greater insight into me. Abuse survivors are more than the sum of what was done to us. And our abuse isn't some kind of romantic equalizing factor that makes us more approachable. I get what L'Engle was going for here and I'm trying to be kind about it, but as written there's a lot of Do Not Want here.
What's more, this humbling of "popular and important Calvin" for the "myopic clumsy snaggle-toothed Meg" (ugh) to comfort him isn't even necessary! The kids have shared some weird experiences and will soon share weirder ones; that's a much bigger connection to build upon than seeing a glimpse of his abusive home life and feeling like she understands him now. (How can she understand him? Meg, he's been there and you've just seen the map. Ugh, sorry, this trope has just been used on me by so many people.)
Anyway. The Happy Medium changes the channel in an awkward fumble, which is probably good because it prevents the reader from asking why angels care enough about the Murrys to show up and help them save their absentee father yet don't care enough about the O'Keefe children to show up and save them from being beaten willy-nilly by their horrible abusive parents. Mustn't dwell on that, nor on why the Powers of Good care about the Darkness on another planet but nobody--not the Murrys, not their neighbors, not the Mr Jenkins who will be redeemed in the next book--cares about the darkness happening down the street, where eleven children are coming to school dirty and starving and under-dressed and with bruises all over their bodies.
Ahem. Anyway, they see Mrs Murry looking miserable because she misses her husband and Meg decides they've seen enough and it's time to go.
“She’s always so right,” Mrs Whatsit murmured, looking towards Mrs Which. “Sometimes I wish she’d just say I told you so and have done with it.”
“I only meant to help—” the Medium wailed.
“Oh, Medium, dear, don’t feel badly,” Mrs Whatsit said swiftly. “Look at something cheerful, do. I can’t bear to have you distressed!”
“It’s all right,” Meg assured the Medium earnestly. “Truly it is, Mrs. Medium, and we thank you very much.”
“Are you sure?” the Medium asked, brightening.
“Of course! It really helped ever so much because it made me mad, and when I’m mad I don’t have room to be scared.”
Okay, but...again...we just saw children being beaten. We're not going to be mad about that?
And I feel like the worst, I do, because I recognize that L'Engle isn't here to tackle real problems. This is Christian Escapism Fiction and a strong theme of CEF is helping the reader escape from the feeling of helplessness to fix the real problems in their lap by giving them sensational magical problems. You can't fix the fact that Paddy O'Keefe (yes, his name is Paddy) beats his kids when he's not knocking up his wife, but you can travel to another planet and defeat Satan with the help of angels and magical glasses! Cool! Exciting!
So complaining that the angels don't give a damn about problems on earth but do care about Mr Murry's absence is a bit like complaining that Frodo took the long way to Mount Doom. Because there are good in-universe reasons why they had to walk (seriously, shut up about the damn eagles) but also the walk was an important part of the story so complaining about the walk means you're missing the point and themes that were important to the author. As an author, I am 100% on-board with saying, look, the story is over here and if you want a different story, you're going to have look elsewhere. I get that. I do.
But. If it's the job of the reader to accept the conceit of the story, it's the job of the author to not continually rub their nose in the stuff they're supposed to be ignoring. I can absolutely accept that Mr Murry is more important to these three angels than, say, tidal wave victims on the other side of the world. Because, hey, maybe angels are helping them right this minute and this just isn't their story. That's fine! But you can't show me children next door to the Murrys being goddamn beaten with wooden spoons and expect me to not question why they aren't important to these three angels.
And you certainly don't show me back-to-back scenes of children being beaten with Mrs Murry looking kinda sad and then have the protagonist get mad about the whole "being sad" thing. Because that makes Meg look like the most selfish, terrible person on earth. It's one thing to sort of vaguely accept "spanking" as a parental right (and, yes, I'm aware both of how old this book is and the community it was coming from and promoted to); it's another thing to see children your own age being abused by a clearly unfit parent and have it not even register a blip on the outrage radar.
Which brings us back to the problem that L'Engle was, by all accounts, a wonderful soul with a huge capacity for empathy for the right people, but not so much for the ancillary side characters who aren't her Exceptional Indigo Children.
And there's this almost depressing predestination situation here: Charles Wallace was born smart to Smart People who nurtured his smarts and now the angels themselves care about preserving his perfect smart self, but... what about the O'Keefe children? Calvin thinks he's a mutation, but why is there any reason to believe those children couldn't be smart, clever, wonderful people if they were looked after by angels? They seem to be dull violent bullies because they were born to dull violent bullies and, unlike Calvin, didn't get themselves out with their dazzling heights and athletics and smarts.
Anyway, they decide to Get On With It, and we get... this.
“Well, kiss me good-bye for good luck, then,” the Medium said.
Meg went over to her and gave her a quick kiss, and so did Charles Wallace. The Medium looked smilingly at Calvin, and winked. “I want the young man to kiss me, too. I always did love red hair. And it’ll give you good luck, Laddie-me-love.”
Calvin bent down, blushing, and awkwardly kissed her cheek.
The Medium tweaked his nose. “You’ve got a lot to learn, my boy,” she told him.
Like... literally, you just saw that he's an abuse victim. This is not the right time to be fetishizing his red hair and teasing him for being attractive to you. There's just this amazing mood-whiplash to how cute Calvin is and how innocent he is and so adorable and the attraction of older women is always harmless and it doesn't matter that he comes from an abusive home.
And that "abusive home" thing isn't even me applying 2017 values to a 1960s book! Calvin thinks his home and mother and father are abusive! So this isn't, like, "oh, but Ana, spanking was common then, you can't expect anyone in the book to notice or care" when Calvin notices and cares! And the book took time to show Meg noticing Calvin noticing! Then we just segued right into "well, now that that's over, give me a kiss, Lo-vah Boooy." *wink*
“Now, good-bye, Medium dear, and many thanks,” Mrs Whatsit said. “I dare say we’ll see you in an eon or two.”
“Where are you going in case I want to tune in?” the Medium asked.
“Camazotz,” Mrs Whatsit told her. (Where and what was Camazotz? Meg did not like the sound of the word or the way in which Mrs Whatsit pronounced it.) “But please don’t distress yourself on our behalf. You know you don’t like looking in on the dark planets, and it’s very upsetting to us when you aren’t happy.”
“But I must know what happens to the children,” the Medium said. “It’s my worst trouble, getting fond. If I didn’t get fond I could be happy all the time. Oh, well, ho hum, I manage to keep pretty jolly, and a little snooze will do wonders for me right now. Good-bye, everyb—” and her word got lost in the general b-b-bz-z of a snore.
Can she tune in to Camazotz? Because if she can, then they really should have looked in on Mr Murry and shown the children the lay of the planet. I wasn't kidding about the plan being to let them stumble around until they trip over a clue.
Two, and I will try to stop beating this drum, she's fond of these children over here and needs to know what happened to them, but she's not fond of those children over there and what will happen to them? Just to be clear? Good, okay, gotcha.
“Ccome,” Mrs Which ordered, and they followed her out of the darkness of the cave to the impersonal grayness of the Medium’s planet.
“Nnoww, cchilldrenn, yyouu musstt nott bee frrightennedd att whatt iss ggoingg tto hhappenn,” Mrs Which warned.
“Stay angry, little Meg,” Mrs Whatsit whispered. “You will need all your anger now.”
Without warning Meg was swept into nothingness again. This time the nothingness was interrupted by a feeling of clammy coldness such as she had never felt before. The coldness deepened and swirled all about her and through her, and was filled with a new and strange kind of darkness that was a completely tangible thing, a thing that wanted to eat and digest her like some enormous malignant beast of prey.
Then the darkness was gone. Had it been the shadow, the Black Thing? Had they had to travel through it to get to her father?
There was the by-now-familiar tingling in her hands and feet and the push through hardness, and she was on her feet, breathless but unharmed, standing beside Calvin and Charles Wallace.
“Is this Camazotz?” Charles Wallace asked as Mrs Whatsit materialized in front of him.
“Yes,” she answered. “Now let us just stand and get our breath and look around.”
I really wish I'd kept a count of how often the angels teleport the kids without warning or explanation or even telling them where they're going.
From a storytelling perspective--and I remind you that this book won the Newbery medal--I understand wanting to keep the story fast-paced and moving. It would have been boring for the angels to explain everything on earth and then go and do everything that had been explained. This is why movies, for example, will splice the "explanation of how we're going to steal the diamond" over cuts of scenes of them doing the exciting diamond stealing stuff; explanations are boring, so if you must have them, they should happen on top of the action rather than preceding it.
But the action has already slowed down. We just saw a bunch of theologies about centaurs singing verses from Isaiah and a fortune teller showing them their parents as a reminder that Calvin is attainable for the imperfect Meg and also that Mrs Murry is sad. At this point, there isn't an in-text reason not to tell the children where they are going or why or what they will find there; there's no urgency, no sense that they need to rush or a bad thing will happen. So we're just left with the rushing for the sake of the storyteller's art, which means the angels look foolish and unprepared. Considering that a major plot point later on will be whether or not the angels actually care about the children they're yanking around the universe, I feel more care should have been put into establishing that supposed affection.
They were standing on a hill and as Meg looked about her she felt that it could easily be a hill on earth. There were the familiar trees she knew so well at home: birches, pines, maples. And though it was warmer than it had been when they so precipitously left the apple orchard, there was a faintly autumnal touch to the air; near them were several small trees with reddened leaves very like sumac, and a big patch of goldenrod-like flowers. As she looked down the hill she could see the smokestacks of a town, and it might have been one of any number of familiar towns. There seemed to be nothing strange, or different, or frightening, in the landscape.
But Mrs Whatsit came to her and put an arm around her comfortingly. “I can’t stay with you here, you know, love,” she said. “You three children will be on your own. We will be near you; we will be watching you. But you will not be able to see us or to ask us for help, and we will not be able to come to you.”
“But is Father here?” Meg asked tremblingly.
“But where? When will we see him?” She was poised for running, as though she were going to sprint off, immediately, to wherever her father was.
“That I cannot tell you. You will just have to wait until the propitious moment.”
Charles Wallace looked steadily at Mrs Whatsit. “Are you afraid for us?”
So just to recap: This is a planet, your father is on it somewhere, good luck.
“You will need help,” she told them, “but all I am allowed to give you is a little talisman. Calvin, your great gift is your ability to communicate, to communicate with all kinds of people. So, for you, I will strengthen this gift. Meg, I give you your faults.”
“My faults!” Meg cried.
“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”
“Yes,” Mrs Whatsit said. “However, I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz. Charles Wallace, to you I can give only the resilience of your childhood.”
This scene is hard to cut and harder to summarize because the angels keep saying "I can't give you anything else" right before giving them something else. Charles gets "the resilience of childhood", Meg gets "her faults", and Calvin gets the super-power of communication. Then Calvin also gets a passage from The Tempest and Meg gets Mrs Who's glasses. The glasses will be important later, although all she's told is not to use them "except as a last resort" and to "save them for the final moment of peril".
Between these instructions and the fact that the angels aren't going to give them any clues whatsoever, there's elements of predestination here as well; the children aren't given instructions because the angels know (somehow) they won't need them. And they're given just enough information about their powers and glasses and such that they'll know exactly when to use them and not before. But this raises all kinds of confusing questions. Do the angels know the future? Most Protestant denominations I'm aware of reserve that power to God alone. Yet this section--and the ones that follow--really only make sense if the angels have some kind of insight into the future.
Unfortunately, since we're heading for disaster and a major (if temporary) setback, the angelic future-knowledge seems flawed or non-existent. Which means that all this is a mess of world-building and only really makes sense because the author knows the future and is feeding out little chunks of it to characters as needed. I dunno, you guys, I'm doing my best.
“Tto alll tthreee off yyou I ggive mmy ccommandd,” Mrs Which said. “Ggo ddownn innttoo tthee ttownn. Ggo ttogetherr. Ddoo nnott llett tthemm ssepparate yyou. Bbee sstrongg.” There was a flicker and then it vanished. Meg shivered.
Mrs Whatsit must have seen the shiver, for she patted Meg on the shoulder. Then she turned to Calvin. “Take care of Meg.”
“I can take care of Meg,” Charles Wallace said rather sharply. “I always have.”
Mrs Whatsit looked at Charles Wallace, and the creaky voice seemed somehow both to soften and to deepen at the same time. “Charles Wallace, the danger here is greatest for you.”
“Because of what you are. Just exactly because of what you are you will be by far the most vulnerable. You must stay with Meg and Calvin. You must not go off on your own. Beware of pride and arrogance, Charles, for they may betray you.”
At the tone of Mrs Whatsit’s voice, both warning and frightening, Meg shivered again. And Charles Wallace butted up against Mrs Whatsit in the way he often did with his mother, whispering, “Now I think I know what you meant about being afraid.”
“Only a fool is not afraid,” Mrs Whatsit told him. “Now go.” And where she had been there was only sky and grasses and a small rock.
“Come on,” Meg said impatiently. “Come on, let’s go!” She was completely unaware that her voice was trembling like an aspen leaf. She took Charles Wallace and Calvin each by the hand and started down the hill.
YOU GUYS, the chapter is not even done. This is the longest chapter ever. More next time.