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January 31, 2019

On Meeting the Austins

Like many bookish people, A Wrinkle in Time played a big role in my literary foundation, although it was the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that I was really passionate about, and have reread many times since. Because although …Planet is fantastical and concerned with time travel and parallel universes, it is very much of this world, which has always been what I’m interested in most. My favourite parts of A Wrinkle in Time were the scenes set in Meg Murry’s kitchen, the meals her mother cooked on her bunsen burner. Likewise, in …Planet we’re back in that same place as the Murry family (Meg pregnant with her first child) awaits perilous news in global politics, a ruthless dictator with his finger on the nuclear button…and Meg’s brother, Charles-Wallace, travels back through time with a unicorn, to mend the brokenness through history that led to the current crisis, brokenness that has always been rooted in family connections or lack thereof. I love this book, and it has brought me tremendous peace and comfort many times.

As a child, I had the fourth and fifth books in L’Engle’s “Time Quintet,” which Wrinkle begins, though I never had strong feelings about them and it’s possible I never actually finished reading An Acceptable Time. I also had some of the books in L’Engle’s other well-known series about the Austin family, but I remember finding them kind of strange and disorienting, which is odd because they are wholly set on this planet and do not feature centaurs. They’re mostly set in kitchens. You’d think they’d be straightforward—more on this in a moment. I have also long been intrigued by the idea that L’Engle consciously had set her books in two difference universes—The Time Quintet is set in a time she calls kairos (“real time, pure numbers with no measurement”) while the Austin series is chronos (“ordinary wrist-watch, alarm-clock time”). And that there are characters who move between the two is so fascinating. So when I saw the first three Austin books in beautiful recent paperback editions at the library, I signed them all out, and began to embark upon a new reading project, which was discovering Madeleine L’Engle from a different point of view.

Reading Meet the Austins was curious, because it was all very familiar. There were several sentences that I came upon and realize they’d been long ago made indelible upon my mind. I remembered the story from the book’s opening, when Meggy Hamilton comes to live with the Austin family after her pilot father is killed in a plane crash (which also killed his co-pilot, a friend of the Austin family, and his wife was made Meggy’s guardian but she’s a concert pianist who tours the world, so would not be able to provide a stable home life for the child). Possibly the story confused me as a child because it did not go according to trope—Meggy, the orphan, was not remotely plucky. Her presence is a hardship upon the family. Vicky Austin, the book’s narrator, is struggling with questions she’s having trouble answering, and thinking about her place within her family and her family’s place in the wider world. The family is idyllic. The parents are wise and cultured and are interested in their children’s ideas about the state of the world. Their dynamic is similar to the Murry’s, except that Vicky’s father is a family doctor and not an astrophysicist, and hasn’t been trapped inside another dimension. But the conversations they have as a family are the same, as the questions Vicky is grappling with similar to Meg Murry’s. Looking up at the stars and wondering what is our place in the cosmos—except that Vicky is doing so from the vantage point of a comfortable spot on a grassy hill.

I loved Meet the Austins. I found it intelligent and comforting, and I knew that Harriet (age 9.5) would love it too. There is not a plot exactly, instead episodes as the characters move in and out of weeks and days. I loved the way that Vicky understood that her family was a kind of cocoon and the questions she was asking about the world outside it, and her apprehensions were the kind that so many children have (and that I have never entirely been able to abandon). It’s a novel that respects its reader, and I enjoyed reading it so much that for days after I lamented that I did not have those few hours to go through again, when I had sat down with this book and been so thoroughly satisfied.

Meet the Austins was published in 1960. In 1962, L’Engle would publish her most famous work, A Wrinkle In Time, which must have meant that by the following year, when The Moon By Night (the next Austin book) was published, her world was a very different place. The world in general was a different place, however, and The Moon By Night is wholly infused with that ominousness, post-Cuban Missile Crisis and the imminent possibility of a nuclear strike. Also, Vicky Austin is 14, which is never a great age, and the world as she knows it has, in fact, already ended—her family are leaving their small town for a new life in New York City, but first, they’re about to drive across the country, a summer vacation never to be forgotten.

It’s a long journey, and on page 83, Vicky’s sister asks her older brother, ‘Hey, John, couldn’t you just tesser us there?’ and Vicky thinks, “It would have been nice if he could have, like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, but that as Kipling would say, is another story.” Which is the first place L’Engle’s two universes intersect—I love the idea that Vicky Austin has read A Wrinkle in Time too.

The Moon by Night is remarkable for introducing the most irritating character in all of literature, Zachary Grey, certified beatnik, Holden Caulfield redux, as he’s been kicked out of prep school and calls everyone phoneys. He’s travelling across America with his own parents, who are disinterested and self-absorbed (although you might be too if Zachary Grey was your son). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Zachary Grey feels fine, and he’s blasé about nuclear annihilation, and patronizes Vicky for her religious leanings. He is an appalling fuckwit, who latches onto Vicky as soon as they meet and calls her Vicky-O, and none of the other Austins can stand him, but Vicky finds him interesting which makes me concerned she’s going to spend her whole life attracted to damaged men who need fixing. He’s also a chauvinist, but who’s not in this novel. When Harriet read Meet the Austins, she was furious about the ways that Vicky is subservient to her brilliant older brother, and the gender dynamics are far more overt in the second book—”Daddy doesn’t like women in pants…” Oh, please. Vicky spends the entire book a passive agent as she’s passed from one jerky boy to the other. Her dad also uses judo kicks to take down a gang of “hoods” attacking their campsite. There’s a prowling bear, deadly floods, and at one point Zachary hides for hours so Vicky will worry come find him, that manipulative bastard, and there is a landslide and they’re trapped for hours, and she doesn’t even let the fact he’s put her life in jeopardy make her consider that she should never ever speak to him ever again.

Does it sound like I didn’t like this book? Not so. Weird ‘sixties slang and other factors aside, I still really loved it. And that I loved it in spite of all the reasons it was terribly annoying is a testament to its value. It’s a novel for a much older reader than Meet the Austins, maybe ideally one who is 39.5 years old and is worried about the state of our world. There is a line in it about Vicky and Zachary’s being the first generation who’s not assured of there being a future, and not the last then, I supposed, and there is some comfort in that, that our world has known peril before. Vicky thinks about her uncle, who was killed in the plane crash in the first book, and the genocide against Native Americans across the country they’re travelling (and it’s remarkable that L’Engle was using the term “genocide” in 1963), and Anne Frank in the Holocaust, and as they travel back east through Canada, she learns about the landslide in Frank, BC, and it haunts her just as much as everything does.

How do you live your life, how can you have faith any, knowing it could all just end at any moment for absolutely no reason? How do you love a world that is home to so much that is just awful? Questions I’m thinking about all the time, so The Moon By Night moved me, decades later. I appreciate too that L’Engle’s religious themes have a universality about them so that the answers apply to those of us who are not Christian, and further that her Christianity is underlined by such largesse, generosity, such grace.

Zachary Grey is one of the characters who appears in subsequent books featuring the Murry/O’Keefes. (Fingers crossed it’s just repeated scenes in which his eyeballs are pecked out by crows.) I want to read them now and see who he is in that other universe, and I look forward to the next Austin book now too, which apparently has its realism shaken a bit with the appearance of aliens. I can’t even… The Young Unicorns is next. I will keep you abreast of my progress.

2 thoughts on “On Meeting the Austins”

  1. Kate says:

    I was a teenaged L’Engle completist and will be watching this develop with great interest!

    1. Kerry says:

      Fabulous! Will report back.

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