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February 19, 2019

The Young Unicorns, by Madeleine L’Engle

My Madeleine L’Engle/Austins project continued this weekend when I read The Young Unicorns, the third book in the Austins series. A series that is all-over-the-place in the most interesting way, in terms of genre in particular. Because this book (whose narrative does not, in fact, include a single unicorn, in case you were curious) is a dark and plot-driven mystery, very different from the previous two novels which were episodic. It’s also narrated in the third-person and comprises points of view from the entire Austin family. And I don’t remember if I ever picked this book up when I was a child, but I can understand why the Austin series as a whole confused me. Each book is a very different creature, this one set in a gritty and crime-ridden New York City where gang violence and corruption are endemic, where the Austin family has recently relocated to while Dr. Austin, a country doctor, takes up the opportunity to study surgical lasers at a prestigious research lab.

A surprising detail I learned while reading posts and other articles on this book (this one in particular!) was that not only did L’Engle write her books in set two different systems of time (chronos and kairos), but some of the series themselves were written out of sequence. So that The Arm of the Starfish (which I’ve never read) about Meg Murry’s daughter Polly was published in 1965, before either of the two books that immediately followed A Wrinkle In Time sequentially—which surely posed narrative challenges for their author. As I’ve been reading the Austin books I’ve also found it really illuminating to consider each novel in its own historical context—The Moon By Night (1963) informed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of a nuclear holocaust, and now The Young Unicorns, which was published in 1968 and certainly informed by race riots and social unrest of the late-1960s, which is directly referenced in the text—although in her author’s note, L’Engle explains that her story takes place “not in the present but in that time in the future when many changes only projected today may have become actualities.”

Which is significant, because of how timely so many of historical concerns of The Young Unicorns seem for a reader in 2019, just as the previous book’s did. (When I was young, I thought it would be cool to live through the 1960s. Having now lived through the 1960s redux, I’ve changed my mind.) This novel is asking questions about responding to social unrest, about who to trust, whether we can trust anyone, or if trust itself is a fool’s game. It’s also an exploration of the nature of freedom, in particular to how it pertains to religion. Is obedience freedom? Is disobeying freedom, and when isn’t it? What does it mean to have peace if freedom is undermined to achieve it? (And this is where the title comes in, in reference to a quotation about unicorns that cannot be caught by the hunter but instead “can only be tamed of his own free will.”)

One could say the following of all of L’Engle’s books, but it’s especially relevant here: It’s so weird. Country Doctor Austin has been transformed into a scientist (basically Meg Murry’s dad), and Rob Austin is Charles-Wallace reborn, innocent and purely good, and they even have a reliable hound with uncanny awareness of the presence of evil. The Austins have rented the upper floors of an old mansion on Riverside Drive whose lower levels belong to a scholar and his musical prodigy daughter, Emily, who has been blind since a mysterious attack a few years before. Emily takes piano lessons from the eccentric Dr. Theo, and is helped in her studies and all around by Josiah “Dave” Davidson, a former gang member who was even more formerly than that a chorister at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which looms large in this novel, its catacombs leading through tunnels to abandoned subway stations and there is even a genie who mysteriously appears when the Austin children rub a lamp in an antique shop.

Dave is Black, and we meet him in the novel’s first sentence, and it’s significant, I think, that nowhere in the novel is his race explicitly stated, but we’re meant to infer it because he’s an “ex-hood” who lives in a Harlem tenement. (Race is stated a few times elsewhere in the book—the Cathedral’s Dean is Puerto Rican, and also an “ex-hood;” also, the two scientists who performed Dr. Austin’s job before him are Chinese and Indian, and a character makes a racist statement about their Asian-ness, at one point, but this character is also literally an arch-villain, so this might be the point.)

That race is otherwise absent from the novel is significant though, especially based on its 1968 publication year and its references to riots, mobs run amok. But this was also the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, and to remove race from the story of rioting and social unrest in northern American cities in 1968 is disingenuous. There is a suggestion too that the rioting and violence is thoughtless and rootless, violence for the sake of violence. But maybe this is what happens when you’re the type of person who doesn’t see colour or write colour, and the definition of progressivism in 1968 for many is that the Austin family regularly had a Black boy sit with them at their table, never mind that his Blackness is never delineated.

While a compelling and gripping read, I also found the novel a bit difficult and disorienting. Part of that is the nature of a book that is all about puzzles, tricks, and mystery, but I’m not sure that was it entirely. There is a dinner party scene where Dr. Austin is discussing his work with the Micro-Ray laser with the visiting Canon Tallis, and then the children leave the table, conversation shifts, and then two pages later, Canon Tallis asks, “Just what is your work, Doctor?” And Dr. Austin replies, “I design and make a small surgical instrument known as the Micro-Ray.” “This is on the principle of the laser?” Canon Tallis asks, and I want to yell at him, “Weren’t you even listening when you were talking about this two pages ago????”

So was it a mistake? But then strange to find a mistake in a brand new edition of the book first published fifty years ago, no? Elsewhere, there is also a reference to the revolutionary work of Dr. Calvin O’Keefe on starfish regeneration, which wonderfully blurs the lines between L’Engle’s series, but then in the previous Austin book, set just six months before, Vicky Austin had referenced A Wrinkle in Time as a literary work as she wishes her family could “tesser” across America just like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry. An inconsistency too or something more interesting than that, and I do love the idea that the Austin’s realism is not quite what it seems.

Calvin O’Keefe’s starfish work is from 1965’s The Arm of the Starfish (ostensibly the sixth book after Wrinkle…), which this reviewer found similar to The Young Unicorns but more problematic and less compelling. And in her review she also lays out the problem of Meg Murry, fierce and brave heroine of A Wrinkle In Time, but one who is forever playing second fiddle to a brilliant male character, whether it be her husband or her brother. I have always loved A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in the series, and I’d always hoped that the reason Meg Murry O’Keefe is sitting in her parents’ kitchen while her husband is out saving the world from nuclear annihilation is because she’s nine-months-pregnant with their first child. But if Starfish is any indication, Meg Murry retired from being a feminist icon as soon as she comes of age: Always called Mrs. O’Keefe, she is calm, reassuring, intent, focused on mothering her children, a near clone of Mrs. Austin in the Austin books, serene and capable. And all wrong for Meg Murry.”

As with the line, “Daddy doesn’t like women who wear pants,” in The Moon By Night, Mrs. Austin in The Young Unicorns is happy enough to uphold the patriarchal status quo. As her daughter Suzy explains of how Mrs. Austin gave up a fledging music career to become a doctor’s wife, “Well, she’s just Mother. She decided she didn’t want to be something, didn’t she?” And it’s interesting that we see L’Engle seemingly unable to write a woman character who balances her creative passions (whether they be art or science) with marriage and family life, especially since she herself managed to do so. Although one could speculate how successful L’Engle actually felt she was in this balancing seeing as she wrote these idealized self-denying maternal figures over and over again.

“I think the closest we ever come in this naughty world to realizing unity in diversity is around a family table,” Canon Tallis comments after spending time with the Austin family, and questions of family, connection ,and disconnection recur throughout the text. For the first time, the Austin family themselves feel estranged from each other, and there are also questions of how they can possibly imagine themselves as an island of peace and calm in a world so dangerous and broken. In their own small town, it was easier to suppose it, but living in the city it becomes undeniable that all things are connected. “And it’s all about what Grandfather’s always saying, how we can’t love each other if we separate ourselves from anybody, anybody at all, and how anything that happens to anybody in the world really happens to everybody.”

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