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April 18, 2019

Troubling a Star, by Madeleine L’Engle

There are only two copies of Madeleine L’Engle’s Troubling a Star in the entire Toronto Public Library system, which made me wonder. The final book in the Austin series, published in 1994 which was 34 years after the series after the series debuted. It begins with Vicky Austin stranded on an iceberg in Antarctica…my hopes weren’t high. And so it was shocking that this was the book of all of them in the series that grabbed me and held me plot-wise, and that I loved it just as much as the other four.

Because while the idea of someone trapped on an iceberg didn’t intrigue me so much narrative-wise, I was all over a plot-driven novel of intrigued concerned with the fictional South American country of Vespugia. Vespugia? I’d not encountered Vespugia within the pages of a book since A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which is my favourite L’Engle novel and the one I’ve read over and over again. In that book, the country is on the brink of nuclear war, and Charles Wallace Murry is called upon to change the past in order to divert it with the help of a unicorn—which he does. By Troubling a Star, however, the country’s benevolent leader has been overthrown and replaced by a dictator, which has changed everything, and suddenly the country is unsafe, police and soldiers everywhere carrying big guns. Like all the books in the series, current events are the backdrop to the story—in 1994 with the fall of the USSR, L’Engle is aware of the precariousness of the new world order (possibly more than many others were at the time) and it makes sense that someone with her understanding of the universe would be able to see the dangers of the vacuum the emerges at the end of the Cold War (“Darkness was, and darkness was good. As was light. Light and darkness dancing together, born together, born of each other, neither preceding, neither following, both fully being in joyful rhythm,” from …Planet).

The story begins with Vicky becoming acquainted with her friend Adam Eddington’s great-Aunt Serena who, with grace and wisdom, fills a void in her life after the recent death of her beloved Grandfather. The family are back in their rural home after their year in New York and the summer of A Ring of Endless Light, and it’s an in-between year for Vicky, who is finishing her final year of high school and is still unsure of her plans for the future. So when Aunt Serena bestows upon Vicky the opportunity to join Adam (a student of marine biology) in Antarctica, she is wild about the idea. Except then she starts getting threatening notes in her locker warning her against the journey, which is very strange, and part of the reason she elects to ignore them.

But things get stranger fast, particularly when she arrives in Vespugia (because the journey to Antarctica is never direct) and begins to suspect that someone has gone through her suitcase, and Adam’s letters from the research station suddenly become cryptic and weird. Everybody travelling with her group begins to look suspicious, and Vicky is no longer sure if there is anyone to trust. Further, chapter begins with a few paragraphs of Vicky stranded on the ice berg, which is great because a) it means not having to read whole chapters about someone stranded on an ice berg and and b) that things for Vicky go so desperately wrong ups the tension and made me want to keep reading to find out how it happened.

A terrible revelation as I was reading this book: it’s uncanny, I’ve said with every one, how each of these novels so imbued with ominous tones of the late 20th century feels so timely now. But maybe it’s less uncanny than just really awful, that nuclear threats, authoritarianism, the omnipresence of dogma, violence and unrest, and chance of mass annihilations all feel so much of this moment: what a time to be alive. Environmental destruction is at the forefront at this book, the hole in the Ozone layer and everything. It anticipates global warming and how important the polar regions are and what bearing they will have on our climate future. And also the brutality and cruelties of nature, and that human beings are very much a part of that. “People who lived, on the surface, ordinary, decent lives also, without any sense of evil, fed other human beings into gas chambers.” In Vespugia, they come across ancient pyramids built by civilizations that were destroyed by colonization. Everything is connected, and nothing about the project of humanity can afford to be taken for granted.

I will admit that I didn’t completely pay attention to the details of the plot here, and some of it’s more than a bit absurd—but not as absurd as The Young Unicorns, which was thoroughly bonkers, so there’s the new standard. I think it’s amazing that this series, which is set in an approximately four year period, was written over 34 years, and manages to encompass massive global events and changes during that time. I know this is supposed to be L’Engle’s series that is doing more conventional things with time (as opposed to Wrinkle…) but it still blows my mind. Plus the ways that this series does (and also doesn’t) map onto the Time Quintet is mind-boggling. Is it the same universe? Are there infinite universes? And what does it mean that we ask these questions about a book that is fiction?

I am going to read The Arm of the Starfish next (which takes place just before A Ring of Endless Light) and then the books in the Polly O’Keefe series, which feature many of the characters I’ve encountered already in the Austin book—and I’m excited about that. The final book in that series is An Acceptable Time, which was published in 1989, which I tried to read years ago with the Wrinkle in Times series, but I see how I might not have appreciated it then. Perhaps I was always meant to wait until I was 40 and had done all the appropriate background reading first.

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