I was approximately ten years old the first time I read Madeleine L’Engle, the award-winning author of over sixty books, including A Wrinkle In Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind In the Door, who died on September 6, 2007 in Goshen, Connecticut.
I’ll never forget those simple drawings of an insect crawling on the fabric of Mrs. Who’s white robe. It looked like an ant walking a string tightrope. In those days, my friends and I learned as much science from comic books as from textbooks. An arch-villain called “Mr. 103” could morph into any element on the periodic table (now we would call him “Mr. 117”). Superman’s x-ray vision couldn’t penetrate lead, same as real x-rays. If The Flash vibrated fast enough, he could slide his molecules around the particles of a solid wall and pass through to the other side without damaging the wall.
But, A Wrinkle In Time was not a comic book. This was a gripping science fiction novel written for kids like me. It drew me in with a classic “dark and stormy night” beginning and launched me, not only to another planet, but also to a new plane of reading.
“You see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who’s right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across.”
Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.
“Now, you see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “he would be there without the long trip. That is how we traveled.”
The proverbial fold in the fabric of time: a sci-fi staple.
L’Engle was born in New York City on November 29, 1918. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a writer and drama critic. Her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp, was a pianist. Madeleine began writing stories, poems, and journals at an early age. When she was twelve, she moved with her parents to the Swiss Alps. She later went to high school in Charleston, South Carolina and graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1941.
After college, L’Engle moved to Greenwich Village where she worked in the theater. In 1944, she wrote a play called 18 Washington Square South: A Comedy in One Act. She published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945, in which the “write what you know” ethic is quite evident. The events in the book are dramatized, but the main character, whose mother is a pianist, goes to a boarding school in Switzerland and later moves to Greenwich Village.
While she was an understudy in Anton Chekhov’s play, The Cherry Orchard, she met her future husband, actor Hugh Franklin. They had a daughter and moved to Connecticut to live in a small farming village, where they bought and ran a general store for nine years. After their third child, the family moved back to the city so Hugh could pursue his acting career. In addition to writing and lecturing, Madeleine became the librarian for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
Hugh Franklin, perhaps best known as Dr. Charles Tyler on the television show All My Children, died of cancer in 1986. L’Engle said that writing and lecturing helped her cope with the sadness of losing her husband of forty years.
About a year ago, I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle, asking her if she had ever read the works of Charles Hinton or Edwin Abbott, two authors who wrote about the fourth dimension in the late 1800’s. I received a very pleasant letter back from her assistant, explaining that Madeleine was unable to answer inquiries due to her health. This gesture touched me. Even though Ms. L’Engle did not personally answer the letter, I believe it reflects on her generous nature that those close to her would take the time to do so.
Madeleine L’Engle is survived by children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and countless thankful fans.
Here are some inspiring words from Madeleine L’Engle’s acceptance speech upon receiving The Margaret Edwards Award (American Library Association Lifetime Achievement Award For Writing In The Field Of Young Adult Literature):
“So WRINKLE (in Time), when it was finally published in 1962, after two years of rejections, broke several current taboos. The protagonist was female, and one of the unwritten rules of science fiction was that the protagonist should be male. I’m a female. Why would I give all the best ideas to a male?
“Another assumption was that science and fantasy don’t mix. Why not? We live in a fantastic universe, and subatomic particles and quantum mechanics are even more fantastic than the macrocosm. Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth. During the fifties Erich Fromm published a book called The Forgotten Language, in which he said that the only universal language which breaks across barriers of race, culture, time,is the language of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, parable, and that is why the same stories have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years.”