Monday, August 22, 2011
Important Novels: A Wrinkle In Time
Why A Wrinkle in Time? Why Blood Meridian? For that matter, why The Hobbit? Let's start with Madeleine L'Engle's novel. This was, along with the novel Kon Tiki, the first full novel I read when I was about eleven years old.
At the time, my family and I were living in the Baltimore suburbs, at the aptly literary named complex, Canterbury Apartments. It was our first apartment in America, having previously lived with my aunt in her beautiful mini-mansion in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. When we moved to Canterbury, we lived on the second floor, in apartment 2C--a two bedroom with a balcony that afforded us a view of a road, and beyond it, a forest of maples and pines. There were no literary types in the community, not that I would know who lived there anyway, as we mostly kept to ourselves.
I had developed a habit of escaping. This started while living in my aunt's house. I would find myself roaming nearby the abandoned gold course across the street, entering the copse of oaks, walking along the creekbed, riding my bicycle through the trails near her home. So, when we settled in Baltimore, I did more of the same. I would pass through the complex, cross the road and enter the woods, taking in the smells and textures and sights and sounds of nature. Walking, surveying, digging, climbing, reconnected me with myself.
It was during one of these "walkabouts" that I found a rain soaked copy of A Wrinkle in Time in a pile of mashed up leaves by a tree that looked as if struck by lightning. I dusted off the book, tried to open the cover, but because of its water damaged condition, managed to tear it in half.
When school started that fall, I went to the library and asked for the book, but couldn't remember what it was called. But I remembered the picture on the cover: Blue, three circles, in each circle the figure of a person. The librarian knew what I was referring to and led me to the bookshelf. Whereas the tattered copy I had found in the woods felt anemic, this copy had heft, weight as if it was filled with its own soul. I checked it out and that weekend, read it cover to cover.
What was in it that was so magical to me? Time as character, I suppose. Not just that. Alienated characters? Fantastical plot? The magic of time travel? For a boy who loved wordplay, it was the names of the characters themselves that first amused and delighted me: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, the fear inspiring Centaurs and The Black Thing, all gave pleasure, fueling my imagination. The book was equal parts myth, mystery, magic, speculation, and physics. Tesseracts? The battle between light and dark? I was too young to understand or pick up on all of its Biblical allusions, but years later when I read it again, slower, soaking up every rich detail, I began to see its layers. I began to understand how a novel could work on multiple levels, as a fantastic mystery, as well as an allegory of the battle of the soul between good and evil.
Prior to living in Apt 2C, we had (that is my mother, brother and I, lived by ourselves in one room of my aunt's beautiful mini-mansion in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. My father was in India. It was in that room that I developed insecurities towards life and my future. I thought of my father as a heroic man, but also a tragic figure. I felt our separation from him and his from us constituted an act of aggression by God for having committed some sin against Him. At times I imagined my father as having been kidnapped, so I began drawing comics, and invented a flying T-Rex who could shoot lasers from his claws. I imbued him with all the attributes of a superhero and made him in charge of returning my father to us. "Mynel," my dinosaur, vigilante anti-hero, defended the rights of misfits, the alienated, the marginalized. He would vanquish whatever evil was keeping my father away from us.
When I first opened the book and read the opening sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night,"I immediately felt thrust into a new world, where all things could be possible, where I, if I had enough courage and curiosity, could travel through time and space to new worlds, fight evil, and return those I loved back to their rightful place.
For a boy who so desperately needed his world to make sense, A Wrinkle in Time became a conversation with my imagination. It opened my mind by touching my heart, making me feel less alone. Because it was the first novel I ever read, introducing the themes of Time, Memory, and Identity, Religion, Injustice, and Politics (themes that continue to hold my interest), the novel remains one of my most important.