17 August 2007

A Wrinkle in Time in Its Own Time—and Ours

Square Fish, the new paperback imprint of Farrar, Straus and its corporate cousins, sent me the "Special Teacher's Edition with Bonus Material" of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, part of a promotion that includes a dedicated website.

This reissue includes Anna Quindlen's thought-provoking five-page appreciation of the book at the front. Quindlen reminds us how A Wrinkle in Time grew out of the cultural concerns of the early 1960s:

The identical houses outside which identical children bounce balls and jump rope in mindless unison evoke the fear that so many Americans had of Communist regimes that enshrined the interests of state-mandated order over the rights of the individual.
Yet within the next ten years, American youth would see the danger of conformity coming from quite a different direction: from within American society itself. That theme of the book remains powerful over four decades later, even as our notions of sameness continue to evolve.

The heroine Meg's personal geekiness is another way that A Wrinkle in Time proved to be a leading indicator of changes in our culture. She was smart but not socially adept, scared but insistent. And of course she was a girl in a novel with more than a dollop of science fiction, a genre then considered for males only. Meg presaged many changes in children's literature, and remains resonant today while most female protagonists from other forty-year-old books seem historic.

Indeed, about the only important detail that feels dated in A Wrinkle in Time to me is the shame Meg and her family feel about local whispers that her father has abandoned them. Divorce no longer being such a taboo and anathema, I suspect that the community would react differently today, even if the family felt the same.

As a last, minor illustration of L'Engle's prescience, the great villain of the novel is IT, a "cold and calculating disembodied intelligence." In 1961, when L'Engle started to write, who could have foretold that forty years on we'd all be in thrall to Departments of I.T. and their machines?

The other bonus material in this Special Teacher's Edition is:
  • an interview with L'Engle (also available as a PDF download from this page)
  • L'Engle's Newbery acceptance speech from 1963 (also available here)
  • a cast of characters for her two main series (Murrys and Austins), with intertwined family trees
  • a Discussion and Activity Guide, with web resources

No comments: