Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review: A Wind in the Door

“There is war in heaven, and we need all the help we can get. The Echthroi are speeding through the universe. Every time a star goes out another Echthros has won a battle. A star or a child or a farandole—size doesn’t matter…the balance of the entire universe can be altered by the outcome.”

In the Newberry-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle introduced readers to Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe when the three were called upon to rescue Meg’s father from a monstrous, disembodied force that sought to absorb all creatures with free will. Now, in the second book of L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Meg and Calvin are once again visited by magical beings that need their help—this time to save Charles Wallace’s life.

L’Engle’s novels are often categorized as fantasy, but contain an interesting and unusual blend of science/sci-fi and spirituality; A Wind in the Door is no exception. Drawing from the Bible, L’Engle introduces the concept of the Echthroi—fallen angels who are the major destructive force in the universe. They are ripping holes in the sky, spreading darkness and nothingness, and they are responsible for Charles Wallace’s growing weakness and palor as well.

At the beginning of A Wind in the Door, it is revealed that the extremely intelligent and intuitive Charles is steadily growing more and more ill; his mother, who is a renowned biologist, believes that his illness has something to do with his mitochondria. She sets to work in her lab, trying to understand his condition, while Charles and Meg’s physicist father is away consulting with other scientists about some potentially dangerous occurrences in outer space. L’Engle uses these circumstances to place the children in a typical situation of Children’s Literature: because of their parents’ limited understanding and availability, the responsibility to save Charles Wallace falls to Meg and Calvin.

Thus begins the adventure narrative, which involves fighting the agenda of evil spiritual creatures with both the knowledge of science (or rather, L’Engle’s version of science) and the great power of love. I’m not really fond of the author’s reoccurring love-conquers-all message; it’s a little too simplistic, even for Children’s Literature. But I enjoy that the cheribum Proginoskes is also based on a creature from the Bible—the many-winged, many-eyed seraphim in Isaiah.

Proginoskes is sent to partner with Meg; together, the two must face three tests in order to defeat the Echthroi and save Charles Wallace. Although Calvin and several others will play a role as well, Meg and Proginoskes must make a special connection—something that is difficult for Meg at first because of the cheribum’s alarming appearance. But she must learn to trust and love Proginoskes in order to save her little brother; she must learn to “kythe” with him, which is essentially a type of telepathic communication. For the sake of Charles Wallace, Meg must open herself up to a creature that is terrifying in appearance and seems wholly unlike herself.

While re-reading the first two novels in L’Engle’s Time Quintet, it occured to me that Meg is something of a weak and immature character, always wishing that someone else would come along and save the day. This bothered me as I was reading, doubly so because this female character was created by a woman. I want my female characters to be strong and heroic, but Meg is rather snively and whiny, always crying and hiccupping, then having to polish her glasses once they’ve become streaked with her tears. She is often both frightened and frustrated, and always wants a male to come in and take the lead. In A Wrinkle in Time, she is at first convinced that if she and the others can just find her father, Dr. Murry will be able to set everything right, and she is painfully disappointed when he isn’t capable of facing the monstrous IT in order to save Charles Wallace. In the end, it is she who has to return to the planet Camazotz to rescue her brother. Even after this empowering experience, though, Meg continues to be a very anxious and hesitant person, often wishing for the comforting presence of her sort-of-boyfriend Calvin. In A Wind in the Door, she also wants the Teacher Blajeny to handle the Echthroi, instead of having to face the three tests with Proginoskes. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to face off with fallen angels either, but I still found myself wishing for a slightly more stalwart heroine.

I also realize, though that Meg’s weakness is essential to the story – because A Wind in the Door is not simply about saving Charles Wallace, but about how our heroine must overcome her selfishness and immaturity in order to defeat the Echthroi. Meg, who is so often misunderstood by her peers and teachers, must learn to love others who are very different from her—both Proginoskes and the disagreeable Mr. Jenkins—in order to partner with them. Although an adolescent’s typical desire is to first be understood by others, Meg must overcome that desire; she must be the mature one who reaches out to understand those around her. Once she is able to look past her own prejudices and love those that at first seem unlovable, a more mature Meg must then help Calvin and Proginoskes convince another young character to “deepen”—another word for his species’ maturation. Charles Wallace’s survival and recovery ultimately depends on the willingness of both Meg and this secondary character to accept the responsibilities of an adult, whether or not they feel that it is time to grow up.

The novel is steeped in the language and trappings of sci-fi, which I must admit that I find less easy to swallow than pure fantasy for some reason. I find L’Engle’s descriptive imagining of the world inside a mitochondrion to be quite beautiful, but the fact that a great amount of the novel is spent explaining this and that pseudo-scientific concept can become quite a drag, too. And as I already stated, the “love connects the entire universe” and “love conquers all” messages are a little too simplistic and touchy-feely for me to enjoy L’Engle’s novels as much as I enjoy Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. (I can’t help but continue to compare the two.) Ultimately, though, I really appreciate the way that L’Engle forces the characters to accept responsibility for more than themselves. Whenever I read The Time Quintet, I find myself chafing though most of the novel, then suddenly having an “ah-ha!” moment and being glad that I read the book. So don’t let my bit of bah-humbug stop you from reading A Wind in the Door—especially if you enjoy science fiction. Even if you don’t, it’s still a great read for kids and even a fairly enjoyable one for adults.

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