A Swiftly Tilting Planet
[Reading Challenge 2019]

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

by Madeleine L’Engle
Dell Yearling, 1978

[Challenge # 4: A children’s book, middle grade or younger.]

A Swiftly Turning Planet is a hot mess of a book, but not without its rewards. The third installment of the Murry family saga that began with A Wrinkle in Time, it features the insufferable Charles Wallace as the protagonist with a grumpy time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior as his companion. It’s not a direct sequel; there’s an intervening book, A Wind in the Door. But the story was easy to pick up without having read it.

That said, Planet shows its age in a way that Wrinkle does not. The book begins when the Murry family, approximately ten years removed from the events of Wrinkle, are about to sit down and eat Thanksgiving dinner when a call comes from the US president. It seems Mad Dog Branzillo, the war-mongering South American dictator of the imaginary country of Vespugia, has acquired nuclear weapons and is threatening to let them fly on the world. Right off the bat there was so much wrong with this banana republic trope, not the least of it its leader’s name. It’s revealed later Branzillo has that name for a reason, and it’s a clever one that ties into the story’s central mystery. But still… way to insult South Americans, now-deceased YA author.

Mrs. O’Keefe, Meg Murry’s reclusive, unfriendly mother-in-law (for she has married Calvin O’Keefe) is at the dinner too, and she mutters an ancient Welsh rune, or poem of protection, at the news, which inspires Charles Wallace to find a way to neutralize this event. He wanders outside to the ancient star-watching rock on the Murry acreage where he meets a winged, time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior, who is to escort him back in time so he can go “within.” That is, embedding himself into people who lived on the same land in the past to find a way to tweak the fabric of time so the current situation is defused. It turns out both Mad Dog Branzillo and Mrs. O’Keefe share an ancient connection, and both the characters and the reader must figure it out.

It’s one of the most complicated plots I’ve ever seen. Every word of L’Engle means something, and the reader must work, hard. In fact, I can’t see how YA readers raised on simpler fare like Cinder or The Maze Runner would have much patience with it. As an adult, I didn’t have much patience with it at times, even as I admired its cleverness and the way everything dovetailed together in the end. L’Engle is still a magnificent writer, and at her worst is better than 95% of modern YA writers at their best; but boy, was there a lot to be unpacked.

There was some dubious science and history as well, such as The People of the Wind, a tribe of proto-Native Americans who live on a lake where they ride iridescent blue-green dolphins who spray water out of their blowholes. (That’s not how it works; cetaceans breathe through their blowholes, which are actually their noses, and while the air they exhale might have moisture in it, it’s not a water spray such as what an elephant might make by suctioning water up through its trunk and blowing it out.) Though delightful, it was just wrong. Cetaceans would not be iridescent either, or blue-green, or live in lakes in geologically recent times; and neither would ancient people have flown through the air on giant birds as also occurs in the story.  Though not depicted negatively, noble savage clichés abounded, and the writer would probably receive criticism if it had been written today.

As Charles Wallace travels through time in other people’s bodies he is accompanied by Meg, who is kything with him, linked to him mentally from her bed at home and experiencing the things he does. Meg, such a strong character in Wrinkle, disappoints here. The twins study law and medicine, Mom has a Nobel Prize, Dad gets calls from the President, Calvin is giving symposiums in foreign countries, and Charles Wallace remains vaguely gifted and mystical, but all poor Meg has done is become attractive, get married to Cal, and gotten pregnant. She’s not even doing well at that because she’s been sick and has been advised not to strain herself for the baby’s sake. She still has no self-esteem and is fine being condescended to by the other members of the family. The book even states she’s out of practice in kything. Whatever.

(And if she’s to watch her health, why the heck is she sleeping in her old bedroom in the family’s attic, with its rickety stairs and single electric plug-in heater?)

Charles Wallace disappears when he’s in the other people, so their stories belong to them, not Charles Wallace, while Meg observes and transmits clues to the mystery from the present day. It’s an odd but audacious device, compressing into one book what might take four or five to do. Things did not feel rushed, but they did feel skimmed as we flip-flopped from New England to Wales to Patagonia and then back to New England again. Since Gaudior’s magic traverses time but not space, the Wales and Patagonia events are portrayed in a plot device within a plot device, in the form of old letters discovered by Mrs. O’Keefe in her attic.  The book is readable despite the clumsiness, but I wish it had been edited better. The author often forgets her POV, calling, for example, Chuck’s grandmother as “the grandmother” even though we are clearly in Chuck and not third person omniscient. Body parts too are disconnected from their owners, like “the boy bent over the great neck” when it should be “Charles Wallace bent over Gaudior’s great neck.”

L’Engle never referred to current events or even technology beyond phones and cars in the books, which gives them a timeless quality… up to a point. (For modern readers, the lack of cellphones and computers dates them.) In later years she said the series took place in Kairos, a sort of Christian alternate universe. I don’t know if that was a serious statement on her part or a cop out, but at times I did feel she was ignoring her own timeline.

So, I’ll take a stab at creating one here.

First off, I’ll posit Wrinkle takes place in 1963, the year after it was first published. The anxiety of the Cold War and dreary sameness of suburban life come through very clearly in the book, while the turmoil and sense of hopelessness makes me think of the Kennedy assassination. From Wrinkle we know that Meg is 13 and Charles Wallace 6. Calvin O’Keefe is one year older than Meg, so he is 14. I’m going to ballpark Mrs. Murry’s age as 35 and the twins at 11, in junior high but not  teens as yet. Mr. Murry, who knows.

A Wrinkle in Time

Mrs. Murry (b. 1928)

Meg (b. 1950)

Twins (b. 1952)

Charles Wallace (b. 1957)

Calvin O’Keefe (b. 1949)

Mrs. O’Keefe (b. 1928)

35

13

11

6

14

35

(It’s stated in Planet that Mrs. O’Keefe is the same age as Mrs. Murry when the disparity in their health and looks is commented on. Because of the number of her children – eleven! – I’ll say Mrs. O’Keefe married very young, perhaps at 17. )

When we come to Planet, Charles Wallace is stated to be 15. I’ll stretch it and say he’s 15 going on 16. So now the year is 1973. Israel is mentioned fleetingly in the story as a holder of nuclear weapons, which makes sense as the Yom Kippur War had just happened in October of that year so it would have been on the family’s mind during Thanksgiving.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Mrs. Murry (b. 1928)

Meg (b. 1950)

Twins (b. 1952)

Charles Wallace (b. 1957)

Calvin O’Keefe (b. 1949)

Mrs. O’Keefe (b. 1928)

45

23

21

15 going on 16

24

45

Even considering this, some things just don’t make sense.

Mrs. O’Keefe, Calvin’s neglectful, poverty-stricken  mother in Wrinkle, is one of the people Charles Wallace interacts with when he’s embedded in the past. Her age is given as 12 when a pivotal event of her life occurs, which would make the year 1939. It’s said she’s wearing blue jeans. Now, in that time I think farming or rural people might have worn jeans while doing chores, but not people who live in a town, where propriety still put young girls in dresses. Jeans as knockabout wear for women didn’t catch on until the late 1950s. It’s also said, that while standing near the star-watching rock, they hear the roar of trucks on the freeway and airplanes in the sky. Trucking was not prevalent for goods transport in the 1930s and a freeway being near the small town they live in doesn’t sound likely either. Highways and freeways were a product of post WWII America, mainly the 1960s. In 1939 they might have heard a truck putt-putting along on a country road but certainly not a freeway roar. Airplane noise would have been rare as well, as commercial air traffic was still far in the future. Mrs. O’Keefe’s 1939 sounds a lot like 1965.

This made me question the story’s verisimilitude and made me think the author did not do her historical research. Even though the story was about an alternate history – the founding of a fictional country named Vespugia in Patagonia by Welsh, Spanish, and native settlers – that doesn’t mean facts of history outside of that, like the existence of freeways in 1939 or iridescent lake dolphins, can be posited willy-nilly.

On the plus side, there was some wonderful descriptive writing in here that called to mind the exotic worlds of A Wrinkle in Time, like the unicorns hatching from eggs on a planet of warm, creamy snow, drinking moonlight and starlight. C.S. Lewis was a big influence on the writer, and it shows, but she is also equal parts Madame Blavatsky, and her vision foretells the gush of New Age religious fantasies that began to be published in the 1980s, the kind you’d find in the  rec room of a very hip Unitarian Church. The family’s interactions, which are the core of all the books, remain fresh. L’Engle had a way of writing them so the reader felt like a fly on the wall, unobtrusively eavesdropping.

There were also unalterable tragedies which are not sugarcoated. Parents die suddenly, children are abused or fall sick or go mad. There are misunderstandings both familial and cultural, and young people lose their dreams and ambitions. In the present day as well loss occurs: Fortinbras, the Murry family dog, has died, and a much-loved vegetable garden plowed under for lack of a caretaker. (A new dog, Ananda, appears in the course of the story to offer comfort.) There was a downbeat note with Gaudior, too. You’d think a flying unicorn with a name that means “Joy” might be more affable, but as a guide he had none of Mrs. Whatsit’s or Aunt Beast’s warmth and tenderness. For all his majesty he was kind of standoffish and acted like he’d rather be doing something else, somewhere else.

In the end, Mad Dog Branzillo is not all he seems and neither is Mrs. O’Keefe, who receives a new respect even though she is too old and tired to change her ways or make amends.

This was a divisive book for me. It annoyed me with its clichés and sense of naivete, yet has stuck in my mind for the way it all fit together just so, like a complex, many-faceted jewel.

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