A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle

It’s always a bit dangerous to reread books you loved when young. Recently I reread A Wrinkle in Time and enjoyed it perhaps even more than I did back then. However, this third installment of the series featuring the Murry family dragged for me. Perhaps it was the weather or my mood, but I struggled to pay attention to it.

Thanksgiving has brought the Murry clan together. Ten years have passed since A Wind in the Door, the second book. Charles Wallace is fifteen and still in touch with his mysterious abilities. Meg is not only grown up and married to Calvin, she is expecting a baby. Calvin himself is away at a conference in Britain, but his mother has joined them, much to the Murry’s surprise. An inarticulate and apathetic woman, Mrs. O’Keefe has demonstrated only dislike for Meg and the Murrys and indifference to her son.

The somewhat overly idyllic (other than Meg’s mother-in-law) family get-together is interrupted by a phone call from the President, who often consults with Mr. Murry, warning that nuclear war is about to erupt thanks to a South American dictator, “Mad Dog” Branzillo. Mrs. O’Keeffe rouses herself to recite an ancient rune and insist that Charles Wallace must prevent the catastrophe.

Charles Wallace heads out to the star-watching rock, asking Meg to remain at home and kythe with him, i.e., communicate telepathically. Although he does not know what to expect, a unicorn appears who is able to put him “within” other people. The unicorn cautions him that he must become the other person, forgetting himself and his own thoughts so as not to confuse the person.

At this point, Meg and Charles Wallace essentially disappear from the story, which instead follows the succession of people whom Charles Wallace goes “within”. Most of these people are found at the rock itself; I loved thinking about the various people who have inhabited a small plot of land over the centuries. However, I found the similarity of names confusing and eventually tiresome. We meet Madoc, Madog, Maddux, and Mad Dog; Gwydder, Gedder, and Gwen; Zyllie, Zyllah, Zylle; plus two Branwens. I was also jerked out of the story late in the game when Mrs. Murry suddenly realizes that the names Madoc and Mad Dog may be related. She’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist. The whole family is supposed to be super intelligent. Yet no one thought of this before.

The idea that an individual and his or her choices can change the fate of the entire world inspires in me equal part happiness and fear. Since my choices have almost never turned out the way I expected, I tend to approach them with trepidation. But I did appreciate that the way to foster change is first to listen, as Charles Wallace is ordered to do.

I had some other issues with the story. One is the relegation of the women characters to a role that has no opportunities for intelligence and is limited to wife/girlfriend/mother. Another would be the racist implications of the constant injunction that you could tell the good guy because he has blue eyes, not to mention the whole South American thing.

The loss of Meg and Charles Wallace as characters leaves a huge empty space in the book, but there is still much to like. The unicorn is given a pretty good personality and escapes being treacly. And then there’s the whole business about the space-time continuum which I find endlessly fascinating.

One of my two favorite parts is the title, a quote from a Conrad Aiken poem. I just love the phrase and appreciate how it captures the essence of the story. The other is the emergence of an unexpected hero. I think the part in the Harry Potter series that moved me the most was when Neville Longbottom—well, no spoilers, though I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the story. Similarly, here my heart lifted and I forgave L’Engle everything when I came to that part.

Did you read Madeleine L’Engle’s books when young? Have you reread them recently?

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