Book Review: “A Wind in the Door” by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: A Wind in the Door
Series: 2nd in L’Engle’s loose Time Quintet
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 240
Published: 1973
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A year after the events of A Wrinkle in Time. When Charles Wallace falls deathly ill, Meg and Calvin are informed by an alien Teacher that his health may affect the health of the Earth and of the entire universe. Meg must learn to fight her own hatred and prejudice in order to enlist an unexpected ally, and they all must travel inside Charles Wallace himself in order to save him and “restore brilliant harmony and joy to the rhythm of creation, the song of the universe.” (quote from book jacket)
Reason for Beginning: Continuing on from A Wrinkle in Time.
Reason for Finishing: L’Engle sure knows how to write a page-turner.
Story Re-readability: I don’t plan on rereading it since it isn’t as strong as A Wrinkle in Time, although I wouldn’t lament doing so if I had to. It’s a fast-paced read with plenty of good, creative ideas.
Author Re-readability: Her ideas are still fresh and poetic, her characters sympathetic and intelligent, and her writing sharp and energetic. Apologies for the generic adjectives, but I think they all apply. So far, I have confidence that in picking up any L’Engle book I would be treating myself to a good story, well told.
Recommendation: Yes, for anyone who liked A Wrinkle in Time. Whether it is quite as good as that book is a matter of debate—I think it lacks some of Wrinkle’s poetry and interesting locales, but might have a stronger moral theme of the importance of loving even those people who seem unlovable. However, an increasing number of L’Engle’s narrative devices feel arbitrary or simply not as well thought-out as they should be, and her theology becomes increasingly worrisome.

Key Thoughts

STORY

L’Engle’s books are among the few, recently, that have kept me reading late into the night, even as I lay tired in bed; for that I am happy and grateful. It’s a delightful and relaxing feeling to let go of the surrounding world and sink into her worlds of cherubim, mitochondria, and farandolae, confident that my imagination is in the hands of a skillful and eager storyteller.

The story is not structured as strongly as A Wrinkle in Time, because there is far more talking and far less traveling. In fact, there is no traveling to exotic places at all until the second half of the book. Fortunately, the conversations are as lively and full of interesting ideas as before, and even when the pacing falters a little, there is still plenty to keep your interest.

Still, this book has more obvious flaws than its predecessor. I like that L’Engle anticipates certain apparent paradoxes or questions the reader might have, and proceeds to answer them (sometimes immediately as they come up, sometimes later). But sometimes I still felt that her story was hampered by an occasional unwillingness to just be straightforward. She keeps everything as mysterious as possible as long as she can, and while mostly this is a great storytelling device that keeps up the tension and our interest, she often ends without giving us quite as many answers—or answers that make enough sense—as we deserve. Too many of the rules L’Engle invents seem annoyingly arbitrary, and her insistence on keeping her main characters as ill-informed as possible makes it feel less like they are making sovereign choices as being pulled (sometimes gently, sometimes not) to various plot points.

The cleverness of the scene where Meg is faced with three Mr. Jenkinses, two of whom are demon-Echthroi imposters, and must Name the real one, is undermined by the illogicality of its context. It is unbelievable that the real Mr. Jenkins, having just arrived at school to find two identical men looking exactly like him and claiming to be him, would not immediately and angrily drive them out or call the police. Instead, L’Engle has him “play along” with what to him as a ridiculous game as he waits for Meg to Name him. He has no understanding of the cosmic events at all, or of what Naming is, and there is no good reason for him to interrupt his work day to put up with this. It’s lazy writing, in my opinion.

Actually, the issues of Naming and X-ing are not explained clearly. Sometimes L’Engle says that Naming is forever—specifically, that Meg is forever Named—and yet key characters like Mr. Jenkins and Sporos, and even Meg at one point, must be Named and re-Named at certain points of the story. I think that to Name someone means to remind them of who they are in their soul, their essential nature, and that you have to love them truly. It also may have something to do with salvation, considering the importance L’Engle gives it—that is, having one’s name in the Book of Life. I think this because Naming is contrasted with X-ing, which at first is stated to be utter annihilation, or “unbeing, but in practice seems to be mere physical death. There is a huge gap between those two definitions, and L’Engle can’t decide which one she adheres to. The characters speak of X-ing as the most unimaginable evil thing that can happen to someone, but then when a certain protagonist (unnamed for major spoiler reasons) gets X-ed, it is stated that they are still forever Named, and that they still exist. So that, to me, implies that X-ing is simply killing, and a person who is X-ed is merely killed in a more supernatural-seeming way and is sent to Judgment before God. However, this is my extrapolation—L’Engle is unclear and contradictory on the matter.

I cannot be sure because L’Engle herself seems confused on the issue. And it’s a rather important plot point for her to be confused on.

L’Engle’s narrative style is still excellent. Her images are colorful and imaginative without overpowering the reader with big words and overly poetic phrasing. Every line of dialogue serves a purpose and felt consistent with the characters.

This is especially impressive considering the final third of the book takes place literally inside Charles Wallace’s mitochondria, which is so inconceivably tiny that the characters do not even have the ability to see. Thus, there is no physical description in this part of the book, only mentions of surreal sensations as our protagonists kythe with each other (a kind of purely spiritual telepathy) and can sort of “feel” each other almost as if physically, but not really. It’s a somewhat confusing concept, but it works well enough. It’s a very bold risk on L’Engle’s part to have the entire climax take place in this area, and she struggles a little with conveying action with the limitation of being technically unable to describe it. For the most part, though, she pulls it off, and I enjoyed the challenge of imagining these scenes.

CHARACTERS

As in A Wrinkle in Time, all is saved by the power of love, although here it is handled a little smoother. Rather than Meg having to find a way to love the impersonal IT (but not really), here she just has to love Mr. Jenkins, the school principal she hates and constantly butts heads with. In theory this should be easier for her, but in practice it is actually harder because she knows Mr. Jenkins and has had more time to build up a prejudice against him. In fact, Mr. Jenkins becomes the most interesting and layered character in the book, and it is his development that really kept me reading.

This picture fits my mental image better.

I can understand Meg’s dogmatic refusal to cease hating Mr. Jenkins, even if it became frustrating after awhile—it is entirely immature of her, but that’s fitting for her 15 years of age. She has difficulty even conceiving of loving him because his reputation for so many years has been that of a mean, unfair man, and his ignorance of Charles Wallace’s character has led to him to allow the boy’s bullying to continue unaddressed. My favorite part is when she remembers Calvin—now her boyfriend—telling her a story of when Mr. Jenkins took pity on him because his family was too poor to afford decent shoes and bought him a brand new pair, and then clumsily tried to dirty them in order to pretend they were old hand-me-downs (so as not to make his charity obvious, and thus potentially embarrassing to Calvin). Meg’s attitude towards Mr. Jenkins forms the thematic center of the book, and it’s this tender, considerate side of him revealed by Calvin that is brought out in the course of their adventures.

Calvin himself is even more likable here than in A Wrinkle in Time. He’s far more rational, level-headed, and compassionate than Meg; his maturity is refreshing, especially since much of this book exposes her immaturity. Not that Meg isn’t likable—she certainly still is, and I enjoy the time spent with her as the main protagonist—but it is refreshing to see her faults acknowledged, so that she can grow by learning from the wisdom of others. And she does grow and mature.

Proginoskes is a nice cherubim, although I dislike L’Engle’s trend of making all aliens and supernatural creatures as casual and petty as humans. Progo developed into a strong character, though, so I won’t hold it against him. Blajeny the Teacher fills the role of the Mrs. W’s in A Wrinkle in Time, but he is not in the book enough to really develop much, and generally serves L’Engle’s purposes by unloading huge responsibilities on Meg and then not explaining himself. He was kind of nice when he was around, but was not around all that much.

THEOLOGY

Unfortunately, even considering her extremely sideways manner of addressing spiritual themes, L’Engle still manages to drift further from actual Christian teaching. Her casual mention of billions of years and evolution reveals a lack of confidence in the literal nature of Scripture. Also, the whole issue of Charles Wallace being some point of cosmic equilibrium, where his fate alone could determine the fate of the whole universe, is becoming increasingly improbable and annoying, and is rather suspect theologically. I know that ultimately this is fantasy, but L’Engle is still constructing a theological frame which has all the signs of being consistent, at least metaphorically, with her own religious beliefs, and this frame is not matching the framework of the Bible.

UTTERLY PETTY QUIBBLES

On a far, far more shallow level, I just don’t like her insistence that Proginoskes is a singular cherubim rather than a cherub. Cherub, of course, is the proper singular form of plural cherubim, but when Calvin points this out, Progo just indignantly says that he is “practically plural” and resents the association of cherub with naked winged babies. But why does L’Engle feel the need to change English grammar? She gives no reason, no validation. It’s like she thinks that by being merely contrary she is being clever and original for her young readers, but that’s not the case. She is merely being arbitrary. It’s not a big point, but it annoyed me.

Also, why bother to call dragon droppings fewmets? Fewmets is from the Old English word for the droppings of any hunted animal, whether deer or boar or fox, etcetera. Dragons, it should be known, are not typically hunted animals in the traditional sense, especially not in her book. I guess some other fantasy books or role-playing games use the term for dragons, but I really see no authoritative reason for it. It makes no sense! Argh!

BOTTOM LINE

Ah well. It’s still a fine book, and a good one for kids to read. I’d just recommend that any Christian parents read it first and be prepared to discuss the story from a spiritual perspective with their kids.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

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