The Madeleine L’Engle Reread

Penguins Against Nuclear War: Troubling a Star

In 1994, Madeleine L’Engle turned to Vicky Austin again to write the last book in her Austin series, Troubling a Star. The last in the Austin series, it is an odd coda, featuring a Vicky somehow younger and more naïve than in her last appearance, involved in an international adventure of espionage that threatens the most remote continent on Earth – Antarctica. And although it is ostensibly a sequel to A Ring of Endless Light, it is also a sequel to A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which creates many of its problems.

Let’s get my first and major irritation with the book out of the way first: the way that this book made me feel as if most of what had happened in A Swiftly Tilting Planet turned out to be completely pointless. I had thought that the entire point of the end of A Swiftly Tilting Planet was that El Zarco, not El Rabioso, was born — but as this book shows, not so much. Presumably the evil Gedder of Matthew Maddox’ time managed to sire children before getting thrown off a cliff, and/or his sister managed to have a child with Bran or Rich before either married anyway. Yes, I suppose we can argue that at least the good El Zarco, born as a result of Charles Wallace’s interference in various lives, took control of the imaginary country of Vespugia for just long enough to institute a few environmental policies here and there, but just a few years later, the evil Gedders are back again, doing evil dictator things, although cheerfully enough this makes travelling just a little bit safer, since as Vicky’s parents tell us ordinary tourists are often safer in police states.

(This of course assumes that ordinary tourists can even get into these police states to begin with, which is in my experience not always true, but moving on.)

Anyway. The result is that Vicky, her possible boyfriend Adam Eddington, and others may be in deadly danger — a point only emphasized by L’Engle’s narrative technique of presenting much of the book in ongoing flashback sequences, with the intro to each chapter reminding us that all of this leads to Vicky finding herself trapped on an iceberg in Antarctica. The main question is why.

Unfortunately, the answer is almost as implausible as the idea of a 16 year old stuck on an iceberg in Antarctica in the first place, but to more or less sum up: it’s thanks to Adam, who has introduced Vicky to his wealthy Great Aunt Selina before heading down to Antarctica to do some research inspired by the work of an earlier relative, also (irritatingly enough) named Adam who may or may not have been murdered by Vespugians. Selina decides to send Vicky on a trip to Antarctica on a somewhat scientific cruise ship; her parents realize that they can’t deny Vicky the opportunity. And since Vicky has been having a blah time in high school, comforted only by Shakespeare and occasional letters from Adam, she agrees to go, even after receiving mysterious and frightening notes in her locker.

Once she arrives in Vespugia, however, even the naïve Vicky realizes that something must be up after someone tries to push her off a pyramid. (Some people need really, really obvious signs.)  Some of the people on the cruise ship are clearly up to no good, while others — especially those willing to sing to penguins — are clearly very good indeed. (And although Vicky is naïve even for a L’Engle character, when she feels she can trust someone, this turns out — spoiler! — to be always true, which is mildly annoying.) And then off they go, first to the Falkland Islands, and then to dangerous, deadly Antarctica, with its adorable penguins, finding evil Vespugians along the war and freaking out about nuclear waste, in one of L’Engle’s most intriguing real world settings.

But despite the narrative hook, this book contains a number of plot issues, loopholes and hard to swallow coincidences. Adam’s aunt just happens to be a long term patient of Vicky’s father, something that somehow never came up in the previous book. Suzy’s Spanish teacher just happens to come from Vespugia and somehow just happens to be aware that Vicky just happens to be in contact with Adam (and on a related note this book has far too many Adams.)  And so on. And, of course, the idea that Aunt Selina is willing to give Vicky the unbelievable present of a trip to Antarctica, after only a few scattered meetings. (And that Suzy, who by all indications would more greatly benefit from the trip, manages to be happy for her sister instead of jealous — a plot issue handled with considerably more deftness in Little Women.)

The base plot — that the Vespugians want a slice of the resources of Antarctica — is probable enough, although I had to choke at the little sanctimonious comment suggesting that the American interest in Antarctica is noble and pure, inspired only by scientific interest, unlike those evil South American Vespugians, even those descended from nice Welsh people, and eastern Europeans just coming out from the mean and nasty yoke of communism, and I sense many of the people of Chile would not be thrilled with certain passages in this book.

Other passages may irritate other readers. For instance, in the beginning of the novel, Vicky tells us, yet again, that boys go after her beautiful sister Suzy, not her (apparently forgetting the previous book, where three boys were chasing Vicky and only one boy expressed interest in Suzy.) By the middle of the novel, three boys are again chasing Vicky — and one is even a prince, even if a prince of a small land only recently freed from Communist rule. Admittedly, this is partly because Vicky is the only pretty teenager around, and Vicky does have a prior relationship with one of them. But still, the book both expects us to believe that Vicky is terrible with boys, and, as an ordinary teenage girl without much money, really does have a chance with the prince who has spent much of the book assuring Vicky that really, really, really he needs money. This adoration of Vicky can become slightly annoying.

I also found myself frustrated that the Vicky’s budding ESP abilities and empathy with dolphins, so well developed in the previous book, were dropped here. If anything, that, more than “does Adam like me?” would be an excellent reason for Vicky to visit the Antarctic — our information about dolphin species in the Southern Ocean is still limited, and telepathy might help us find out more.

But my largest frustration came with L’Engle’s overreaching message, that harming things in Antarctica is against the pattern of the universe, so much that destroying anything in the nearly frozen continent would trouble a star light years away. It’s not that I’m exactly against the concept, but I found myself troubled with L’Engle’s insistence that Antarctica needs to be preserved for the harmony of the universe. Antarctica is worth preserving for its own sake (and that of its astonishingly cute penguin population) not because it might trouble a distant star someplace or other. The star will get over it.

And one minor point that was probably just me: I found myself continually distracted every time Vicky or anyone else mentioned “miching mallecho,” this largely because it brought up old college discussions of how exactly this is pronounced, reminding me that years later I still have no idea, strongly suggesting that Hamlet should have spent less time blathering on and on and more time explaining how to pronounce this phrase. But I digress.

Yet for all that, this book has many magical moments: the bit where Siri sings to the penguins; the parts where Vicky struggles and then triumphs with her poetry (and in a very nice touch, these poems once sound exactly like the sorts of poems a 16 year old would write — i.e., not very good, and far beneath L’Engle’s usual poetry, but full of emotion and angst.) Vicky’s uncertainties, and her earnest efforts to get everything out of the trip — and her joyful encounter with humpback whales. If a few of the descriptions occasionally fell into the “What I did on my winter vacation” mode, L’Engle inserted enough joy and interest in the rest that I found myself longing to go to the Falklands and Antarctica, severe cold, seasickness and expense notwithstanding. It may not be one of L’Engle’s more plausible novels, but if only the bits connected to A Swiftly Tilting Planet had been left out, I would have enjoyed it very much.

After checking prices for cruise trips in the Falklands and Antarctica, Mari Ness cheerfully reminded herself that Florida is lovely and warm, if a bit lacking in cute penguins and fur seals. She urges all of you who can afford it to go on the trip for her.


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