In 1959, Madeleine L’Engle and her family took a camping trip across the United States. The trip proved remarkably beneficial to L’Engle’s writing career: not only did she conceive of A Wrinkle in Time during the journey, but the trip also provided the plot and background for her second novel in the Austin Family Series: The Moon by Night (1963).
The novel starts when Maggy, the orphan from the first novel, having presumably outlived her function as a character, gets packed off to live with other relatives as the rest of the Austins take a camping trip, traveling all the way across the United States and back, with various stops to see relatives and national and state parks along the way. It has the same warm-hearted family feeling as the earlier book, Meet the Austins, and again features the sympathetic, easy to identify with Vicky as a main character, and I’m trying to figure out why I just can’t get fond of it.
Part of the problem is the narrative style: leisurely, punctuated by various small to large adventures here and there, much like an actual trip. Between the adventures, Vicky wallows in long descriptions, which sound exactly like the descriptions of a fourteen year old. And while I must give kudos to L’Engle for capturing a fourteen year old’s voice so accurately, the truth is, while reading about the adventures of a fourteen year old can be interesting, reading her descriptions of and thoughts on American national parks is considerably less so.
It doesn’t help that whenever the Austin family reaches an interesting place, like Santa Fe, Vicky announces that she isn’t going to describe it because readers can look it up in a guide book or encyclopedia, before, well, going ahead and providing only a little less description than she does of other places. (And many of the places Vicky thinks won’t be in a guidebook are.) In a related problem, Vicky fills these descriptions with lots of “reallys” and “ theres” and similarly dull words. She’s not a poet, and this shows, especially when L’Engle later interrupts the text for Vicky to remember various poems and hymns, and far too much of this reads as an uninteresting description of What I Did On My Summer Vacation.
And while I don’t know if this is L’Engle simply coming out of the intense creative effort of writing A Wrinkle in Time, this book shows signs of lack of focus, hasty writing, and not enough editing, inconsistent internally and with its predecessor. For instance, on page 27, Vicki tells us that she slept in the car on the trip; a few pages later, she tells us that she is slept in tents. That sort of thing, and while she could certainly have done both, neither passage makes that suggestion.
This leads to two related problems: a lack of an overreaching narrative, and pacing. The overall story, I suppose, is Vicky Grows Up, and What Will Happen Next on the Trip? But L’Engle’s tendency to spend little time on some of the more intriguing parts of the trip — a flash flood, the scramblings of a bear, and so on — and more time on lengthy and diffuse descriptions of “and then we did this and this is how we figured out bathroom and snack trips” and so on does not making for a gripping narrative. And to have a potentially compelling story about an abandoned baby (admittedly one marred by the general annoyingness of Suzy in that story) immediately followed by a dull description of Las Vegas with the unsurprising conclusion that Vegas, it is Phony, is a letdown.
The overreaching plot of Vicky Grows Up is not much better. Vicky is, as she slowly realizes, naïve and sheltered, but the problem is, by the end of the book, even after she’s seen most of the United States and parts of Canada and been told and shown by various people that she’s naïve and sheltered….she’s still naïve and sheltered, but less aware of this. A scene in Canada, where Vicky is shocked, shocked, shocked, to realize, gasp, that some Canadians don’t like Americans (I know. I was stunned too) perhaps best shows this.
Vicky is first shocked and upset that, gasp, Canadians will watch films that make fun of Americans. Later, a small Canadian boy is badly injured, and his mother wants to put on a tourniquet. Vicky’s eleven year old sister correctly objects to this, before Vicky — belatedly — runs to get her father, a doctor. When Vicky and her father return, Vicky screams at the Canadian woman, accusing her of incredible prejudice against all Americans, entirely missing the rather obvious point that the woman’s son is bleeding badly and under the care of an eleven year old and then by a complete stranger. I’d be upset too. Fortunately, the Canadians in question learn to love and accept Americans (sigh) and Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh show up which is always cheering, but Vicky remains upset that anyone could hate Americans — this after she has spent much of the book witnessing some decidedly appalling behavior from Americans.
And that, in the end, was my problem with the novel: when I read this at twelve, I felt considerably older and more sophisticated than Vicky. Now, I can appreciate L’Engle’s skill at depicting the self-involved, naïve voice of a fourteen year old, but I also find it irritating.
This is also the novel that introduces Zachary Grey, L’Engle’s emotionally troubled villain, who we’ll be seeing in several later novels, and his appearance may be coloring the novel for me. I have several problems with L’Engle’s depiction of Zachary. For one, and even knowing the “falling for the bad guy” phenomenon, I fail to see why anyone is falling for Zachary: even in between the periods of emotional abuse and mind games, he’s not charming, he’s not funny, and he has very little to offer besides wealth. Which, admittedly, might be enough for some girls, but the girls who do fall for Zachary, including Vicky, are not interested in money.
At the same time, however, I find myself agreeing with much of what Zachary says, both here and in some of the later books. And that’s a problem: L’Engle wants me to dislike Zachary or at least be wary of him, and I do, but the fact remains: he’s spot on here with most of what he is saying, especially with his observations about Vicky and the Navajo — even though L’Engle wants me to disagree with him. It’s a narrative problem that she was able to fix later only by turning Zachary into someone considerably more villainous.
Another small thing that leapt out at me: the way Vicky’s mother doesn’t wear pants because her husband doesn’t like women in pants, and a few other small comments made about proper attire for women along the way.
But in a nice touch that would later prove slightly problematic, the Austins actually mention A Wrinkle in Time and tessering. Which is all very well, except that the Austins treat the Murrys as fictional characters, which makes it rather odd that Zachary later meets them.
We’ll be seeing that in an upcoming post.
Queen Elizabeth (if not the Duke of Edinburgh) once waved at Mari Ness through a car window, so she can directly report that having a queen wave at you and several other strangers can be a cheering experience. She lives in central Florida.