After playing with coming of age stories, science fiction, and warm family tales for young adults, for her next book, The Arm of the Starfish, author Madeleine L’Engle decided to try a new type of story, a thriller combining espionage and some science fiction elements, featuring characters from her by then wildly successful A Wrinkle in Time. In yet another switch, her protagonist, instead of a misunderstood girl, is a misunderstanding boy.
As a standalone book, it almost works. Unfortunately, although it can be read alone, The Arm of the Starfish is not quite a standalone book, as it features two of the characters from A Wrinkle in Time and its direct sequel, A Wind in the Door. Starfish, however, appeared in 1965 — three years after Wrinkle and eight years before Door. Although this decision to write books out of order gave L’Engle several creative opportunities, it would also restrict her in later books, and, as we’ve been chatting in comments, create havoc with the between-books timelines.
The basic plot first: Adam Eddington, a budding marine biologist has just gotten the summer job of his dreams: the chance to study and work with starfish on a small island off the coast of Portugal with one of the greatest scientists in the field, Dr. Calvin O’Keefe. While waiting to board his plane, he meets a beautiful young woman named Kali (the name would be a giveaway to anyone but Adam) and finds himself plunged into an international conspiracy of sorts, complete with priests without eyebrows, the U.S. Embassy, kidnapping, and starfish.
The starfish part contains the book’s sole venture into science fiction, and it’s also where L’Engle, for the first time, starts heading into questionable scientific territory. Not with the basic facts: starfish, as she correctly notes, are within a phylum, Echinodermata, relatively closely related to the phylum containing humans, Chordata. Going much more beyond that to imply that starfish and humans have a close genetic relationship is probably too much, but not too much for a science fiction text. Also, some (not all) starfish can regenerate arms, an ability probably evolved as an adaptation against predators: losing an arm to a fish is not as big of a problem if you can grow it back.
But it’s what the humans are doing with this ability that causes the problems. Dr. O’Keefe has somehow managed to transfer this regeneration ability from starfish to humans, using it to repair major injuries. So far, standard science fiction, but L’Engle goes a bit further. First, although Dr. O’Keefe is presented as an ethical scientist, he is conducting medical experiments with the regeneration technology on humans, without the assistance or knowledge of any other medical professionals. Most of his patients are the cheerful, more primitive, and — this is important — dirt poor peasants of the half-African/half-Portuguese island he and his family live on, and these experiments are done secretly and completely outside of a hospital setting. In any other book, Dr. O’Keefe would be presented as the villain, or at the very least as a decidedly grey figure playing with forces outside of his control.
I say this, because along with conducting medical experiments on impoverished villagers, Dr. O’Keefe is also assuring us that if this technology gets into the “wrong hands” (said hands mostly belonging to Soviets or Chinese) it could be extremely dangerous, on a level with the atom bomb. Just why is left fairly ambiguous, but a glimpse or two of deformed critters in the lab suggest that those evil Commies are planning to create armies of hideously deformed humans. Some vague statements about well intentioned drugs causing fetal abnormalities and miscarriages (something that really did happen) are also mentioned. Which therefore means that the technology must be kept ultra secret and kept from the Commies at all cost.
Long term readers of my posts will recognize the return of a sore point with me: the idea that knowledge of whatever has to be concealed because humanity, or certain parts of humanity, can’t handle it. And worse is what’s being concealed here. Dr. O’Keefe and Adam speak vaguely of the potential for misuse — but this is a treatment to regrow arms and legs, developed as the Vietnam War was ongoing and within living memory of World War II. And, if this is so dangerous, why on earth is the supposedly ethical Dr. O’Keefe working with this at all, much less experimenting on villagers?
(I’m also going to tiptoe past the book’s troubling suggestion that the deformed animals are the ones deliberately mutilated by humans, while the normal, healed animals are those accidentally injured, coupled as these observations are with the suggestion that the fat spider look of the chief villain was caused by his choices in life, and Canon Tallis lost his eyebrows after watching the torture of others.)
In any case, a conveniently evil millionaire, Typhon Cutter, is after the technology, which oddly enough he plans to sell to the Chinese instead of to, say, Pfizer, despite supposed financial motivations. Adam — possibly because he senses one or two of Dr. O’Keefe’s ethical issues here — has a hard time determining what is going on, and who he should support; these passages, dealing with ethics and choices, are among the better in the book, which also provides plenty of intrigue and even a few action scenes, rare in most of L’Engle’s work. And I did find that one or two sentences in the book filled me with a warm or longing nostalgia. (Including, sadly, Adam’s truthful comment that airline food at the time was actually edible, hard though that is to believe now.)
But as I noted, this is also the first book of a new four book series, and a sort of sequel to her previous novel. Granted that L’Engle did not have a new series in mind when she wrote it (or even an old series; she would not write the direct sequel to A Wrinkle in Time for several more years) and granted that the two characters from A Wrinkle in Time play only supporting roles, I am still unable to read this book outside that series, which brings me to the next problem.
Meg Murry O’Keefe is a decidedly minor character in this book. Always called Mrs. O’Keefe, she is calm, reassuring, intent, focused on mothering her children, a near clone of Mrs. Austin in the Austin books, serene and capable.
And all wrong for Meg Murry.
Let’s start with the first problem: although Calvin and both of her parents have earned their doctorates (and we will later find that her twin brothers Sandy and Dennys earn advanced degrees), Meg has not, although she “sometimes assists” her husband with his mathematics. Now, let me be clear: I have no problems with a woman choosing family and mothering over a career in academia or elsewhere, and I can readily understand that someone like Meg, with her difficulties in high school, might not be eager to continue on for an advanced degree.
I can also understand that some people might want to embrace the ordinary after living the extraordinary, and that Meg, above all, wanted to fit in to her small town. And I am well aware of the institutional difficulties (discussed in the comments in the A Wrinkle in Time post) that faced women, and particularly married women, attempting to enter careers in the sciences in the 1960s. Even married women with advanced degrees were strongly encouraged to stay at home and focus on childrearing, or blocked from earning tenure or advanced positions because of their gender, and Meg Murry O’Keefe reflects these realities.
But it still feels all wrong. This is, after all, Meg, a certifiable math genius, whose problems in school stemmed from knowing far, far too much about math. (And although yes, marine biologists use math regularly, it’s rarely the sort of advanced math we’re told Meg revels in.) And this is Meg, who has travelled to various worlds and was willing to go back to Camazotz to rescue a brother. And far from fitting in to her small town, she and her husband have taken their children to various parts of the world, placing Meg in something between the ordinary life she may have craved and the extraordinary life she seemed to be heading for.
As I’ve noted, L’Engle had no difficulty creating, even in the 1940s and 1950s, portraits of talented, career oriented women. In Dr. Murry she even showed that woman combining a career with motherhood — single motherhood at that. But in this book, she seems to have retreated back to her depictions of the Austin books: a woman can have a career or motherhood, not both — this as she in her own life was combining both.
But the career issue is only a minor one. The real issue is, what happened to Meg? And by this I mean the angry, frustrated, impatient girl of both Wrinkle and Wind in the Door, softened only slightly in A Swiftly Tilting Planet? How has she shifted into this image of serenity and patience and acceptance? I grant that people can change as they grow from teenager to adult, but I see nothing of Meg in this woman. Indeed, in this book, the generally confident, competent Calvin is the one expressing doubts and showing occasional impatience. It’s particularly odd given that eight years after this book, L’Engle was able to recreate that angry Meg in A Wind in the Door.
If not for the names of her children — Charles, Sandy, Dennis, all named for her brothers — and the fact that a later book confirms that yes, she really is the Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, and that her son Charles has apparently inherited some of the family’s abilities with ESP, I would almost assume that Calvin O’Keefe had married another woman in college.
Which brings me to the issue of Poly. (Who will later become Polly, but is Poly in this book.)
I’ll just go ahead and note that of L’Engle’s three major teenage heroines – Vicky, Meg, and Poly – Poly is hands down my least favorite. It’s not difficult to see why. Vicky, as annoying as she can be and often is, still has very real, understandable issues and doubts, about her intelligence and looks and place in the world. Meg, with her anger and impatience and fish out of water feelings, is also someone I can identify with. They are characters whose flaws and self-esteem issues make sense, who readers can identify with. Their worldviews correctly reflect their relatively sheltered backgrounds.
Not so much with Poly, who comes from a loving, supportive family, has travelled widely, speaks at least seven languages fluently, at the age of twelve is already competent enough to have spent years working in a major marine biology research lab and gain enough technical knowledge from this to be a worthy kidnap victim. This sort of character can be handled in a couple of ways. You can make her simply amazingly self-confident, competent and awesome (i.e. Sophy in Georgette Heyer’s eponymous novel, The Grand Sophy). You can show her as a person of many worlds, but never comfortable in any, with self-esteem problems stemming from an awareness of not really belonging.
Or, you can fail to do either, creating a character whose only flaws seem to be occasional tactlessness (more in later books) and a tendency to dissolve into tears, who somehow pretty much rarely manages to be useful or awesome.
As in this book, where Poly’s chief accomplishments include getting kidnapped, getting jealous for no particular reason, and flipping out when her father (finally!) decides to do something ethical. She does manage to provide Adam with a convenient syringe/knife filled with a strong narcotic, and her insistence that he carry it later proves useful enough to allow me to sort of avoid the nagging question of just how a 12 year old got a hold of this. It does not help that, as in A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle uses infantilizing language to describe Poly and the older Kali, but not Adam or Charles.
And one final problem, alluded to in the comments of A Wrinkle in Time:
This book contains no hint that two of its major adult characters traveled through time and space.
This began L’Engle’s problematic pattern of frequently treating each book as if the previous one never happened. On the one hand, this does make it considerably easier to read each novel as a stand alone work, since no knowledge of previous books is ever necessary.But on the other hand, this seems to cheat her characters, particularly in the O’Keefe series, and that perhaps is why I am less fond of this series than the Austin and Murry books.
Mari Ness once had the unpleasant experience of spending several hours moving starfish to fresh tanks, which perhaps explains her lack of enthusiasm for echinoderms in general. She lives in central Florida.