Thu
Mar 8 2012 3:00pm

Sacrifice and Time Travel: An Acceptable Time

An Acceptable Time joins two of L’Engle’s young adult series together, as Polly O’Keefe from the O’Keefe novels travels to Connecticut and the house where Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace, Sandy and Dennys began their adventures through time and space. Something must be up with that house, for beyond all of the other weird things that have happened nearby, shortly after Polly arrives she finds herself stepping through 3000 years of time.

Unfortunately, she also brings Zachary Grey along with her.

Polly is in Connecticut to be homeschooled, since her local school can hardly compete with the scientific education her Nobel-prize winning grandmother and space travelling physicist grandfather can give her. It’s the same sort of homeschooling apparently considered unacceptable for either Charles Wallace or Meg in earlier books; I can’t help wondering if the unstated fate of Charles Wallace had something to do with this decision, especially since Kate and Alex Murry (we finally get their first names in this book) have just decided to redo Charles Wallace’s bedroom—but not the bedrooms of their three other children.

(No, I don’t think Charles Wallace is dead—no one is mourning for him—just, well, very very missing.)

While walking in the woods, and visiting the pool her grandparents have installed to help her grandfather’s arthritis (an indoor, heated pool in Connecticut, suggesting that combining physics and microbiology with a Nobel Prize can be very lucrative indeed) she steps back into a world where Connecticut’s hills and low lying mountains are now high peaks, and meets various people from the tribe of the People of the Wind, some of whom, conveniently enough, speak English, and the rest of whom, even more conveniently, speak “Ogam.” Which isn’t exactly a language, but let us move on.

The People of the Wind have learned Ogam—no, sorry. I’m going to just have to call it Old Irish, although yes, it could have been another ancient British language—thanks to the arrival of a couple of druids who decided to pop over to North America for fun, apparently dragging sheep with them (more on this in a bit), and fortunately, since Polly is gifted with languages, she soon picks up enough of it to communicate. It helps that some of the People of the Wind learned English over a period of about six months from Bishop Colubra, a friend of the Murrys, and brother of Dr. Louise Colubra from A Wind in the Door, who, like Polly, has been travelling back in time.

The news of this alarms Polly’s grandparents, who confusingly decide that this couldn’t possibly have happened but even so Polly must be kept from time travelling anyway even if they can’t really believe it happened. (I am assuming that they are still under the influence of a unicorn, and therefore unable to remember most of the previous things that couldn’t possibly have happened that they have encountered, although they do refer briefly to strange events they have experienced before.)

Meanwhile, Polly has another question: why, exactly, is this happening? It’s a good question, given that the previous books in the Time Quintet series offered fairly straightforward goals in the first couple of chapters: rescue your father, save your brother, prevent nuclear war, get home before you are drowned in a flood, that sort of thing. It’s a rather profound disappointment to have an answer arrive only three-quarters of the way through: the tentative suggestion that just maybe all of these time jumps are to help Zachary.

May I just say now, AUUUUGH.

This is Zachary’s fourth and hands down most annoying appearance in the L’Engle books. At least in A Moon by Night and A House Like a Lotus he had some intelligent insights and things to say, and in A Ring of Endless Light he at least took Vicky places and had a genuine reason for his emotional pain. In this book, his sole redeeming qualities—and I’m stretching to find them—is that he makes himself kinda charming to the Murrys (kinda) and this time he really, really seems to be dying, which gave me hope. That really, really dying also means that his annoying death wish has been changed to an equally annoying life wish, but I suppose wanting to live is an improvement.

Otherwise, he hits new lows of self-centeredness and whininess, complaining about pretty much everything he encounters in the book and outside it, keeps constantly moaning, running away from anything remotely dangerous, and, oh, yes, betraying people who were just trying to help him. He’s also more than willing to trade Polly’s safety for the chance to have his heart condition cured. (Even though, just a couple of books back, he had shown himself more than willing to die.) And although by the end of the book everyone—the People of the Wind, their enemies the People of the Lake, Bishop Colubra, and every single reader are united in agreement that he is a complete waste of space, he still thinks that Polly should, you know, hang out with him, even though he helped kidnap her and was willing to let her become a human sacrifice, like, THANKS ZACHARY.

To be somewhat fair, he does squawk when he realizes that the human sacrifice thing is serious, but did I mention, waste of space? His squawks are of course useless, redeemed only when the bad guy points out that Zachary isn’t even worth sacrificing. I’m so with you, bad guy. And that heart condition that I was so hoping would kill him off? Turns out to be somewhat more of a moral reflection of his soul. I hate that. I mean, granted, it’s very, very accurate in this case, but I hate that.

I’m not even really sure what Zachary’s doing in Connecticut in the first place: he claims he’s sorta supposedly attending UCLA, but doing an internship in Hartford for college credit. While college internships are common enough, and Zachary’s father has the connections to place Zachary anywhere in the world, I have to admit that I felt decidedly skeptical about this one, since it appears to be taking place before Zachary has had the chance to take a single college course at all. (An Acceptable Time is set in autumn, only a few months after the summer where Zachary and Polly met, and Zachary announced his intentions of going back to college.) This may have been carelessness on L’Engle’s part, but I just assumed that Zachary was adding dishonesty to his other myriad flaws.

Zachary is almost annoying enough to overshadow the other issues of the book—but not quite. Most of these, surprisingly enough, have little to do with the plot and occasional scientific flaws—I suppose if people are going to be travelling through time even as physicists are telling them no, no, you can’t actually do that, they might as well be travelling through places attached to former root cellars and holy places. And I suppose it makes sense that the People of the Lake might assume that Polly, who arrives from nowhere and appears to be able to summon a snake, is actually a goddess and that sacrificing her will bring rain; people have believed less plausible things.

But I have problems believing in other aspects of the journeys back in time. Bishop Colubra estimates that they have travelled back in time about 3000 years, but not travelled in space. The star-watching rock, an important point in earlier books, returns here, unchangeable and timeless, showing that yes, everyone is in the same place. The change in time, however, is signaled with the appearance of a lake and high peaked, snow capped mountains. Lakes certainly can come and go in the space of a few thousand years (and in Florida, even faster), but it takes millions of years to wear high, jagged snow topped mountains down to Connecticut’s hills, not a mere 3000.

As problematic is the food and clothing of the People of the Wind, which includes items produced from goats and sheep—neither of which would have been in the Americas 3000 years ago. I suppose the druids might have taken along a couple of sheep on their journey across the Atlantic—the Vikings seem to have brought sheep and cows to their North American settlements—but given the journey hinted at, this seems unlikely.

The linguistics are equally questionable, even apart from the “Ogam” bit. Ogam, also spelled ogham, usually refers to the writing system sometimes used by Celtic peoples in the ancient Roman period. Some people have suggested that findings of similar looking lines in North America date from the voyages of St. Brendan and other figures, a theory that as far as I know has been thoroughly debunked. L’Engle, however, goes with it, which is fine for fantasy and the sake of the plot. Less fine is the way that the admittedly gifted with languages Polly is able to know the Ogam/Old Irish word for “coincidence” after barely a week of part time study, and the not at all gifted with languages Zachary can manage to understand “Hey, if you help us kidnap your girlfriend so that she can make it rain, we’ll fix your heart,” something that would seem to require some actual knowledge of the language. I am also not at all sure that John Locke should be quoted as an authority on the actual lives of Native Americans in North America. Minor points, perhaps, but all enough to throw me out of the book, and make me believe it a little less.

And, too, the characters seem to be shadows of their earlier selves: the open-minded Dr. Murrys turned into sometimes fearful skeptics; the maturing Polly of A House Like a Lotus seemingly backpedalling several years (and incidentally seeming to have forgotten that she’s no longer a virgin), with only Dr. Colubra, never more than a minor character, her old self.

And all of that makes An Acceptable Time, in the end, one of the weakest of the Time Quintet novels, almost a shadow of the older books. On the other hand, it is the strongest of the O’Keefe books, and its themes of love and forgiveness are as powerful as in other L’Engle novels. And, bonus! No one demands that Polly stay friends with Zachary! Except Zachary, but see my complaints above.


Mari Ness once had to attempt to explain that rats might be falling into beer in Spanish, something not covered in typical high school Spanish lessons, and is therefore a bit skeptical about the ease of understanding difficult concepts with people just learning, or even conversant in but not fluent yet in a foreign language. She lives in central Florida, which has allowed her Spanish to improve. Somewhat.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
5 comments
Lsana
1. Lsana
Zachary actually worked for me in this book. I think that was because I had never encountered him in any other books, so I had no expectations that he was anything other than a villain. As a villain, I found him reasonably sympathetic and his motives understandable: he's dying, he's terrified, and he'll do anything, grasp at any straw, for a chance to live. He does evil because of that, and even while wanting Polly to stay far far away from him, I know why he's doing it. As for the idea that the purpose of the time travel was to help Zachary save his soul, well, it's frankly more of a mission than anyone had in Many Waters where we were all kind of stumbling around by accident. And no, Zachary isn't worth it, but Christian doctrine teaches that none of us are.

My main complaint was that I thought Zachary really needed to die at the end. Not because I hated him or because villains "ought" to die, but because if the purpose of the trip was to get Zachary to accept death, pulling a miracle cure out at the last minute felt like it negated everything we just did. He should either have been dead at the end or at least in poor health with the understanding that he didn't have much more than a few months.
Lsana
2. StochasticBird
The thing is that all of these criticisms are totally fair...but they were also largely irrelevant to me as a teenager when I read the book. As an adult I can easily see how it could be visited by the Suck Fairy, and I'd rather not re-read them, but as a kid I didn't know enough to question the timelines; it's not like these books were really very sciencey anyway, so sheep and Old Irish weren't exactly big roadblocks to immersing myself in the story. I think I read this one before any of the other books with Zachary Grey in them, so there wasn't much of a character inconsistency to bother me. That said, even as an adult, I don't think it's that much of a contradiction. There's a difference between risking your life on an adventure and having the patience (or despair, or peace, or wherever you are emotionally) to sit and accept the knowledge that death is coming for you. Adrenaline makes people do all kinds of stupid and/or brave things, but calm acceptance is a whole 'nother beastie.

It's interesting to contrast this with House Like a Lotus - I remember liking parts of that as well, but even as a kid the weird sexual politics bothered me and I kind of thought Rennie was a creep.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@Lsana -- Hmm. I had the opposite reaction to the miracle cure at the end -- I figured at least we'd gone through all that for something. Agreed on the point about Christian doctrine though.

@ScholasticKid -- I'm not sure when I picked this one up; it's not that memorable, so I don't have a specific memory of when I read it. But as someone who lived in Connecticut for awhile, I did have an immediate reaction of, er, no, to the mountain part, which led me to feeling skeptical about other parts, particularly the sheep, which in turn took me out of the book.

I don't think anyone is as creepy in this book as in House Like a Lotus.
Pamela Adams
5. Pam Adams
It would be interesting if there were a book after this where Polly and her uncles can discuss time travel......
Lsana
6. HelenS
I am almost catching up here -- hope to get An Acceptable Time in time to comment here in an informed fashion. I finally reread House Like a Lotus and am still thinking about it. On top of everything else, the UN lovely black people bit (complete with someone who has lost her OWN family being prepared to mother Polly as a result -- because this is very much the Everybody Just Loves Polly book) is a bit urggh. Oh, Omio, Omio, wherefore art thou Omio? and why must thou say "lo" in every sentence? (Baki isn't a real place, is it?) He reminds me of a Ngaio Marsh character. And Polly is "awakened" as a result of the Renny business. Have I mentioned how much I loathe, loathe, loathe the idea that a man is necessary to "awake" a woman's sexuality?

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