Mar 22 2012 4:00pm

Penguins Against Nuclear War: Troubling a Star

Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’EngleIn 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.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
Yes, by my figuring the unicorns only got us about 15-16 years, since Polly and Vicky are of similar ages.

Speaking of Little Women, perhaps we needed Suzy to push Vicky through the ice.......
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
I also think Vicky's telepathy would have been cool if she could have communicated with those penguins.
3. between4walls
The existence of El Zarco prevented a world-destroying nuclear war, so it wasn't totally pointless. One person/turning point couldn't solve whatever structural issues were behind Vespugia's political problems, plus with its neighbors both under incredibly nasty military regimes, it would be hard to stay democratic. Also the mentions of the Falklands War, the Welsh Patagonian population, and the nuclear issue made me see Vespugia as being based off Argentina, which seriously pursued nuclear weapons especially under military rule and finally signed the NPT in 1995.

I cannot, however, believe that an evil military regime would post a spy as a Spanish teacher in a rural American high school. And that such a spy would be loudly nationalistic (way to make yourself suspicious!).

IIRC Esteben is related to the Guedders. Not sure what that says about genetics-is-destiny vs. free will.

After all the dolphins-are-awesome and cute-penguins, the terror of being attacked by a seal was really interesting. And creepy.

The plot amnesia between each book causes some snarls- if Adam's relative had disappeared in murky science-related circumstances (even if it looked like an accident), he should have been less naive in The Arm of the Starfish.
4. between4walls
The title is from Francis Thomspon's "The Mistress of Vision." And the guy's life is full of bizarre cliches, complete with opium addiction, religious conversion, a saintly prostitute, a suicide attempt, and consumption.
5. Lsana
Love the title of this post...

If you'll forgive a comment that isn't strictly on topic, is this the end of the re-read? I don't remember any L'Engle books published after this one. If so, I just want to say how much I've enjoyed it. I've read all the posts, even if I've only commented on a few, and I've found the perspective facinating.
6. This is Mari
Hi everyone -- I'm at IAFA this week and completely forgot to bring along my password. Anyway --

@Pam Adams -- I thought that part of the point of Ring of Endless Light was that not all animals were telepathic -- just dolphins? So I'm not sure if Vicky could have communicated telepathically with the penguins. But she should have been able to communicate telepathically with the various dolphins in her vicinity.

With Little Women, I was more thinking of the bit in part two, when Aunt Carroll heads off to Europe and takes Amy instead of Jo -- and Jo has to deal with her bitter disappointment and try to be nice to her sister. This seems to be more of the author punishing Jo moment -- in real life, Louisa May Alcott did get to go to Europe -- and also part of the plot that reshapes and tames Jo, Laurie and Amy (who is quite different by the end of the second half of the book) -- but I thought Jo's resentment, disapointment and envy was well written regardless.

@between4walls -- I found the high school spy incredibly implausible as well -- I mean, really, even assuming they'd all made the connections and knew that Vicky and Adam were sorta dating, how much info did the spy think he could get from teaching Spanish to Vicky's sister?

@Lsana -- We have at least two more L'Engle posts -- a post on A Winter's Love, out of publication order since someone asked me to reread that earlier in this reread, and The Joys of Love, and I'm thinking a third, but I'm away from my home computer, so, mind not thinking.

As I more or less unofficially announced at IAFA on Wednesday and again last night, though, after this I will be covering most of the Freddy the Pig books.
Pamela Adams
7. PamAdams
Yay- Freddy the Pig!!! (I got most of my Edward Eager reading already done)

By the way, Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks series namechecks Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, Eager, and several other children's writers as books her protagonists like to read.
8. John Cowan
MITCH-ing ma-LITCH-oh, according to the OED. The second word is from Spanish malhecho 'wrongful act'.

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