The Madeleine L’Engle Reread

This Title May Be Misleading: Dragons in the Waters

Dragons in the Waters, the second book in the O’Keefe family series, is, like its predecessor, a tale of suspense, intrigue and murder mingled with a touch of fantasy and science fiction, as Poly and Charles O’Keefe meet the 13-year-old Simon Renier on a freighter trip down to Venezuela and a lake there, named for dragons. Poly and Charles are travelling with their father who plans to examine potential environmental issues with drilling oil in the lake. Simon is travelling with Forsyth Phair, a considerably older cousin he has known for precisely one month, because his elderly aunt Leonis believes that Simon needs some culture and exposure to the world beyond their little North Carolina house. Forsyth is returning a portrait of Simon Bolivar to the Venezuelan government, in the first and last kindly thing he will do in the entire novel.

About midway through the book, someone finally stabs Forsyth to death, very politely putting his body in a hearse conveniently on board.  (More murderers should think of this.) Since Forsyth has already attempted to murder Simon, threatened to blackmail various passengers, and brought a multimillion dollar painting on board, it’s somewhat surprising that he was not killed earlier in the book. (I may possibly have read too much Agatha Christie. Let us move on.)  What’s even more surprising is that his murder almost becomes a sideplot to the rest of the novel.

This book irked me as a kid partly because it had no dragons, and partly because what it did have was far too many characters—or rather, far too much of the narrative was from the point of view of comparatively boring adults—and partly because, once the kids found a dead body, I expected the book to focus on the murder, instead of interweaving the murder into a generally less interesting plot. Rereading it now, I found myself still expecting the book to focus on the murder. (Again, I blame Agatha Christie.) But I also found myself noting other problematic aspects of the book, particularly its depictions of race.

A first hint to these issues happens early on, when Simon gives a rather unexpected defense of the Confederates—not for slavery, but for the agonies they suffered when their fields were burned and they found themselves living in an occupied territory with those terrible Carpetbaggers. Simon notes that his family, thanks to their association with Simon Bolivar, never kept slaves, and instead lived in a sort of cooperative, and I don’t exactly want to downplay the horror of Sherman’s march through Georgia, but combined with several assurances from white people that their civilization is the advanced one (while admitting that it has its problems), even as one of the Quiztano assures us that he has tried civilization, and didn’t like it, which is why he’s back with the tribe, this all left me with an uneasy feeling.

But far more problematic is the depiction of Quiztano as a tribe of peaceful Native Americans with magical healing powers who have been waiting generations for the arrival of a white man who will save them. Sigh. This is in part, as it turns out, because an earlier white man—Simon’s ancestor, Quentin Phair—visited the tribe, falling in love with one of the women and getting her pregnant before taking off with promises to return—promises that were never kept, since Phair took off for South Carolina and a white bride. To their credit, the white characters of the novel are more upset about Phair’s betrayal of the Quiztano woman than many of the Quiztanos are, but that does not help this very problematic picture of native Venezuelans patiently waiting for a white savior.

But the more general problems with the book lie in the overabundance of characters—particularly adult characters—and the narrative format. L’Engle adapts a third person narrative here, switching from viewpoint to viewpoint, often on the same page. This can work well, particularly in a murder mystery, but here, it means that a book theoretically focused on the adventures of a thirteen year old and his brush with murder ends up spending considerable time retelling the thoughts of various adults. And while some of these thoughts are interesting—for instance, the elderly man still regretting his gambling addiction—most seem at best distractions from the main plot—for instance, the elderly man still regretting his gambling addiction. 

And this also means that various subplots end up unfinished. For example, although the O’Keefes are primarily on the trip to investigate the lake, where oil drilling appears to be poisoning the water and marine life, and although one of the other characters journeys near the oil rigs, the entire investigation plot gets sidelined, and we never do hear much about the investigation. (From the text, I originally assumed this was an inland freshwater lake, but other indications, including a mention of starfish, suggest that it may be a saltwater or brackish lake attached to the ocean.) The revelation of the murderer comes almost offhandedly. And so on.

I also had a few issues with the setup: I found it very difficult to believe that Simon’s kindly Aunt Leonis would actually allow her beloved nephew to travel anywhere with someone she’d known for only a month—even if this was a supposed family member—before even checking to see if the cousin’s check was any good. Especially since this is a cousin from the evil carpetbagging collaborating side of the family. I found it even more improbable that the 13 year old Simon (who has other relatives back in the U.S.) was allowed to stay in Venezuela with only one character raising a protest.

Dragons in the Waters still has its moments. I quite liked Charles’ ability to dream of past and future events, and the jungle scene contains several taut pieces. And fans of L’Engle will doubtless enjoy the appearances of various characters from other books, including Canon Tallis and the musician Mr. Theotocopoulos. But overall, it’s a bit of a mess, and its main interest for L’Engle fans is probably in the way aspects of it anticipate the thoughts L’Engle would be using in her next novel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Mari Ness likes dragons of all sorts. She lives in central Florida.


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