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A novel by Madeleine L'Engle
(1983, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
[original copyright: 1962]

Time Quintet, book 1

Three children travel to a remote planet to rescue their father from an evil entity that has enslaved entire civilizations, helped by three immortal witches.


+ -- 2nd reading (paperback)
June 4th, 2014 to March 7, 2015


I had a lot of trouble with this book. From the very first page, I found the writing to be very difficult. I got used to it to a certain extent, and I don’t even know how to explain what the trouble was. The story was a simple one, but good for the kids, I guess, though I found the ending to be anti-climactic and rather preached.

Spoiler review:

I first read this book a long time ago, possibly as a pre-teen. I remember enjoying it, but it never really stuck in my mind. The only thing I really remembered was the kids traveling to a 2D planet and getting squashed, as well as tesseract being a 5-dimensional space. There is more to this book than that, including the love family members have, the exploration of conformity, and resistance to anything that restricts freedom of decisions.

Unfortunately, I had trouble reading the book from the first few pages, and all throughout. I can’t describe what I had trouble with –the words were not excessively difficult, and although some sentences were quite long, I’ve had no trouble with other authors who do the same thing. But every time I sat down to read this to my child, I felt like I had to start the struggle again, which is unfortunate.

The book didn’t really engage me, either. The beginning was slow, and the characters seemed overly simplistic. Out to rescue their father, the kids visited a couple of planets, where they observed various spectacular oddities, then moved on to Camatzotz, where the dark IT has taken control. Fighting IT is hard, especially for kids, and it is nice to see that they couldn’t defeat IT in the first book, at least. But they accomplish what they set out to do, and we get the sense that there is more to do.

Meg and Charles Wallace are not normal children. The offspring of very intelligent people, they are super-intelligent themselves - Charles Wallace even more so. He could almost see into people, see their thoughts, and even though he is very young, he talks like an adult. Meg always feels like she needs to protect him, while he also protects her emotionally.

It appears that he has already met the three witches. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit are really immortal creatures that have taken human form, but have come to help the children fight the dark thing, which their father has also gone to fight. We don’t get insight on how the father learned about the dark thing, nor how he managed to tesser to the planet where IT was in control. Is IT the brain of the darkness, or one of the dark thing’s servants?

A boy from school, Calvin, joins them. He is a little older, and is a little more popular, but comes from an abusive family. All are outcasts in some ways.

The story gets going when the witches take the kids to a planet where they see beautiful beasts on a stopover to their real destination. Then they visit a being that can apparently see all across the universe. She shows them Earth, partially blocked by the Dark Thing, as well as Camatzotz, which is totally encased –this is where their father was captured.

Camatzotz is under the control of IT, which issues commands through the man with the red eyes. As in fairy tales, the witches cannot help them in their quest, but give them gifts which will undoubtedly help. The only really useful one is Mrs. Who’s glasses, which eventually allow Meg to pass through a wall into the pillar where her father is being held. Telling Calvin he has a gift for communication doesn’t help, though he almost gets through to Charles Wallace after the boy succumbs. Charles Wallace was given a warning about his pride and faith in his abilities. The man with the red eyes was much stronger, and once ensnared (on purpose, to get within), he couldn’t get out.

For a society that prides itself on being uniform, Charles Wallace is kept different. He becomes pompous, crass, condescending and unlikable, which is different from the other people of this planet. Even the man with the red eyes wasn’t this bad. Things would have been made easier for IT if it had made him behave like the others, keeping him indifferent to things around him. Instead, Meg and Calvin are constantly reminded of how different he is from his old self –but only because he keeps treating them poorly.

Once Meg rescues her father with Mrs. Who’s glasses, they confront IT, a gigantic brain sitting on a table, but it is too strong for all of them. Just before they are taken by IT, the father tessers them away to another planet – but without Charles Wallace. Having been touched by IT and traversed through the Dark Thing, Meg is grumpy and severely upset at her father for leaving her brother behind, at least until the sightless creatures of that planet take the darkness out of her and she recovers. I liked the description of those creatures, as they knew so much about the universe without sight, though they are missing so many wonders of the universe.

Everybody then agrees (some reluctantly) that Meg should go back to rescue Charles Wallace. It doesn’t make sense, for all the reasons she states in that chapter, but everyone agrees anyway. Typical in a kids’ book, they tell her she has the gifts to defeat IT, but refuse to tell her what it is, so she has to figure it out on her own, just in time. I guess it becomes more powerful and genuine in that case. But when she realizes that love is the weapon she can use, I had to scratch my head. Why? Why would IT be without love? Maybe it loves the citizens of the planet –loves them for following its instructions, loves them as a community. Love doesn’t have to be completely selfless- there are many kinds of love. Restricting love to a single definition is over-simplifying.

Regardless, it works, she rescues Charles Wallace, and they are all tessered back to their home in the US for a family reunion, and with Calvin.

I don’t mind the fact that the book doesn’t actually solve the problem of the Dark Thing, as the point of this first in a series was to rescue their father. But the rescue seems way too easy after the mental struggles they went through earlier. The book is old enough to call the Andromeda galaxy a nebula, and it has a lot of religious overtones not usually seen in a SF book. The story calls people like Jesus and Ghandi beings who went out to fight the Dark Thing, which implies the evil has been around a while.

I don’t remember what happens in the next books, so when I resume this series, it will be like rediscovering it all again, I hope.


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