There is such a thing as a tesseract

“Why does anybody tell a story?” Ms. L’Engle once asked, even though she knew the answer.

“It does indeed have something to do with faith,” she said, “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

Writer Madeleine L’Engle died Thursday of natural causes. The NYT obituary is here.

I could say so much about her books, but every compliment seems inadequate. When I first read A Wrinkle in Time, and encountered Meg Murry’s mother cooking stew over a bunsen burner, I did not know what a bunsen burner was. I’d never met a scientist or a professor. And although I understood too well the isolation felt by strange little Charles Wallace, I’d have to wait until high school to realize that mitochondria and Saint Patrick’s Breastplate were real, too. And the first line of Wrinkle is a quote from Bulwer-Lytton! Such delight, when a children’s writer is unafraid to draw freely on her liberal-arts education, to fill her books with deep, rich, real things. She must have known her young readers would not encounter them again for years – if ever.

No other children’s author has so easily mixed science through her books, nor so successfully captured the very large and the very small, that dizzying leap between cosmology and cell biology. I still think of L’Engle every time I encounter the word tesseract, or mitochondria, or anandamide. Ananda is Sanskrit for bliss, but I prefer L’Engle’s lyrical definition: “the joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse.” L’Engle’s books are all about joy – the joys of the mind and the joy of being loved. Somewhere along the way, the large, open, loving families of scientists and thinkers that she created became my ideal – a dream of the family I would like to have for myself.

A list of L’Engle’s books

Official announcement from L’Engle’s family (and where to send memorials). There will be a public memorial service TBA in New York City.

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4 Responses to There is such a thing as a tesseract

  1. Haz says:

    Her books were unlike anything I’d encountered before- which I absolutely adored. Her utterly unique creations and fantastic handling of, as you said, the scientific and other worldly, were a huge boon to my developing creativity. RIP, L’engle!

  2. mdvlist says:

    By odd coincidence, I was just finishing up her book about the death of her mother when she died. It’s a bit sad to think of her ending up in a nursing home when she was so determined to keep her mother out of one . . . .

    I re-read Wrinkle the year after we graduated, when I was spending a lot of time in an elementary school library, and I was blown away by how metaphysical it was. It made me feel better for not having been able to get through A Wind in the Door when I was 8 or 9. I don’t know what I could have possibly made of Wrinkle at that age; I wonder if I would have been more drawn to science if I had read it a wee bit later in my youth? As it is, I’m impressed that it was able to keep my interest. I read somewhere that when L’Engle was asked by prospective publishers who the book was supposed to appeal to, she insisted, “I write for people.” Period. And she did.

  3. To be honest, I don’t find the books as stimulating as I once did, but they were very important to me as a child, and I still hold them in high esteem. This being the case, it was a pleasure to share several Thanksgiving dinners with Madeline, at her townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I’m close friends with one of her grandchildren, and the family sometimes invites me to their holiday meals.

    In her later years, of course, she was declining, more quiet and less actively engaged than she had been, but when you did connect you could get a sense of her great creative energy. And she was “creative”; she is best know for the trilogy, but she produced many, many books, most relatively forgotten.

  4. cicada says:

    HH, I am so jealous of you I can hardly see straight. Of course, if I had met L’Engle I would have had no idea what to say to her. “I really like your books! A lot!!!!”?

    I have a habit of making an idiot of myself in front of authors I idolized in my formative years. . .

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