vulture book club

A Wrinkle in Time Book Club: Justice for Aunt Beast!

Fret not children, for we have returned! Vulture’s book club is back to parse Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. When we last convened, Alex and Hunter discussed the unthinkable: somehow both of us had made it through our adolescence without reading the children’s classic. Now, with the whole book read, we’re ready to discuss Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, the missing Dr. Alex Murry, and Meg’s earnest journey to self-acceptance. While Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation has opened to mixed reviews, we’re undeterred, ready to to talk about the triumph of love over darkness, the book’s Christian themes (and backlash), and our favorite character creature (#JusticeforAuntBeast!).

Alex: Alright, Hunter. I know that you were a little cool on both the book and the film, so let’s start with something positive. Who (or Which or Whatsit) was your favorite part?

Hunter: A Wrinkle in Time’s first (and most famous) supernatural characters are the Missus: Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, a trio of offbeat celestial beings. Conceptually, I love that the most powerful beings in the universe are a trio of quirky women. Mrs. Which is my favorite. Obviously, because she’s Oprah, but also because her speech reminds me of how the angel speaks in Angels in America (“I-I-I-I am the bird of America.”). Mrs. Who’s quotations were fun details, too.

That said, Aunt Beast is my favorite fantasy character since Last Jedi’s judgmental fish nuns! Aunt Beast sings, she soothes, she doesn’t adhere to time. When Meg asks if Aunt Beast knows any of the missus, she has the most delightfully shady reply: “Oh, child, your language is so utterly simple and limited that it has the effect of extreme complication.” I stan an advanced creature! Who was your favorite character, Alex?

Alex: Same. Aunt Beast is definitely the scene-stealer in the book, and it’s a shame that this character doesn’t appear in the film. (Although I think we see an interstitial shot with furry beasts roaming a gray Earth that’s supposed to be the planet of Ixchel where they reside?) Aunt Beast certainly feels like the oddest and most imaginative alien creature in the book (as opposed to say, a brain) that actually forced Meg to rethink how she perceives the world. The beasts have no eyes! And yet it becomes clear that they are able to see — or perceive — far beyond human capacity. They’re beyond language, even, and our puny words can’t contain or capture them. As Aunt Beast tells Meg, “We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal.”

This gets at the most interesting thing about the book to me, which was its Christian sensibility. It’s all the more ironic considering Christian Evangelicals have gotten the book on banned lists since its publication in 1962 for its Unitarian Universalist overtures. But if you actually read the book, all of the narrative beats from the ultimate battle against darkness, the belief that love will overcome, and the ecstasy of revelation are grounded in a Christian relationship with God. In fact right before Meg goes off to face the IT alone, Mrs. Who actually quotes 1 Corinthians 1:25-28 King James version. That’s pretty pro-God!

Hunter: It’s telling to see how this book’s relationship to Christianity is being constantly rewritten. To me, it’s a clear enough allegory: there’s a chosen one, light over darkness, good over evil, and the like. And yet this book that was criticized by Christians upon publication, is now exalted by right-wing bloggers just so they can get clicks on how the movie “strips” L’Engle’s story of Christianity.

I kind of predicted this in our introductory conversation, but the most moving part of the book, for me, was Meg’s relationship with her father. This story is a rescue mission across space and time to find the missing Dr. Alex Murry. Once Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin find him, though, everything doesn’t immediately snap into place. I loved reading about Meg wrestling with those emotions, which are exacerbated by IT’s power: “She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn’t able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end.” (189) I double underlined that line, I liked it so much. It reminded me of a line from East of Eden: “When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone.” The fantasy elements of A Wrinkle in Time are fine, but the way it illustrates the realization that parents don’t always have the answers was really powerful.

Alex: As someone who is not afraid to cry in public, I have to say that I found Meg’s journey of self-actualization very moving. Sure, it’s a very Oprah moment, but what teen (or adult, frankly) hasn’t felt like they weren’t good enough? Where her father failed, Meg found her strength. Reading the book, it was striking to me just how much Meg doubted herself, and how big of a role Calvin plays in gassing her up. In a perverse way, I liked how much of a brat Meg was. The “black thing” that represents evil in the story definitely felt like a metaphor for puberty when your sweet child suddenly becomes a monster.

But let’s talk about that finale scene where Meg realizes that the one thing she has that the IT doesn’t have is love. She loves Charles Wallace! Of course that made me think of another major pop-culture moment from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Xander saves Willow from going over to the dark side with the only thing he had: love!

Hunter: Ah, yes. Of course my mind went immediately to Harry Potter, where Voldemort’s killing spell was thwarted by a mother’s love. (Or something? It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about Harry Potter.)

I too love a bratty girl’s coming-of-age story, and Meg’s doesn’t disappoint. There’s a moment before she realizes what she has that IT doesn’t, though, that I found particularly striking. “Mrs. Whatsit loves me,” Meg thinks to herself as she approaches CENTRAL Central Intelligence, which houses IT. “That’s quite something, to be loved by someone like Mrs. Whatsit.” (226) This is something I’m still guilty of all the time: determining my value based on who I know or who I’m with. It’s one more thing Meg has to cut through to see what’s really important: herself, and her love for her brother. So what if it’s a very Oprah moment! It’s real. I think of how Patty Jenkins described her Wonder Woman: “I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind,” she told the New York Times. “I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department.” That’s what Wrinkle feels like to me, even if I’m not taken in by its fantasy world building: It’s very sincere, and that’s sweet.

A Wrinkle in Time Book Club: Justice for Aunt Beast!