Bookish girls tend to mark phases of their lives by periods of intense literary character identification. Schoolgirls of the ’70s had their Deenie and Sally J. Freedman and Margaret moments, muddling through adolescence in the guise of one Judy Blume heroine or another. And for almost a century and a half, girls have fluctuated between seasons of Amy and Meg and Jo March, imagining themselves alternately with blond corkscrew curls, eldest sister wisdom or writerly ambitions.
But for those who came of age anytime during the past half-century, the most startling transformation occurred upon reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning classic, “A Wrinkle in Time,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was under L’Engle’s influence that we willed ourselves to be like Meg Murry, the awkward girl who suffered through flyaway hair, braces and glasses but who was also and to a much greater degree concerned with the extent of her own intelligence, the whereabouts of her missing scientist father, the looming threat of conformity and, ultimately, the fate of the universe.
Meg Murry, in short, was a departure from the typical “girls’ book” protagonist — as wonderful as many of those varied characters are. Meg was a heroine of science fiction.
In 1962, when “A Wrinkle in Time,” after 26 rejections, was acquired by John Farrar at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, science fiction by women and aimed at female readers was a rarity. The genre was thought to be down-market and not up to the standards of children’s literature — the stuff of pulp and comic books for errant schoolboys. Even today, girls and grown women are not generally fans. Half of 18- to 24-year-old men say that science fiction is their favorite type of book, compared with only one-fourth of young women, according to a 2010 study by the Codex Group, a consulting firm to the publishing industry. And while a sizable portion of men continue to read science fiction throughout their lives, women don’t. Thirty-two percent of adult male book buyers are science-fiction fans compared with only 12 percent of women. When Joanna Russ, one of the few successful female science-fiction writers, died last year, her obituary in The New York Times referred to her as a writer who helped “deliver science fiction into the hands of the most alien creatures the genre had yet seen — women.”
“A Wrinkle in Time,” the first in a trilogy that was later extended to include two more books, also defied the norm. Though a major crossover success with boys as well (with more than 10 million copies sold to date), the book has especially won over young girls. And it usually reaches them at a particularly pivotal moment of pre-adolescence when they are actively seeking to define themselves, their ambitions and place in the world.
“Part of what made it seem so liberating to so many girls is that it allowed those with an analytic mind and an interest in the pursuit of science to read about a subject that at the time was not perceived of as a suitable course of study for girls,” said Leonard Marcus, author of a biography of L’Engle, “Searching for Madeleine,” to be published this fall. “At the same time, at its core it’s about a girl’s love for her father, and that emotional level transcends the genre aspect of the book.”
“A Wrinkle in Time” follows three children as they cross the barriers of time and space via something called a tesseract. On a “dark and stormy night,” Mrs Whatsit (whose honorifics appeared, also mysteriously, without periods), a celestial being disguised as an old woman, visits Meg, her mother and her younger brother Charles Wallace. Soon Meg and Charles Wallace, a prodigy of some sort (today he might be labeled Aspergian), and Calvin O’Keefe, a high school boy, are tesseracting across the universe in search of Meg’s father. They encounter at various points Mrs Who and Mrs Which, who, along with Mrs Whatsit, are also enigmatic star creatures. But it is Meg, a girl who combines both the ordinary and the extraordinary, who overcomes the book’s villain — an evil disembodied brain called IT — with the power of a simple human emotion, love.
Perhaps it is this softer element that distinguishes “Wrinkle” from its rocketry and light-saber brethren. But that doesn’t make the book any less weighty or challenging. In her introduction to a 2007 edition, Anna Quindlen, an enthusiast since childhood, confessed, “The truth is, I’m not a fan of science fiction, and my math and physics gene has always been weak.”
L’Engle’s book shies away from neither topic. On meeting Meg, we learn she can perform square root functions in her head — a mark, not of wallflower status, but of moral distinction. Still, Meg harbors doubts about her own intellectual abilities, and her exacting expectations rub off on the reader. If anything, the book enchants readers who might not entirely grasp its concepts with the delight in not knowing; the realization that even the most know-it-all kids do not, in fact, have all the answers and that certain questions are worth asking.
“I loved Mrs Who’s cryptic quotations, and the math that went right over my head and the fact that Charles Wallace had powers I was always struggling to understand,” said Rebecca Stead, whose Newbery Medal-winning novel, “When You Reach Me,” was in great part a homage to “A Wrinkle in Time.”
L’Engle, who was born in 1918 and grew up a child of privilege in New York City, struggled academically at her private school, though she later graduated cum laude from Smith. She first got the idea for “A Wrinkle in Time” after reading Einstein’s writings on relativity. “I used a lot of those principles to make a universe that was creative and yet believable,” she said in an interview with her publisher before her death in 2007.
Of course, science fiction is not only about science; it is also often deeply informed by politics, and can be a vehicle for commentary on the complex effects of progress in all its permutations — medical, political, technological. Russ, for example, a graduate of Yale, wrote books infused with feminist messages and digressions on philosophy. “A Wrinkle in Time” can be read as a warning against communism. L’Engle, an active liberal Episcopalian who spent many of her later years as a writer in residence at the Church of St. John the Divine in New York, tended to write allegorical works in which, as in the books of C. S. Lewis, good inevitably triumphs over evil, a message as likely to appeal to girls as it is to boys.
What is it then that makes girls averse to science fiction? Could it be the pronounced boyness of the covers — the same signal that deters girls from switching to Superman after their Betty and Veronica days have passed? Science-fiction books, whether technologically elaborate, intergalactic stories by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement or the so-called “soft” science fiction of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, often wear dark washes of black and navy blue with 3-D fonts and brutal images of fire and destruction.
Yet there isn’t anything inherently unfeminine about science fiction. Some might say the dystopic fantasy, apocalyptic tales and paranormal romance so popular with today’s teenage girls are actually couched “girl-friendly” variants of science fiction. Perhaps. But why should science fiction proper be any less welcoming to girls? It may be simplistic to suggest that reading science fiction will lead women to pursue careers in chemistry and quantum physics and information technology. But then, how many female authors say they were inspired to become writers because of Jo from “Little Women”?
Surely we don’t mean to imply that science fiction, or science, is really just for boys. It is, after all, Meg’s microbiologist mother, Katherine Murry, rather than her rescued father, who later in the series wins the Nobel Prize.
Source: The New York Times