Madeleine L’Engle has tessered

A splendid 88-year wrinkle in time has, alas, come to an end.

Author Madeleine L’Engle, whose novel “A Wrinkle in Time” has been enjoyed by generations of schoolchildren and adults since the 1960s, has died, her publicist said Friday. She was 88. L’Engle died Thursday at a nursing home in Litchfield of natural causes, according to Jennifer Doerr, publicity manager for publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Newbery Medal winner wrote more than 60 books, including fantasies, poetry and memoirs, often highlighting spiritual themes and her Christian faith.

Although L’Engle was often labeled a children’s author, she disliked that classification. In a 1993 Associated Press interview, she said she did not write down to children.

“In my dreams, I never have an age,” she said. “I never write for any age group in mind. When people do, they tend to be tolerant and condescending and they don’t write as well as they can write.

“When you underestimate your audience, you’re cutting yourself off from your best work.”

I think L’Engle might have been gratified to know that I first read one of her books–A Wind in the Door–when I was 20, and found it to be ageless and unchildlike, despite the fact that its protagonists were mostly children. I loved that book so much that I eventually bought all the Murry-O’Keefe family books, as well as the Austins. And snapped up a used and very battered copy of A Circle of Quiet, L’Engle’s nonfiction on spirituality and writing, as well. Through that last, I learned some startling things, including just how much thought goes into the writing of one slim book that then must struggle to find a publisher who has at least as much faith in it as its author has.

I find it both heartening and disheartening that A Wrinkle in Time was rejected many times before finally being accepted. Nowadays, she might well have had to self-publish it, since the industry seems to have become even more dumbed-down and pigeonholed than it was in 1962. We live in an increasingly rule-bound age. And of course, Wrinkle breaks so many rules–it doesn’t talk down to even its youngest readers, it is scary as hell, it doesn’t applaud conventionality (the enforced suburban conformity of Camazotz is–or should be–every thinking person’s nightmare), and oh yeah, it begins with the words “It was a dark and stormy night”–a literary faux pas that there are entire annual contests dedicated to the ridiculing of.

More than that, though, A Wrinkle in Time is a book of ideas. It transcends genre and age rules by forcing us to examine concepts that even a quantum physicist would find…well, a little intimidating. Namely, the idea of being able to move through time and space without any machinery. Madeleine L’Engle, you might say, invented the tesseract. As well as the unforgettable, unforgettably-named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, all of whom are experts in the art of tessering.

And it is an art, for science has yet to find a way to do it. Authors and artists, being unconfined by the mental boxes of the sciences, have no such problem; they just invent as they go.

And Madeleine L’Engle invented so much. Not only the art of moving through time as if it were space (a fabric that could be traversed instantly by pleating it), but also the distinction between chronos (ordinary time) and kairos (true time, for lack of a better term; you might as well just read her books, as you’ll never understand it otherwise!) Her books can’t be called science fiction (even though science does play in) nor can they truly be called fantasy (they are not escapist). They are infused with Christianity, but they are emphatically not “Christian” fiction, which smacks of preachiness, bigotry and apocalypse. (I am a pagan, but her books don’t condemn, and therefore never alienated me.) They are definitely beyond the league of Left Behind; they don’t promote fundamentalism, and many of their most sympathetic characters are what the fundies would call sinners; in A House Like a Lotus, you’ll find teen sex, lesbianism and–gasp–ecumenical spirituality, which includes all and rejects none.

In fact, the harder I try to put a finger on what they were, the more they elude me. (I’m sure that would have made her smile.) So I’ll just sign off here by saying that Madeleine L’Engle has entered the Ring of Endless Light.

Blessed be her name.

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