Ever read a book and think, huh…that sounds like this book or what if this book and that book fell in love and had kittens? Or what if they hated each other like goodspock vs evilspock and there was a duel and reduced the surrounding coffeeshops to rubble? Just me?
Two classics from my childhood are about to become movies. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern (maybe? Please?) I wanted to re-read these iconic books to see what held up, what didn’t, and how they compared. I found quite a few lessons for the writer and the reader.
A Wrinkle in Time (AWiT)
was published in 1963. L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher, and if you look at the following dates in the series, she didn’t crank them out fast. She had time to get it right, and yet…I feel there are a lot of problems for a book pushed at us as daring science fiction with a female protagonist. I don’t feel it is any of those things.
This is sold as a science fiction novel, but it’s not, guys. It’s pure fantasy. While there is travel to other worlds via the tesseract concept, and the parents in the book are scientists, none of it DOES anything except provide inaccurate window-dressing. There’s no consistency in magic, world-building, or even the rules of tesseract-ing. Her mother is a bacteriologist who makes food in her lab. Maybe that was intended to be funny, except (spoilers) her son gets sick from her work in the second book.
The theme of good vs. evil is stretched on the rickety framework of Christianity. There is an implicit message of other religions being cute, but wrong. Ghandi and Einstein were Christians, they just didn’t know it, you see. There’s a limiting effect on the universe she’s written by this idea of the Christian-god-as-glue narrative. I missed these nuances as a kid, but they are glaring as an adult.
We are repeatedly bashed over the head with why boys are better than girls, even smart girls need to be pretty. We are taught that a good martyr requires a certain level of cruelty or neglect to shape. We are taught that even a girl with the best of intentions is not a boy, and therefore not really good enough. Meg’s mother is a double PhD, (whoo-hoo, go far ladybird!) but she works from home. She never sets foot outside, even when her family is in jeopardy. (Or, you know – stay home, ladybird!) Her five year old son scolds her and the (male) twins tell her she’s not capable. It’s all accepted as completely okay for these boys to behave this way toward their mother and Meg. There’s an awful scene where Calvin, the kind one, scorches his own mother because of her appearance.
Meg is owned by the males in this book. She’s taunted by the townsfolk for her father’s disappearance. The comparison of her intelligence and importance to Charles Wallace is about every three pages, and not favorable. Her mother tells her everything will be fine, once she grows into her beauty (surely every less than perfect-looking girl-child just needs to bake longer, yes?). Calvin, whom she admires (and eventually marries later in the series), is clear to point out he wants her all to himself, and she should hide any beauty or value she has for him. She’s about twelve by my calculations when he says this to her.
There’s a lot of everyone knowing what’s going on, except for Meg. She’s repeatedly told it’ll all be explained later. She wants to go dashing off to save her father, but everyone else tells her to stop being impatient. It’s nonsense, and the more I think about this book, the angrier it makes me. If only little girls loved their oppressors more…then the world would be a better place. We’re told Meg’s strength is her stubborn argumentativeness, but in the end…it’s her meekness they need. I can only hope that Ava DuVernay and the illustrious cast transform these negative messages into something affirming and empowering!
So, why did I like this book as a nine-year old? It’s a good question. I think it’s because it reinforced what I was being taught and how I was being raised (evangelical Christianity). It must have been comforting to know my family behaved this way, and the Murray family was smart and valuable, therefore by extension, I must be, too.
was published in 1976. The rest of the Harper Hall books dropped over the next three years, so she wrote them at a good clip. I don’t think the movie is going to be Dragonsong, but rather Dragonflight, which is too bad because this is a neat little book that shines in how it teaches us to care for one another.
The main character, Menolly, is a girl whom her family believes would have been better off being a boy. She is tall, gangly, and can sing or play any instrument. A Harper in the making, except only men can be Harpers. Her family is conservative and industrious, and believes her to be an embarrassment and a waste. She’s out-of-place and unappreciated.
This could be just like AWiT, except with tight writing and careful dialogue, the reader understands that Menolly’s family is in the wrong here. So much so, that Menolly would rather risk death than stay in the safety of the Hold any longer. She escapes and learns to fend for herself before the inevitable happens, and the rest of the world is brought to an awareness of her value. None of this is solved by her being beautiful or talented. The rest of the world is kind and welcoming because all children are worthy of love.
This is science-fiction, although you don’t know it until you read all of the series. The magic of the dragons, and the rules of Imprinting are consistent. The dragon’s telepathy makes sense and isn’t overused as a clever way to avoid writing dialogue or create false tension the way it is in AWiT. The theme here is old thinking vs. new ways, and how easily a child’s self-esteem can be bruised or permanently wounded in that war.
The pacing is kept sharp by the mystery of when Menolly’s talent will be discovered. The brutality of her family (there is a beating scene, so be forewarned) is tempered by Menolly herself. She keeps getting up even though they knock her down more viciously every time. You desperately want her to win because she’s trying so hard.
One more thing I’d like to note: education. In AWiT, Meg is sassy with one person only. The principal at her school. Why? Because he thinks she could do better. She thinks he’s pompous and rigid and doesn’t truly care about her, even though per my adult eyes, he’s actually the only one who does care, even if it’s just his job. There’s a bit of sneering at public education in this book. Why should a child learn something if they aren’t interested in it? I also noted the message – If you aren’t smart, you’d better be humble and follow along. And if you want to be popular in public school, you’d better hide your smarts or be good at ballgames.
In Dragonsong, Menolly is allowed to teach the children as long as she doesn’t try to teach anything beyond the traditional songs. There is respect for the old traditions, and doing new and boundary-busting things is considered wrong by the authoritarian Hold of her family. It’s a bit of a backhanded way of teaching how rebellion can bring growth. When she escapes the Hold, she’s already mastered the stuff she might not be interested in, and that allows her the freedom to create new things.
So, they are similar in exploring the inner world of a young girl slowly finding autonomy within the limits and boundaries of religion, culture, and society’s expectations. Both have overt and often heavy-handed opinions masquerading as Big Thoughts. I suppose the enjoyment of these stories depends on the reader’s age and congruence of belief.