Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978)

In 1978, Madeleine L'Engle published A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The world had changed since the last book. The cold war had grown tenser, intercontinental missile more terrible, and the doom of the world that much closer. Meanwhile, America's enemies seemed to grow, rather than shrink. The Arab League refused to sell oil to the US, causing an energy crisis. And as for me, I saw this on the shelf but never got around to reading it.

Against this backdrop lies the story of Meg and Charles Wallace, both ten years older than the last story. Meg is married now, and somewhere in her third trimester. The twins are studying at school, aiming for doctor and lawyer. Mom has won a Nobel prize. Dad still gets called by the President. There's a new dog come wandering in. Charles Wallace is still himself. And for some reason, Mrs. O'Keefe, Meg's mother-in-law, has accepted an invitation to Thanksgiving.

To the south, a dictator has acquired nuclear weapons and threatens to use them. Their use is certain, and no one can stop them. No one, it seems, but Charles Wallace.

As usual, Madeleine gets off to a slow start, winding up her story, letting it warm up like an old Chevy that stalls if you start driving too quickly. Nobody would write a book like that these days. Our current fashion of literary theory frowns on such a thing, which is a shame, because a story like this wouldn't really work in modern parlance. In the story, our two lead characters, Meg and Charles Wallace, act as framing devices for other stories. We actually wind up seeing more of Meg, who is pregnant and sitting in bed, than we do of Charles Wallace, who is ostensibly having an adventure by living through multiple somebody else's lives. Around the halfway point, that old engine warms up enough to kick in, and the story begins working and working beautifully.

The story itself is rather timey-wimey, as Charles Wallace changes the future by going into the past. (This isn't a spoiler as you figure out that mechanic pretty quickly.) The time-wimey aspect is used to investigate a mystery, one, which if solved, will rescue the world from total nuclear destruction. It's that mystery which is the heart of the story.

Compared to the other books, this one was longer. The book was on pace for 200 pages at Chapter 6, but the back half took the lion's share of words, but I didn't feel that. The back worked better in that I noticed all the words there less than I noticed the plodding of the first half. I find the books themselves somewhat incomparable, as Madeleine did not produce equivalent books. The center and strength of this book didn't quite match that of the others. The framing of other stories profoundly changed the feeling of these books. Despite its excellence, I preferred this book less than the others.

The Christian themes are still there, with violence avoided, and difficult Christian lessons in its place. This is mainstream Protestant or Catholic Christianity, not Evangelicalism. In that way, the story does not seem didactical or preachy. There's no summary at the end telling you what the lesson was. If the lesson is anything, it's that the work for peace is the work of humanity, which is hard but worth the effort.