Source of book: Audiobook from the library.
Last year, the kids and I listened to the first book in this series, A Wrinkle in Time, which, oddly, I had never read as a kid. They rather liked it, so we decided to listen to the next one.
The book continues the story of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin; but sets off into the microcosmos rather than the macrocosmos. Charles Wallace is growing sick, and his mother (and a doctor) believe there is a problem with his mitochondria. Meg and Calvin, along with a cherubim, Proginoskes, and the school principal, Mr. Jenkins (who is most certainly not an expected participant in this adventure), have to go pass a series of tests, and go inside one of Charles Wallace’s mitochondria to save him - and the universe.
Like the first book, the story is more than a story. It contains layers of metaphor and speaks to universal ideas. Without getting too deep into the plot, L’Engle’s core belief that love is the strongest power in the universe - and the core of what is good. It is love alone that can - and must - conquer the forces of evil.
Likewise, L’Engle identifies the root of evil as what in our world we would call dehumanization. (For the books, which contain both extraterrestrial and supernatural beings, “dehumanization” would obviously be too narrow of a term. Perhaps un-being is a good one.) At various points, the supernatural characters insist that war is always insanity. And I must agree with that one. The very concept of a “just war” assumes that it is necessary because someone else started it - the just war is to end the threat. In this universe, the forces of evil are responsible for wars (and all suffering) because they act to destroy, and to turn groups against others. (This is why Hitler gets a prominent mention.) In another great line, the connection is made explicit when the forces of evil try to convince the (fictional) creatures within the mitochondria (which are real) to rebel and seek power and glory at the expense of the others. That this will lead to an imbalance that will destroy not just the mitochondria, but the larger organism - and thus every part of said organism - is lost on those who wish to aggrandize themselves at the expense of others.
I believe that L’Engle is correct that we are all interconnected, and when harm comes to others, we all suffer. I also believe that the evil throughout the ages, from the legend of Cain and Abel through the horrors of war over the last hundred thousand years, to the present re-invigoration of tribalism, hate, and racism all has the same root. The desire to win by causing others to lose, to be preeminent, to dehumanize the “other.” “[A]ny man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” as John Donne put it.
This does seem rather relevant right now, when the forces of White Supremacy and Nationalism are newly emboldened. “We are the only ones who matter.” The more things change...
L’Engle uses an interesting concept to illustrate the idea of love, and that is through “naming.” To be named is to exist, to be, and to be as one’s true self. My children are loved in a sense because I have named them. And to continue to love them, I must identify them by name, as individual beings beloved. To be unnamed in that sense is to cease to exist. But L’Engle insists that once named, always named.
This also ties back into A Wrinkle in Time, where L’Engle also notes that what evil desires is conformity. The idea of interconnection is not in tension with individuality, actually. To be is to exist both as one’s unique self (and none of us are exactly alike), and in reference to our interconnectedness to each other. When we cease to be unique, we also become replaceable, like cogs in a mass manufactured machine. If one breaks, just swap another in.
Not so with true being, where one’s “faults” are important too. One of the tests Meg has to pass is to correctly identify which Mr. Jenkins is the real one. It ends up being his faults and weaknesses that give away which one is real - and also the only things that Meg can readily love about Mr. Jenkins. Indeed, it is through his weaknesses that she is able to see him as fully human - as being.
These books are a bit unusual, particularly as literature aimed at older children and young adults. They are not “easy” in the traditional sense, and much of the action takes place in the mind. That I would enjoy this sort of thing is no surprise - I find the psychology of characters to be the best part of many books. But my kids also liked both of these books, even the younger ones.
In the audiobook versions we have listened to, the author herself has read them. That is always an interesting experience. I wouldn’t say L’Engle’s voice is the best I have heard. It is deep and a bit raspy. But she also reads her books with great pacing and expression. Not as highly expressive, but low key expressive. I have come to enjoy her reading, which is why we got the second book with her as the reader, rather than the other option.
I find these books (so far) to be interesting in their ethical implications as well as the imaginitive use of science. A few things on the latter are a bit dated - which is to be expected with all science fiction. But in general she does her research. Just one particular thing to mention is that mitochondria are indeed believed to be the result of one creature ingesting another, and the two learning to live as interconnected organisms. If this is true (and there is good evidence it is), then our bodies are in a manner of speaking, not entirely ours. As it is, humans contain more bacterial cells than human cells in their bodies, our DNA contains insertions from viruses, and within our cells may be hundreds of “foreign” organisms which are necessary for life, and yet not quite “us.” It is a crazy thought, and also sobering. We are interconnected in ways we do not fully understand.