Friday, July 5, 2013

Madeleine L'Engle's Poly O'Keefe Series, Reviews by Christine Locke


The Poly/Polly O'Keefe series was recently re-released with beautifully simple cover art.  I've always meant to read them, so I bought them, I read them, and, now, I am deep in thought about them.

In a way, this kind of writing is what I would most like to be able to do in my own work.  It's the kind of writing I dream about, as in literally, when I'm sleeping.  These characters feel both real and like something I imagined.  This series fills me with the same sense of wonder and deja vu I felt when I read the Wrinkle in Time series.  There's something about L'Engle that gets into my head and then persuades me that she's been there all along.

Most of the time, I think Madeleine L'Engle's writing for children and young adults gets classified as scifi/fantasy.  I hear that, I really do, for after all her main characters are almost always scientists or children of scentists, and the "paranormal" or fantastical events that occur are often explained by these characters as a part of their scientific endeavor or as somehow explainable by science.

However, I am going to treat this series, written many years ago now but recently rereleased, as magic realism, for two reasons. 

First of all, this series of books will brilliantly illustrate what I mean when I say that magic realism, writing in this genre, requires that you treat the fantastic as if it were a mere detail in an otherwise realistic and exquisitely detailed story.  So, if you can take all the fantasy OUT of your story and the plot still holds, you may have written magic realism.  The fantastic makes the story more rich, like the description of a tall auburn-haired girl whose gangling, budding beauty will soon become glamour surpassing the petty prettiness of the bullying girls at school.  Understanding Polly's physical presence helps us understand L'Engle's story.  It would still be the same story were we not so able to "see" our main character; her description, seeing her through the eyes of other characters, ADDS to the story.  It is also like this with all the fantastical elements in the story, whether it is the regeneration projects her father works on, the telepathic abilities and prophetic dreams of her brother, Charles, or the ability of a South American tribe to heal others and see parts of the present/future.  All these things add to the stories contained in this series, but the stories would still hold water without them.

The second reason I'm going to treat these stories as magic realism is one of particular interest to me in a recent writing project.  First, there was magic, with pointy hats and cauldrons and wands and such.  Then, there was science, with goggles and beakers and the scientific method.  Now, the clear line between science and magic is growing more and more fuzzy all the time.  A couple of decades ago, it was the funky new-agers saying that stuff.  Now, it's the scientists.  Even more than when L'Engle was writing these stories, what was once thought of as magic IS an area of science.  Particle physics is now cross-disciplinary, with relevance in all kinds of fields.  So, with the unique elements L'Engle tended to employ, her work is a prime example of a magic realism in which the magic that may have a scientific explanation but is, as yet, unexplained.  We could soon see the day when all fantastic events have scientific explanations, yet that does not make them any less mysterious or wondrous or magical.

So, here are a few brief thoughts on each of these volumes:

The Arm of the Starfish
All three of these books are about the O'Keefe family.  Mom and Dad are scientifically oriented, although mom has many children and little time for her interests in mathmatics.  In this novel, Dad is conducting very secret experiments on starfish having to do with their ability to regenerate.  This research is valuable to many, and he has been threatened.  But we do not see the O'Keefe's story directly, which is part of the charm of this series.  Instead, both the first and second books in this series are seen through the eyes of a young, male narrator who is acquainted with the family through work or by chance.  In the first, a young man, Adam, gets a job as an assistant to Dr. O'Keefe.  It is through eyes of this imperfect narrator, as Adam struggles to make a choice between loyalty to the family and the allure of espionage, that we first get to know the O'Keefes.
You really cannot be sure what choice our young man will make, which I like.  I also like the way L'Engle does resolve the issues, although I won't spoil that here.  But I will identify fantastical elements: Poly gives a gift that seems to imply she has some ability to sense the future; her brother, Charles, also knows that something very sad will happen before it does; there is a dolphin that shows up at opportune moments; and Dr. O'Keefe's experiments seem to conclude that regeneration is possible for humans.  Yet, for all these elements bring to the story, you could take them away and be left with the same story.

Dragons in the Waters
Dr. O'Keefe's lab has moved but he is still doing super-secret research.  In addition, his assistance has been requested in the analysis of pollution in a South American bay, and he takes two of his children on the boat trip there: Poly and Charles.  For the second volume, our narrator is yet another young man, this one an American southern boy haunted by his family's past.  Simon was raised by his grandmother on a pitiful remnant of their family's once fine Southern home, and you know I was drawn by the detailed description of her gardens and their poor but cozy life.  In fact, I was delighted to find that the Southern grandmother has a prominent role in the story, even showing up in South America.
Fantastical elements here are Charles' usual abilities, along with the ability of a native tribe to "see" events in the past, present and future and to heal others (recalling Dr. O'Keefe's regeneration projects from the last book, although the two do not appear to be linked.
And here's a wonderful detail for you on this novel: its genre utterly defies classification.  There are elements of Southern Gothic, Fantasy, Science Fiction...but in truth, the overarching plot of this novel is a good, old-fashioned murder mystery that the kids help solve.  That's right, Scooby gang!

A House Like a LotusThere's a new genre out there these days, one that is designed for people who have been reading Young Adult books but have grown up a bit--ok, maybe a lot.  It's called New Adult.
I guess L'Engle was ahead of her time, because this volume, written in Polly's voice (she chose to change the spelling of her name, she explains in this one) and from her own point of view, is definitely New Adult.
Here, Polly is all grown up and is defining herself in all kinds of ways...and the new spelling of her name is just one example of that.  Polly is defining herself intellectually with what she reads and studies, socially by her choice of friends and activities, and, also, Polly is defining herself sexually.  She has several sexual experiences in this book, including assault and intercourse, so of course I would not recommend it for the Young Adult audience.  But I also would not make the mistake of saying the book should not be read by young people.  The window into Polly's thoughts as she works through these issues is a useful one for others going through the same things, or even for those who might want to look back on that time in their lives and think it through.
There are no fantastical elements of this book.  It's pretty much a straight-up coming of age story, and, yet, the natural scenes are so lush and Polly's interior life so rich, I'm still haunted by them.  The violence is so realistic; L'Engle conveys so well the horror of having a loved one betray us with an invasive act.  I do not recommend it for very young readers, but for mature ones, this book is a beautiful place to begin many responsible discussions.

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