Allison's Book Bag

Round-up Of Austin Books by Madeleine L’Engle

Posted on: January 1, 2012

When I decide to review books by a favorite author, I approach my choice with both excitement and trepidation. I feel excitement over the chance to reread novels that I love. I feel trepidation over the possibility that those novels will have lost their appeal since I last read them. Thus, I felt both delighted and relieved to discover that Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle still makes for a pleasurable and solid read. As for the remaining four Austin books, my feelings are mixed.

Meet the Austins

Here’s the funny thing about Meet the Austins. When I read it in elementary school, I found the pace slow and so almost never discovered Madeleine L’Engle. I reread Meet the Austins only after I fell for Madeleine L’Engle’s other books. Yet now upon rereading the Austin books, Meet the Austins is by far my favorite because of its rich thematic depth. The rest of the world almost never discovered Meet the Austins either, given that it was rejected by publishers for two years. Why? Because Madeleine L’Engle dared to write about the then-taboo subject of death. In first chapter, called “The Telephone Call,” the Austins receive a call from their close friend Elena that changes their lives. Her husband Hal had an accident with his plane. Both he and his co-pilot were killed instantly. The co-pilot had a little girl, who doesn’t have a mother. Guess who ultimately takes her in? As such, Meet the Austins is partly about grief. If you think that makes for a depressing book, take comfort: It’s more about understanding life itself. Vicky’s brother John most aptly puts it this way: “I don’t understand about anything. I don’t understand about people dying, and I don’t understand about families, about people being as close as we are, and then everyone growing up….” Meet the Austins is about even more, in that it’s also about family. Maggy rarely saw either of her parents, but was regularly left with nurses and governesses. In contrast, the Austins are a close-knit nuclear family with loving parents who take their time to talk with their children about the confusing events unfolding around them, but at the same time make clear that certain actions such as playing in their father’s office are wrong and therefore have consequences.  Over the years, I’ve also grown to appreciate how subtly Madeleine L’Engle slipped in positive references to God; something that still remains unusual for a book not published in the religious market.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

There are so many other compliments I could bestow on Meet the Austins. For example, I also like our first introduction to main character Vicky, who becomes the center of three of the subsequent Austin books. I’ll now turn to them, starting with The Moon by Night.

The Moon by Night

I discovered The Moon by Night in a high school library. After devouring it, I was hooked on Madeleine L’Engle. I love all the introspective passages from Vicky’s viewpoint. Her thoughts hook me from the very first page: “Indoors there was excitement and confusion and I guess a lot of happiness. I was the only one who seemed to be unhappy because nothing would ever be the same again. Up to a few days ago my life had been all of a piece, exciting sometimes and even miserable, but always following the same and simple pattern or home and school and family.” From this point onward, Vicky faces the confusion of change starting with the decision of her parents to move the family to New York. Then there’s the fact that her Uncle Douglas and Elena have gotten married. There’s also the fact that Maggy, who by the point has lived with the family for two years, will now move in with Uncle Douglas and Elena. To cushion all these changes, the Austin parents decide to take the family on a camping trip to California to visit the newlyweds. Along the way, however, Vicky encounters even more changes, starting with the car that sped through their campgrounds. As the car passed “something was flung out of the window and shattered against the side of our station wagon with a sound like an explosion.” This event leads to showdown with a gang, along with questions about stereotypes: Should the Austins be frightened by teenagers? Or should they resent Tennessee, the state in which this gang appeared? With the introduction of these questions, Madeleine L’Engle sets the stage for the arrival of troubled boy Zachary Gray. Through him, Vicky is forced to deal with the reality of evil and therefore questions about God’s part in it. Being a teenager facing my own first doubts when I first read this book, I found great comfort in Vicky’s conversation with her Uncle Douglas about faith. Since then, I have spent much time sorting through my questions about God. Oh, and I have also thought a lot about the nature of love, a topic that is naturally a large part of books for young adults. Yet I don’t know if anyone ever truly has all the answers about faith and love. For that reason, even as an adult, The Moon by Night still resonates with me.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A Ring of Endless Light

In high school, I probably would have flown through additional books about Vicky with as much fervor as readers today were sucked into each new Harry Potter book. Sadly, as an adult, I instead found myself a little impatient with Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light. Her family loves her. Two boys have been attracted to her. And, at the end of The Moon by Night, she knew who she was. Forgive me if I thought that A Ring of Endless Light, present a more mature Vicky. Yet Vicky is not quite sixteen. She is facing a funeral for the first time. She’s also facing death upfront and personal for the first time, in that her grandfather is dying of leukemia. And then there’s the dilemma of boys. Now she has three suitors! Leo, the son of old friend Commander Rodney, needs her in the face of his father’s death. Zachary is back, having flirted with suicide and needing her help holding the broken pieces of his life together. And then there’s new boy Adam, a friend of John, who asks for her help with—of all things—dolphin research. A previous love interest, Andy, has dropped out of the picture with no explanation. Despite my moments of impatience with Vicky, I still do like A Ring of Endless Light. Vicky has finally found a talent: creative writing. Adam turns out to be someone with whom she might just develop her first serious relationship. And throughout her encounters with death and love, Vicky must explore even more deeply what it means to live a life in God. For example, what does it mean to choose between light and dark? What burdens should we accept as servants of God? What is the purpose of prayer? And how much exactly does God involve Himself in our lives? Vicky faces a lot of choices in A Ring of Endless Light. The culmination of those choices makes for my favorite part of the book.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

The Young Unicorns

And now I have reached that less-than-happy place in my roundup where I need to discuss the books that I didn’t like. The Young Unicorns takes place between the events of The Moon by Night and A Ring of Endless Light, but I choose not to refer to it above because I don’t consider it an Austin book. Yes, I know the Austins are featured as part of the lives of Josiah and Emily, but Vicky isn’t the main character. Moreover, The Young Unicorns is written from a third-person omniscient viewpoint. Enough said—at least in a roundup of books about the Austins.

Troubling A Star

If you haven’t figured out by now, despite my occasional impatience with her moods, Vicky is the reason I read the Austin books. For that reason, I was happy to recently discover Troubling a Star. The first few chapters also reunite us with her family and with love interest Adam Eddington from A Ring of Endless Light. Unfortunately, Troubling a Star left me dissatisfied. At the start, Vicky reveals that she wished for more than friendship from Adam. Yet she spends most of the book traveling to meet him and so nothing really ever has a chance to develop. With Troubling a Star being the last of the Austin books, we’re doomed to forever wonder if Vicky will ever find love. Near the start, Vicky also says that she feels lost and alien. Unlike in L’Engle’s earlier Austin books, however, I don’t feel that Vicky grows through her adventures to know more about faith, love, or really anything. Oh, there are references throughout to how the more we love, the more vulnerable we are. And through some of the multitude of characters we meet during Vicky’s voyage to the Antarctica, there is an exploration of what honor is. Yet neither of these applies to Vicky, who is already vulnerable and honorable, and so Vicky simply becomes a pawn in a novel about politics, ecology, drugs, and even murder. These are amongst the darkest issues to appear in the Austin books and so might have proved for an engrossing novel but instead left me cold. Part of the reason for my apathy is that there are far too many characters for me to care about. Of those whom I do get to know, their trustworthiness remains uncertain until the end and so again I really never feel comfortable caring about anyone. Through her conflicted characters, L’Engle might have wanted to explore the dual nature of man. Yet seems to me that Vicky still needed to have someone she could turn to, so that she has stability in the midst of chaos. In the end, maybe, Vicky isn’t the only reason I loved the Austin books. Perhaps, I also needed for her family and God to be right there with her, providing her with hope and answers.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

2 Responses to "Round-up Of Austin Books by Madeleine L’Engle"

Our family is currently reading Meet the Austins in its reading of juvenile classics. We all liked both the book and the family, which came across to us as a loving and caring family. In fact we liked both so much that we borrowed from the library the other four books that you refer to in your review. I enjoyed The Moon by Night and, unlike you, A Ring of Endless Night as much (or almost as much) as Meet the Austins. Reasons for for my liking them include their continuing the stories of the Austins and of Vicky’s romances, their being told through Vicky’s eyes, and their considering matters of Christian faith and life. However I wasn’t particularly impressed by The Young Unicorns and Troubling a Star, their seeming to me to be just average adventure/mystery books.

Thanks for your comments. I have enjoyed rereading classics that I grew up with as part of our family reading. Next on my list are The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Hopefully, the family (and blog visitors) will enjoy this set too!

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