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The radical leaps of A Wrinkle in Time

The witches of A Wrinkle in TimeI was in sixth grade when I was swept up in the world of A Wrinkle in Time, part of the first generation of girls to discover it. Madeleine L’Engle’s novel imprinted itself on my imagination and gave me a sense of what speculative fiction could be, before I had read much science fiction. Its tingling sense of possibility, and its fearless leaping into deep territory stayed with me, as I later found and read other pioneering authors like Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler.

What makes A Wrinkle in Time such a touchstone, a kind of pole star that has helped many readers, and particularly girls and young women begin navigating their sense of themselves in the cosmos? Many people have written about the power of encountering the anti-cheerleader Meg—a twelve-year-old girl who excels at math and science—not to mention Meg’s mother, Mrs. Murry, who is both a working scientist and a loving, understanding parent.

But it’s not just these two strong female characters that made this book different. L’Engle pulled off something wildly, radically original, marking her own path into a field that is still male-dominated. The title slyly announces its difference: it’s a “wrinkle” in time, not some grand, adventurous noun (Trek, anyone?), but a humble, domestic thing that normally reminds us of fabric—the tangible women’s work of sewing and ironing. Yet this image animates the Tesseract concept that allows Meg and others to leapfrog through space and time on their quest to find her scientist father. Likewise, the story roots itself in the creaky details of Meg’s shabby but welcoming old house before launching into its playful exploration of different planets and ways of being, all without recourse to any of the shiny, tech-heavy details that characterize hard science fiction.

That’s not all. L’Engle, who knew her world mythologies, offers three characters who are introduced as witches—one of them is even named Mrs Which. But these witches are thoroughly de-demonized. No shrill Queens of the Night or interchangeable Weird Sisters here; these are three old-lady pals who genuinely like each other, each with her own distinct personality. They are in fact mentors and helpers to Meg and her companions, and even as they shape-shift, shedding their gender to reveal more cosmic identities, they retain their profoundly good intentions.

And then there are the inhabitants of the planet Ixchel, where Meg is taken to recover from the near-death trauma of Tessering through the Black Thing. These huge furred creatures understand the world completely through sensitive tentacles, and communicate without words. Instead of nightmarish, Alien-like insectoids like those encountered in Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game, we’re given many-limbed beings with the enveloping tactile and emotional ambience of the mother-infant bond, as Meg is regressed and re-raised by an individual she names “Aunt Beast.”

No wonder publishers didn’t know what to do with L’Engle’s manuscript at first. The human characters (Meg and her mom) and the supernatural characters broke the gender barriers of their time. Two archetypal extremes are embodied as female: the celestial, sky-flying, far-seeing witches, and the feelingful, earth-connected species of Ixchel (the planet was named for the Mayan goddess of healing and childbirth). And there are no man-eating monsters among them. If A Wrinkle in Time has given boys something new to chew on in these recast archetypes, that’s great. On behalf of stargazing girls everywhere, I’m grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for letting her imagination fly.

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