Wonder and Wisdom: The Time Quintent

For a book that is included on every elementary recommended reading list and has been adapted into several feature-length films, I believe that A Wrinkle in Time is a criminally underrated book, and the rest of the series even more so. It’s difficult to explain my attachment to this series, but the unparalleled Madeline L’Engle created characters and a world in her works so interesting that I regularly reread and take inspiration from them to this day. So today, I want to write a tribute to my favorite children’s author. For readers, please take this as a wholehearted recommendation. For writers, this is my attempt to break down what makes L’Engle’s writing so impactful, so we can learn from her style and craft similarly beautiful works ourselves.

Capturing Wonder

For a brief, illuminating second, Meg’s face had the listening, probing expression that was so often seen on Charles’s. ‘I see!’ she cried. ‘I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can’t possibly explain it now, but there for a second I saw it!”

A Wrinkle in Time, on the Tesseract

Children are creative scientists – their entire existence centers on learning more about the world each day, and learning how to make their own place in it. If you’re reading this, you probably never lost that spark of curiosity. We live for this moment of epiphany, even as we know there is an ENDLESS amount of information yet to explore. I think this is also why speculative fiction is so appealing. Not only do we have our world to explore, but we can make whole worlds with our imaginations, be they mystical realms or distant planetoids.

In a book where the magic system works through physics and 5th dimensions, she also doesn’t shy away from the metaphysical questions of good and evil. This series treats religion and science as two different, but not opposed, methods of discovering truth. The characters grapple with questions about their place in the cosmos, what is means to be good or evil, and the nature of love. The concepts are never dumbed down, though the prose is accessible to an elementary audience. Reading these books gave me the vocabulary to talk about these ideas and made me feel like I deserved to be taken seriously. We contextualize our experiences in terms of stories, and what we don’t yet understand, we call magic.

L’Engle takes this philosophy to heart with her choice of genre. She doesn’t just blur the line between allegory, mythology, fantasy, and science fiction; she posits that there is no distinction. With every possibility open to experimentation, she created a unique spin on our universe that captured my imagination as a child. This is the book that made me say, “I want to write like this one day.”

Encouragement

“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”

Madeline L’Engle

Throughout the series, the characters must fight various forces of evil, which seek to tear apart their family and their word. Just because children are young doesn’t mean they don’t encounter evil. Good protectors may shelter them from harm, but they still meet it in the daily troubles of school and home life, and without stable parents and guardians, they are even more vulnerable. This book is honest. Meg and Charles deal with bullies. Their father is missing. Their teachers and principal are unfair. Life is pain, highness, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

But you can fight back. The story shows the characters putting their lives on the line to protect their loved ones. Their actions prove you can fight IT. The black thing is huge and terrifying, but it is not all-powerful. Meg both beats and forgives her bullies. They might not release the people of Camazotz, but they save their father. It is inspiring to read about this bittersweet, stubborn hope overcoming an evil greater than any one person. The characters earn a happy ending, but at no point do you take their struggle for-granted and it always struck me as more real than much of children’s media that takes a saccharine-saturated optimistic view of the world.

Belonging

“A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.”

A Circle of Quiet

Meg is an oddball – the “before” of every teen makeover with frizzy brown hair, thick glasses, and braces, a math genius that’s failing her other classes, quick with a witty comeback that infuriates her teachers, too impulsive and honest, which makes her socially awkward around her peers, and overly protective of a “dumb” brother. Charles is a pre-schooler who speaks in well-articulated sentences and comprehends complex metaphysical ideas, but refuses to interact with anyone outside his immediate family. Yet, their mother never belittles them for their eccentricities – she seeks accommodations, such as homeschooling or getting a typewriter, and gives her daughter gentle guidance to help weather the trials of growing up. The Murry family also accepts Calvin, who can mask his oddness to fit into a social norm, but feels out of place amongst his own siblings. Their home is a warm and welcoming shelter from the storms of both societal shunning and thundering wild nights. If you blew into town like Mrs. Whatsit, they wouldn’t hesitate to sit you around their kitchen table for a midnight sandwich.

But belonging does not mean conformity, and Meg resists IT’s statement that “everyone is equal, everyone exactly alike.” At home, they can be themselves without fear of judgement or retaliation, rather than changing who they are to avoid judgement and retaliation. Fiction is so often escapist, and giving the characters a place to retreat for comfort and safety also gives the reader that feeling of security. Whether it’s on the utopian Uriel or on Ixchel with Aunt Beast, L’Engle shows how important it is to have a small but close-knit community to act as a support structure, even when the evil is something you must face alone.

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”

Mrs. Whatsit

Did you read this book as a child? What did you think of it then, compared to now? Please let me know what you think! Happy reading and writing. 🙂

Symbolism in Addie La Rue

I first encountered The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab on bookstagram where it seemed like everyone was discussing the story. This novel hit the NY Times Bestseller List for 37 weeks straight through July this year, and not without good reason. In my opinion, the story more than lives up to the hype, and it is so effectively compelling because of the symbolism Schwab weaves through the narrative. Today I want to discuss three of the most important motifs that make Addie’s story so memorable and how aspiring authors can learn from Schwab’s writing to create meaningful symbols of their own. This will contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, beware of that before reading.

Synopsis:

Adeline LaRue is a young woman living in the small town of Villon, France in 1741, who desperately wants to see more of the world. She feels trapped in an engagement she doesn’t want, and fears the headlong rushing of time, saying, “I don’t want to live and die in the same ten meter plot.” Her faith is torn between the Christian God of her parent’s and the old gods of her elder friend, Estele. On the night of her wedding, she flees into the woods and pleas for some higher power to save her from her fate, and the night answers. Despite Estele’s warnings to never pray to the gods who answer after dark, Adeline strikes a deal with him. At first, she offers a wooden ring, carved for her as a child by her father, but the god doesn’t deal in “trinkets.” They bargain, and draw their terms: immortality in exchange for her soul when she doesn’t want it anymore.

When she returns to the town, she finds that everyone she knew has forgotten her. She cannot remind them of her name, because every time she tries to speak the words, they get stuck in her throat. She cannot write or leave any permanent mark. Any interactions “reset” the curse. As soon as the other person walks away, they forget her again. However, she can steal. She takes some bare essentials and a wooden bird from her father’s workshop before fleeing the town. The story follows Addie – no longer Adeline – between her past through the centuries, and modern day NYC, as she navigates her curse and meets Henry Strauss, the first person in over 300 years who remembers her.

Continue reading

In the Dark – Dracula

Hello my friends, it has been a hot minute since I last shared a reading rec, but what better month to get back into it than October! Today I want to share my personal favorite classic horror novel, and break down what makes it work so well. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the characters of Dracula from pop-culture, but they’re often so far removed from the original context that the concepts lose their teeth (heh). To understand why Dracula became such a ubiquitous icon of the vampire horror genre, we need to revisit why people feared him in the first place. For this article, I’ll be referring to the book with italics, and the character in normal text, to avoid confusion. This will also include spoilers, since I stand by a copyright-spoiler expiration policy. If you want to read the book for free, a copy is available from Project Gutenberg (which is what I used to find my excerpts.)

I’d also like to preface this with a disclaimer that if you’ve read the SparkNotes summary, this article will have a much different analysis. In my opinion, the SparkNotes takes a bad-faith assumption that treats the male characters as sex-motivated repressed Victorians who ignore religion for scientific advancement and fear Strong Women ™. I disagree, but I encourage you to read the book and both analyses to form your own opinion. If you’ve read the book already, leave a comment to start a discussion!

Framing Structure

Dracula is an epistolary novel, told through a series of 1st person journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings. Bram Stoker introduces us first to Jonathan Harker, who meets Dracula at his Transylvanian castle and experiences the threat first hand, and isolated from the rest of the characters. His diary entries show his desperation and fear as he tries to escape, then cut off, leaving us to wonder if he’s still alive.

The story then cuts to an exchange between Mina Harker and her friend Lucy. Through these letters, we meet the most of the rest of the supporting cast: Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris, the three men who propose to Lucy. During this portion of the story, the tension is low, but since it comes after Jonathan’s diary entries, we know that the threat is still out there. Stoker creates a feeling of dread as we wait for the Dracula to reappear. When he does, the characters remain oblivious to the growing horrors that plague their town, as they lack the context of Jonathan’s experience. The dread becomes dramatic irony, as the characters live in ignorance and the reader watches the events unfold, unable to warn them.

This framing sequence throughout the book also maintains a sense of mystery, as the reader still doesn’t know Dracula’s whereabouts or ultimate plan until halfway through the story. We learn more about the true series of events alongside the characters as they collect pieces of evidence and put the full picture together. Once the characters are on the same page (literally, after they transcribe and share notes), the festering slow burn becomes a race against the clock as they try to prevent Dracula from destroying England, and the world, once and for all. The act of transcribing the details of the events immediately after the fact also gives us a view of the scene as the character themself tells the story and reflects on their experience. The way they choose to describe the settings and feelings helps to build up the tone of dread and terror throughout the story.

The Characters

Every character in this book is memorable and lovable in their own way. Through their writing, we gain insight into each personality and how each views the world. Dr. Seward is analytical, Jonathan is straightforward, Lucy is romantic, and Mina is emotional and perceptive. We also get to see how they perceive the others. It’s wholesome to hear Seward and Quincey praising the qualities of Arthur when he gets the girl instead of him, and saying he’s happy that Lucy is happy. Mina’s and Jonathan’s love gives them hope amid the disaster. Whenever one member of the group does something especially brave or clever, we only hear about the event from their friend recounting the glory of the deed. The framing sequence gives us a deeper insight into the group dynamics, and it became one of the sweetest found families I’ve ever read. When adaptations remove the characters from this POV, they also lose this interpersonal element of internal admiration, which the original captures so well. Mina remarks of her new friends:

Dr. Seward went about his work of going his round of the patients; when he had finished, he came back and sat near me, reading, so that I did not feel too lonely whilst I worked. How good and thoughtful he is; the world seems full of good men—even if there are monsters in it.

From Mina Harker’s Journal

By creating these dynamics that invest the reader, Stoker also raises the stakes. Losing any one member of the group would devastate to all the others, and when Dracula attacks Lucy and Mina, it’s not only scary, it’s also tragic. We feel their grief through their personal writings, in a way they don’t always share publically, so we know what they’re suffering when their friends don’t. We also see how they lean on each other for support when it is too much to bear alone, and this combination of dynamics makes the story compelling for more than just the titular character.

The Stakes

This is a Catholic book!

Even if you’re not religious, I believe anyone can still enjoy the story by experiencing the threat through the lens of the characters who wholeheartedly believe in the Christian afterlife. To them, vampires are an affront against God’s holy plan of salvation. Dracula is a murderer and a rapist, but beyond that, he also brings other people into the living hell of immortality against their will. This is a sin paramount to the others, as the Bible condemns leading others into sin: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” from Luke 17:2.

There are also exponential implications past Dracula’s immediate influence. Each victim that loses their humanity goes onto turn other people and terrorize their local communities with a single-minded blood-thirst. Van Helsing likens this to a plague and insists that they must stop the cycle before it is too late. It leaves you wondering how many people he’s indirectly hurt throughout the years, and how many times this tragic story has played out in the past. From the weeping townsfolk pressing crucifixes into Jonathan’s hand, we can take a guess.

It takes convincing from Helsing for Seward, Quincey, and Arthur to accept the existence of vampires.

My thesis is this: I want you to believe.”

“To believe what?”

“To believe in things that you cannot…Now that you are willing to understand, you have taken the first step to understand.”

Van Helsing and Dr. Seward

As soon as they have the faith to listen, Van Helsing systematically proves what he knows to be true, proving that science and faith rely on each other and the characters value both in their approach to the world. He takes the men to the graveyard that evening and they see first-hand how vampire-Lucy has lost almost every shred of her humanity. At first, Seward (who recounts the event) is still skeptical, but his disbelief is born out of love for Lucy and desperate fear. With the evidence staring him in the face, he doesn’t want it to be true, because that means the only just and merciful solution is to kill the vampire that took the soul of their friend. They decide to let Arthur strike the final blow. As her would-be husband, they know Lucy would want to be laid to rest beside him, and this is the closest she can have. Vampire-Lucy beckons him to join her, but she is selfish and callous, wearing the appearance but completely replacing the kind and generous woman they knew. Arthur still has to kill her, so she will stop killing children, and it is just as much justice for Lucy as it is a tragedy. He considers it an honor to be the one to drive a stake through her heart, and let her have the peaceful death and chance at true eternal life and happiness in heaven that she deserves.

Thematic Inversion

It is also worth noting how Dracula perverts what the heroes see as good and holy for his own means. When he speaks about the vampire ladies in his court, Luca, and Mina, his language is possessive and obsessive. He sees the women as his property, compared to the men who speak with devotion about the ones they love. Jonathan and Helsing exclude Mina at first from the meetings to discuss how to deal with Dracula, a fact they deeply regret later when the Count attacks Mina. Love and a desire to protect motivate their choice, rather than dismissal.

Van Helsing obtains a dispensation to use the Eucharist (God’s body, blood, soul, and divinity under the appearance of bread and wine), to use against the evil. When it touches her, she burns, and in her later diary entries, her grief hurts just as much. As soon as the men realize their failure, they go out of their way to support Mina and respect her input, which ultimately helps them create their final battle plan. But even as they scheme, Jonathan remarks on how the vampire’s influence compromises his position:

To one thing I have made up my mind: if we find out that Mina must be a vampire in the end, then she shall not go into that unknown and terrible land alone. I suppose it is thus that in old times one vampire meant many; just as their hideous bodies could only rest in sacred earth, so the holiest love was the recruiting sergeant for their ghastly ranks.

Jonathan Harker’s Journal

There is also a symbolic perversion of the presence of blood throughout the book. Christians believe that we are saved from sin and eternal death through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross – his blood fulfilling the Moasic covenant from the Passover, where the blood of an unblemished lamb saved Israelite families from the angel of death. Stoker’s inclusion of the Sacred Host throughout the story, treated with the utmost reverence and not simply as a fantastical tool, makes a clear (but oft overlooked in pop culture) parallel between Mina made unclean by the blood of Dracula, but saved through the blood of Christ.

How can writers use Dracula to develop their stories?

  • Using limited or first person POVS and/or unreliable narrators preserves the mystery and fear of the unknown
  • Revealing the twist to the reader but not the character creates dramatic tension and dread
  • If the reader falls in love with your characters, any deaths or threats will hurt more. Likewise, hurting a character’s loved ones is a gut punch. Or worse, forcing your characters to hurt their loved ones for their own good.
  • Ask what your characters have to lose? Is their humanity or free will at stake? What would be a fate worse than death?
  • How does evil warp what the character’s love? Can you twist any symbols or themes into dark mirrors of themselves to create a poignant parallel between the heroes and the villains?
  • What separates a hero from a villain? How close do your characters get to turning? Having them walk the knife’s blade between good and evil can make for excellent drama, especially if they’re conflicted about their state/actions.

I hope you found this analysis interesting and useful! It was fun to revisit this format after so long, just in time for Halloween. Do you agree with what I have to say? Did you learn something new, or use any of the questions to develop your characters? Leave a comment below, and let’s start a discussion. I’m curious to see what you have to tell me. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!