Madeleine L’Engle’s early short stories presage ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

A reviewer reflects on reading “The Moment of Tenderness,” a collection of short stories, and then returning to the 1963 novel she loved growing up. 

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“The Moment of Tenderness” by Madeleine L’Engle, with an introduction by Charlotte Jones Voiklis, Grand Central Publishing, 285 pp.

I don’t always read introductions to books, but Charlotte Jones Voiklis prefaces this collection by remembering her 9-year-old self poking through her grandmother’s manuscripts in the Ivory Tower – the family’s name for her grandmother’s study above a garage in an 18th-century farmhouse. That scene took me right back to the opening, on “a dark and stormy night,” in another old house, of that haunting book, “A Wrinkle in Time.” No coincidence: The grandmother in question was Madeleine L’Engle. Her granddaughter went on, after L’Engle’s death in 2007, to gather those manuscripts into “The Moment of Tenderness.”

“A Wrinkle in Time” explains that speedy space travel to a distant galaxy is just a matter of hopping over a temporal fold. This story collection rocketed me back to my own young-reader encounter with L’Engle’s work. It wasn’t just that I kept spying elements that appear in the 1963 Newbery Award-winning novel, such as the problem of glasses and romance in the story “The Foreign Agent,” or scriptural assurance in outer space in “A Sign for a Sparrow.” It was more that I could watch the development of a writer, and this made both books and their author more real to me. “A great deal in these stories is autobiographical, especially in those that carefully observe an intense emotional crisis,” Voiklis writes. (Incidentally, Voiklis and her sister Léna Roy wrote “Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Her Granddaughters,” for middle-grade readers.)

As the title hints, the crises happen in moments. Some seem clumsily subtle; others are just bleak. “Every life has a turning point,” a hopeful actress tells us in “One Day in Spring.” In “Madame, Or...” a brother has a moment of horror at his little sister’s living situation. In “Summer Camp” a camper and a counselor are both victims of adolescent cruelty, but the camper doesn’t get beyond self-pity. L’Engle holds her characters to moral account for their actions. In “Madame, Or…” and “Summer Camp,” they make the wrong ones. Sometimes a well-observed moment seems too slight, but L’Engle’s refusal to tie things up with an easy resolution, and the possibility that she lived aspects of these stories, attests to her courage as a writer and a person.

The two best stories take place in Mt. George, Vermont. In “The Moment of Tenderness,” a married woman falls in love with the local doctor. It’s restrained, romantic, and memorable. “The Foreigners,” about an obnoxious family who moves to Vermont from New York, told by a storekeeper who hears all the gossip, is like a small novel. It ends on a note of edgy grace: “But where, after we have made the great decision to leave the security of childhood and move on into the vastness of maturity, does anybody ever feel completely at home?”

L’Engle’s stories in “The Moment of Tenderness” often leave you with a question. But the book “A Wrinkle in Time” felt like home to many a nerdy child. Rereading it after seeing what else L’Engle could do was a revelation. “It was a dark and stormy night,” was exactly the right first sentence. It never occurred to me as a child what confidence it took to breathe life into a cliche. As an adult, I loved the fact that cool, basketball player Calvin already saw dorky, glasses-and-braces-wearing Meg’s true beauty in Chapter 3. L’Engle seems to dust off her hands, then she briskly dispatches the two along with Charles Wallace, Meg’s genius little brother, through time and space to battle a dark force and rescue their physicist-hero dad. To past and present me, it all makes perfect sense.

Voiklis says editors asked L’Engle if “A Wrinkle in Time” was for children or for adults, to which she replied, “It’s for people!” Her stories of human failures, successes, yearnings, and troubles all have a strong moral compass, even if the characters don’t. Reading them showed me the depth and texture that eventually found its way into “A Wrinkle in Time.” And “The Moment of Tenderness” is graced with the tenderness with which the author’s granddaughter read her work.

Read a Q&A with Charlotte Jones Voiklis, granddaugher of Madeleine L’Engle, here. 

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