I just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s series on the Austin family. Here is my reaction to each of the books:
1. Meet the Austins (1960). There is a certain charm to this book, although nothing exciting really happens in it. I just liked hanging around the people. It’s like watching Fiddler on the Roof, Keeping the Faith, or 7th Heaven. You simply like the characters, even though the plot has no explosions or major villains. There’s something magical about being in the warmth of a family. One thing that I liked: There is a character named Maggie, whose father dies at the beginning of the book. She comes to live with the Austins and gets on everyone’s nerves. Still, they eventually accept her. There have been times when I’ve gotten on people’s nerves in my search for attention. And people can get on mine, too.
2. The Moon by Night (1963). I liked this book because it deals with theodicy, which asks how God can permit bad things to happen. Teenager Vicki Austin meets Zachary Gray, a young man with a bit of an ego problem. I first met him in A House Like a Lotus , and I didn’t like him then. But, in The Moon by Night, I found out that he had heart problems due to rheumatic fever, so I felt sorry for him.
There were three things that I liked: First, in a paragraph about suffering, one of the characters says that bad things actually make life worth living. It also states that a sign of maturity is noticing that there is a lot that is beautiful in the world. I haven’t reached that point yet, but I hope to someday.
Second, Zachary mocks the existence of God by asking Vicki why a loving God would allow Ann Frank to die. Vicki then has a discussion with Uncle Douglas, who calls himself the infidel of the family. I’m not entirely sure why, since much of what he says is the typical evangelical spiel on suffering. He points out that God gave us free will, and also that we can’t see the big picture, in which God has a plan. But he expresses himself with a humility that I do not find in a lot of evangelical apologists. He simply gives Vicki something to contemplate rather than acting as if he has the definitive answer on theodicy. He also says that there are arguments against God’s existence, but he believes because only God gives life meaning. Atheists will undoubtedly disagree with that statement, since many of them hold that life can indeed have meaning without a God. Personally, my reaction is mixed. If this short life is all there is, and there is no loving God looking out for us, then I can understand why some would consider life meaningless. I have problems with Christian apologetics, but I believe in Christianity because I hope it is true. On the other hand, if most are going to hell anyway (as conservative Christianity seems to teach), then life appears pointless for a lot of people, at least in my eyes.
Third, at the end of the book, Vicki gets injured after an earthquake and avalanche, and she is cold. She is initially angry with God, until she finally comes to accept his will. The weather then gets warmer. I’ve had similar experiences. I rant at God, and then I get so tired that I can no longer rant. After that, things begin to become better. I can feel God’s presence and a strong sense of peace. Some time later, I go through another round of turbulence.
3. The Young Unicorns (1968). This book is a suspense novel, and it reminded me of a Scooby Doo mystery. But it has some theological lessons. In it, there is a device that makes people submissive, and a bishop uses it to make humanity better. Madeleine L’Engle dislikes this, for she believes in human free will. One of her characters, a rabbi, says that God shows that he values us by giving us demands, or commandments. God grants us responsibilities, and yet we follow them out of our own free will. In the end, the bishop turns out not to be a bishop, but rather the bishop’s actor brother, who is using the device to gain power for himself. L’Engle’s point appears to be that God is not a tyrant: He gives us commands, but he wants us to see the value of them and choose them freely.
4. A Ring of Endless Light (1980). L’Engle wrote this book long after The Young Unicorns, yet the family doesn’t age that much. The theme of this book is affirming life in the face of death. Zachary attempts suicide, and Vicki’s grandfather (whom we first encounter in Meet the Austins) is about to die. But Vicki finds solace with biology student Adam Eddington and his dolphins, with whom she develops a remarkable rapport. Vicki’s grandfather, a minister, says that death encourages us to appreciate life, particularly our loved ones while they are still with us. That’s a good point, but Vicki’s grandfather is still a strange sort. He seems to question the doctrine of original sin, yet he calls humanity depraved because a group of people walked over a corpse with total apathy.
I read this book before The Moon by Night and The Young Unicorns. Here, I learn that Vicki is jealous of her beautiful sister Suzi. I identified with Vicki the first time I read that, but I got bored with her jealousy after reading about it in other books. I’m still glad that L’Engle mentioned it as often as she did, since it makes Vicki look real. It’s just that I can tolerate only so much complaining about the same things (unless I’m the complainer, of course).
5. Troubling a Star (1994). L’Engle wrote this fourteen years after A Ring of Endless Light, and Vicki is still in her teens. What’s weird is that she has a romantic relationship with Adam Eddington, a college student. The book is clean, so nothing inappropriate happens. But isn’t Vicki a little too young for Adam?
I personally didn’t care for this book. I didn’t follow the plot that well, and it was kind of like another Scooby Doo mystery. But the book has information about penguins and Antarctica, which is where Vicki goes, so science buffs may like it. The book seems to have an environmental theme: all things in nature have a purpose outside of their usefulness to humans. So L’Engle doesn’t like people exploiting nature for power. We also encounter Vespugia, the fictional South American country in A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
So I definitely recommend these books, especially the first four. The Austins are nice people, and L’Engle teaches some valuable theological lessons through them.