- A small town in Massachusetts in 1962: 12 year old Meg Murry cowers in her bed from a midnight storm. She thinks about what all has gone wrong with her life, including her father disappearing. She laments that she got in a fight when she heard someone insulting her odd little brother. She eventually decides to get up and make herself a sandwich.
Readers for generations have deeply identified with Meg Murry. How do we come to Believe in, Care for, and Invest in her?
L’Engle begins with a very odd choice: She intentionally starts off with the most clichéd opening in literature (though kids may not know that), “IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT”. L’Engle’s puckishly laying down a gauntlet: I can win you over after first getting you to roll your eyes! We then meet Meg has she huddles in fear from that storm and L’Engle has to get us to identify with her…
Believe: L’Engle perfectly captures the thought patterns of a twelve-year old in a way we recognize and identify with:
- —A delinquent, that’s what I am, she thought grimly. —That’s what they’ll be saying next. Not Mother. But Them. Everybody Else. I wish Father—
- But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears. Only her mother could talk about him in a natural way, saying, “When your father gets back—”
- Gets back from where? And when? Surely her mother must know what people were saying, must be aware of the smugly vicious gossip. Surely it must hurt her as it did Meg. But if it did she gave no outward sign. Nothing ruffled the serenity of her expression.
- —Why can’t I hide it, too? Meg thought. Why do I always have to show everything?
Good dialogue allows scene partners to step all over each other’s sentences, but here we see that a lone heroine can also do that to herself in her own head. Short, choppy sentences with lots of em-dashes, a brain anxiously circling downward in a miserable spiral of self-pity. We get to the know the specific details of her situation in a rhythm and syntax we recognize as similar to our own inner voice.
In later chapters we’ll get a physical description of Meg that many young readers will identify with (“Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair”), but we’re already identifying with her intensely, because of her very recognizable internal voice.
Care: Here’s where things get tricky. Unlike the other nine novels we’ll be looking at, L’Engle invites to be a little judgmental of her heroine. Meg’s afraid of the storm raging outside, and afraid of tales of a “tramp” threatening the neighborhood …but we’re not as worried as she is. We can sense that the storm isn’t so bad, and she’s just projecting her inner turmoil onto it. And we suspect that the “tramp” might not be such a threat. We certainly feel bad for her for being so afraid for her own safety, but we do so without sharing her external fears. L’Engle is doing something sophisticated: trusting her readers, young and old, to have a little distance from Meg and see things things she doesn’t see.
So why do we still care so much for her, despite the fact that we don’t fully identify with her external fears? Most obviously because her father has disappeared, but it’s more than that. We all identify with characters who have unfair expectations put on them, and that’s very true of Meg:
- That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, “Really, Meg, I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.”
Being in her head, we can intimately see things the world refuses to see about her. We understand how unfairly she’s being treated, and burn with indignation for her. And of course, the most unfair assumption people make about her situation is when they assume her father ran off with another woman, so that brings it all together.
Invest: Once again, we’re allowed to be a little judgmental of Meg. L’Engle knows she must get us to invest in Meg’s ability to tackle whatever challenges she might face, and she does so in a classic way: On the very first page, we find out that, earlier in the day, Meg has launched into a fight, fists first, to defend the good name of her odd kid brother. But that night, Meg has already figured out that she was once again projecting her inner turmoil onto an outward source, and she shouldn’t have done it …and we agree. In the recent movie, Meg defends getting in the fight (“Dad always told me to stand up or what I believe in”), but in the book, she just regrets the whole thing, and I think that’s a braver choice on L’Engle’s part. She’s showing that we’ll be able to invest in Meg, but she’s not asking us to fully identify with her hero’s pugnaciousness. Nevertheless, we fall totally in love with this very sophisticated book.