Book Review: Many Waters

Cover of Many Waters, by Madeleine L'Engle. Sometimes called Book 4 of the Time Quintet, sometimes Book 3 of the Time Quartet....
Cover of Many Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle. Sometimes called Book 4 of the Time Quintet, sometimes Book 3 of the Time Quartet….
I first met the twins, Sandy and Denys Murry, in third grade in the pages of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved that book so much, that I convinced my Mom to buy me my own paperback copy, which I read again and again. The twins were supporting characters who only appear in a few scenes. The protagonist of the A Wrinkle in Time is their older, bookish sister, Meg. And most of the action of the book involves Meg, their youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s new friend, Calvin O’Keefe. The three of them go an an adventure literally across the galaxy to rescue Dr. Murry—father of Meg, Sandy, Denys, and Charles Wallace—who has been missing for more than a year since he joined a mysterious government research project.

Many Waters is a sequel to that book, and it is the first one where Sandy and Denys take center stage.

Before I get into my review of Many Waters, I want to share one amusing personal incident: by the time I was in the fourth grade we had moved several times. For example, I had spent part of third grade not only in three different school districts, but each was in a different state. Part way through fourth grade we moved yet again. At the new school, we were assigned to read A Wrinkle in Time, and then give a book report. My report came back with a low grade in part because I had supposedly misspelled Murry, the last name of the family. I had to show the teacher in my own copy of the book (since the school copies had been taken back already and passed on to the other fourth grade classroom) that Murry is how it is spelled in the book. It didn’t occur to me until years later that this meant the teacher probably had never read the book himself. So on what basis was he grading everyone’s book reports?

So, what did I think of this book? …

It’s complicated.

The Fiftieth Anniversary edition features a cover that is almost identical to my old paperback copy. It's worth paying the extra for this, not just for the full transcript of L'Engle's Newbery acceptance speech, but also the article by L'Engle's daughter with some very funny comments about things her mother scribbled in the margins of the first draft typed manuscript.
The Fiftieth Anniversary edition features a cover that is almost identical to my old paperback copy.
When Madeleine L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time she had no plans or thoughts of a sequel. She had such a hard time selling the book (which went on to be a bestseller in addition to winning the Newbery Medal) that she had given up on it and was working on other things. After its success, she wrote other books, one of which is a sequel of sorts (though it is not considered part of the time series), The Arm of the Starfish. Meg and Calvin, all grown up and running a marine biology research center, are background characters in that book. And while the first book involved space-faring centaurs, and little old ladies who can whisk you across the galaxy by bending time, …Starfish is a much more earth-bound adventure involving kidnapping and espionage (though the target of the latter is Calvin’s advanced research in the regeneration of organs and limbs, so it is technically science fiction).

A Wind in the Door, the second book in the Time Trilogy or Time Quartet or Time Quintet, depending on who you ask.
A Wind in the Door, the second book in the Time Trilogy or Time Quartet or Time Quintet, depending on who you ask.
She wrote the first direct sequel in the early 70s. I remember quite fondly the day I came into the public library after school and the librarian behind the desk greeted me with a very strange smile. “Go check the new arrivals,” she said. There on the spot where they displayed newly acquired books, was a hardcover copy of A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle, a new book that I hadn’t realized was even in the works. The dust jacket proudly proclaimed it a sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. Unfortunately, there was also a “Reserved” label attached to the book.

“Someone’s already reserved it?” I asked, bewildered.

The librarian replied, “Oh, yes! One of our best customers!” She made a big show of checking the list, and then read off my name.

They knew what a big fanboy I was of L’Engle’s work, and had saved it so I could be the first person to read it. I took it home and read it all the way through that night. While the first book was about crossing the galaxy to fight a mysterious evil force, this one was about delving deep into the sub-microscopic world of one of the mitochondria in one of the cells in Charles Wallace’s body to fight that same Darkness, in a different way. One of the supporting characters was a cherubim that was a sort of dragon with thousands of feathered wings and thousands of eyes. It wasn’t quite as incredibly awesome as the first book, in my opinion, but it was pretty good.

L’Engle wrote many more books, of course. All of her fiction, whether she was writing a mystery thriller, a galaxy-spanning battle with Evil itself, or a mystery on a cruise ship, were set in the same universe. A member of the Murry or O’Keefe family might be a supporting background character in one suspense novel, or a priest who had appeared in a supporting role in one of the Murry books might be the person who solves the mystery in another. So her books zig zag all over a single continuity, despite all being in very different genres. Some are direct sequels to others, forming various series, each of which could easily be read as if they were unrelated to the others.

SwiftlytiltingplanetShe wrote another direct sequel to A Wrinkle in Time in the late 70s. In this book, Meg is an adult, married and expecting her first child, Charles Wallace is in his early teens, and Sandy and Denys have started college. Calvin isn’t in the book at all, being away at a science conference. In …Planet a “winged unicorn” (alicorn having not come into usage at the time) carries Charles Wallace into the past, to make several corrections in history to prevent a world-ending nuclear disaster in the present. Meg is in the book, but because she is very pregnant, she is physically excluded from the dangerous battle with Darkness that Charles Wallace is called into. She is, however, psychically present and occasionally able to advise Charles Wallace.

Several things about A Swiftly Tilting Planet felt like a finale. The first book goes to outer space, the second goes into inner space, and the third goes through history. The first was about resisting oppression and overcoming the forces of rigid conformity with love of the individual because of, rather than in spite of, differences. The second was about the dangers of uncaring anarchy, and about loving the unloveable. The third was about the consequences of festering resentment, and about overcoming a thirst for revenge with understanding. The three books seemed thematically complete. A year or so after the original hardcover publication of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the three books were made available in a paperback boxed set as the Time Trilogy.

200px-ManyWatersCover400pxL’Engle wrote Many Waters about eight years later. The main characters are Sandy and Denys, who are in early adolescence, so it’s a few years after A Wind in the Door but also several years before A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Sandy and Denys had not participated in any of their siblings cosmic adventures. While Meg and Charles Wallace are both obviously much brighter than average, and don’t fit in with their classmates in lots of other ways, Sandy and Denys are portrayed as the normal, or ordinary brothers. They’re just good enough at sports to fit in, they get decent grades in school but not so much that they stand out, and they are very skeptical of any of otherworldly explanations of the few things they witnessed in the first book.

In this book, they sneak into their parents’ lab looking for the good cocoa, and interrupt one of their father’s experiments. They are propelled to a strange desert, where they nearly die of heatstroke until they are rescued by a very short man and his mammoth (the mammoth being about the size of a cocker spaniel). Neither of them recognize the name of the man who saves them, Japheth, so they are unaware at least for the first third of the book that they have been dropped into the middle of the story of Noah.

Even when they are told that Japheth’s father’s name is Noah.

Now, since it has taken me more than 1400 words in this review of Many Waters to get to the actual book, you might guess that when I said my reaction to the book is complicated, that I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about this book written by one of my favorite authors. You’re not completely wrong.

It is not a bad or mediocre book. Mostly it’s just not as good as some of the others in the series. At least part of what drove me crazy about the book are the little things like one of the brothers not remotely remembering the story of Noah. An argument could be made that two very down to earth boys simply not being able to make the connection that they have traveled through time, but by the point in the story that this particular thing happens, they’ve already decided that their father’s experiment might have sent them to another planet, and speculated about how likely it is that they are even still in the same galaxy. They have already met (and used to escape danger) unicorns that can shift in and out of reality. They have befriended seraphim that can change shape. They have met the similarly shape-shifting and sinister nephilim (depending on which folklore you choose, nephilim are fallen angels, or merely strayed angels, or hybrids between angels and humans). They have accepted that the people who are helping them consider someone under 100 years old as still a child. I just can’t quite swallow that after all of that, finding out that one of the people you are with is a man named Noah wouldn’t jog a memory.

The book takes its title from a a passage in the Old Testament:

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, it would utterly be rejected. —Song of Solomon 8:7

The first bit of that quote is said to one of the brothers early on by one of the unmarried daughters of Noah. And it is referenced at different times in the book by other characters. It seems to function as a zen koan. It never explicitly resolves any of the problems faced by the characters in the story, but they keep alluding to it as if it does.

Another thing that makes the book difficult to describe is that I can’t tell you what it’s about. With the first book, I could say that it’s about these kids trying to rescue their father. Or I can talk about the horrible, mind-controlled society of It, where the father is a prisoner, and how the kids struggle against It. I can boil the book down thematically, as I did earlier, and say that it is about conquering oppression by loving people because of their differences.

I can’t really do that with this book. You can say that the boys are trying to figure out how to get home. But actually, so little of the book involves either of the boys even pining for home, that it doesn’t ever feel that that’s what the book is about. Because several incidents in the book revolve around temptation, and specifically temptations involving romance and sex, (including a couple of different incidents of coercive seduction) you could squint and see a coming-of-age plot in there.

I have a lot of objections to some of the anti-modernist/anti-urban philosophy that is inherent to the plot (which annoyed me about A Wind in the Door, but not nearly as much), but my main problem with this book is that the protagonists almost never exercise agency. They are constantly reacting to things happening around them. They endure hardship. They resist temptation. They endure injury and illness. They try not to change history, once they have figured out where they are.

None of L’Engle’s other books (and I’ve read nearly everything she ever wrote) comes across as preachy. In A Wrinkle in Time, while one of the kids suggests that Jesus was a person from human history who fought the Darkness, the cosmic characters say yes, and then list Buddha and Einstein (among others) as other humans who have done the same. While the author alludes to god and religion, it’s always very ecumenically, and she freely mixes many kinds of folklore and mythology into the fantastical elements of her work.

Obviously, if you set a story within the incidents of a famous Bible story, it is going to be impossible not to allude to specific religious beliefs. By making the seraphim and nephilim major characters in the story, she does mix in some folklore that isn’t explicitly Christian. But because of such things as the tiny mammoths, manticores and unicorns interacting with characters as real creatures, and having humans live to be many hundreds of years old, the story feels like a blatant attempt to appeal to young earth creationists.

L’Engle was definitely not a young earther. During A Wrinkle in Time one of the three little old ladies who whisk the children across the galaxy admits to being tens of millions of years old… and she’s the youngest of the three. In the original first draft manuscript, L’Engle had typed that the character was hundreds of billions (with a B) years old, and then had crossed it out later and written by hand in the margins “Isaac Asimov says the universe is at most 15 billion years old. Fix.” All of the other times (in the books I’ve read thus far) when faith or matters of cosmology and spirituality collide she takes a very nonsectarian approach to them.

But this story feels as if it is aimed at the young earth creationists as an audience. Among the moral or emotional conflicts the characters face are temptation and despair. The resolution to the temptation subplots are to refrain from even making out, let alone having sex. The resolution to the despair subplot is to trust that the creator will make everything work out. When I describe the plot that way, it would be easy for someone to assume that this was one of those godawful attempts by clueless evangelicals to write a book that would somehow convince nerds, geeks, and science fans to turn to god.

But that is not a fair description of most of the book. L’Engle’s command of language is great. The characters are relatable and I did care about what happened to them. Unfortunately, at several points in the book that caring manifested as an urge to yell, “Will one of you just actually DO SOMETHING, already!?”

I was feeling so frustrated that I wrote a post venting about the book. And then a funny thing happened. When I next picked up the book and started reading, I was sucked in and couldn’t put it down. It was as if I had to have the catharsis of admitting aloud that one of my favorite authors of all time can’t always hit a home run in order to enjoy the book for what it is.

I don’t think this is one of her works I will come back to again and again. For a serious fan of her other work, this book will be at least all right. For a sometimes-obsessive completist it’s a must. It certainly would not be the first book I’d recommend for someone who has never read her work before.


1. It’s worth paying the extra for the Fiftieth Anniversary edition of A Wrinkle in Time, not just for the full transcript of L’Engle’s Newbery acceptance speech, but also the article by L’Engle’s daughter with some very funny comments about things her mother scribbled in the margins of the first draft typed manuscript.

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