At the end of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Ring of Endless Light, the book’s protagonist, Vicky Austin, sits in an ER waiting room holding a child who has just died in her arms. Vicky is shaken. The death of the child is a brutal lesson in the tremendous tragedy and blessing of being present at another person’s death. Vicky’s own grandfather is dying of cancer, and though the Austin family has prepared for it, the spectre of death provides neither solace nor resignation.
One important consolation remains: the Austin family itself. The Austins are, as L’Engle envisioned them, a classic example of a late-twentieth-century, religious American family. But one thing sets them apart: the parents provide a safe space for their children to explore complex issues freely. This vision of the ideal family runs through all of L’Engle’s fiction, from science fiction to adult dramas to illustrated children’s books.
In A Ring of Endless Light, the parents are Dr. Austin, a country village general practitioner, and Mrs. Austin, a stay-at-home mother to four children: brainy John, Vicky the writer, Suzy the animal lover, and Rob, the imaginative youngest child. The story of the Austin family spans five books; however, I will only refer to the novels forming the central trilogy of Vicky’s narration: Meet the Austins, A Moon by Night, and A Ring of Endless Light. Vicky is the ideal protagonist for the classic young adult novel: artistic, middle-child-ish, and in the midst of difficult teenage rites of passage.
At the beginning of A Ring of Endless Light, Vicky’s grandfather quotes a line from John Donne: “Other men’s crosses are not my crosses.” Vicky has been telling her grandfather that her love interest, Zachary Grey, “needs” her. Zachary has just attempted suicide and may have inadvertently caused the death of his rescuer. It would be easy for an adult to tell Vicky to stay away from such a chaotic person. But her grandfather does not prohibit her from seeing Zachary. Rather he takes the opportunity to introduce her to the important lesson of detachment and self-care. As in many of L’Engle’s books, this concept, presented early in the narrative, becomes a motif that emerges in key moments.
The young characters in the Austin books are allowed to muse over the complexities of life, and the answers they receive from their elders help them navigate those complexities. Answers are not discussion closers. L’Engle takes care never to let the adults give catch-all responses as they ponder death, sex, or war.
The Austin family is unique in the way it preserves itself for the children. Dr and Mrs. Austin encourage their children to act from the heart. In book one, Meet the Austins, when Suzy realizes that her love of Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web won’t allow her to eat pork, Dr. and Mrs. Austin allow her to follow the whim after a serious discussion of how consumption of all foods necessitate death of a sort. The eldest, John, tells Suzy the carrots she’s eating were once alive. The logic is infallible. Why should Suzy reject eating pork? Dr. and Mrs. Austin allow the discussion to play out, validating John’s points and ultimately letting Suzy abstain from eating pork. This is truly L’Engle’s vision for the ideal family.
In The Moon by Night—the “road trip” novel—Vicky becomes acutely aware of how her family must look to outsiders. The Austins are noisy; they pray and sing and read aloud. While camping with other families, Vicky is embarrassed about the dynamic she’s enjoyed privately at home. The aforementioned Zachary Grey, who blunders into her life at this time, represents the kind of life the Austin parents have rejected—he comes from materialism, wealth, and isolation. Intrigued by Zachary, Vicky informs her family that she’s “not so hot on this togetherness stuff.” It takes her a long time to recognize the goodness of her noisy, messy family compared to Zachary’s fast and loose self-centeredness. But Zachary, too, plays an important role in L’Engle’s conception of the family. He represents complex knowledge of the world and the cynicism it produces when not mediated by the kind of open discussions engaged in by the Austin family.
L’Engle’s preoccupation with contemporary life, particularly war and environmental concerns, appears again and again in the minds of the Austin kids. In my adolescence, the books introduced me to the concept of Cold War anxieties and the strain and bitterness it produced in Americans. The Austins don’t shield their children from these horrors. Infant-like naivete is not the goal. The point is not to deflect tragedy but to reflect pure and unconditional love, particularly in the theological sense. The Austin adults help their kids develop a nuanced understanding of the omnipotence of God as they discover the cruelty of the world.
Each novel is generally concentrated around domestic life, with insight into the family’s individual relationships. Vicky’s and Suzy’s relationship is anything but tranquil in Meet the Austins and only gets more complicated as they become teenagers. Vicky, ennobled by family trust (she is Rob’s favorite sister, her mother speaks with her like an adult, and her uncle takes her into his confidence), is troubled by her feelings of inferiority around Suzy. The tension between the sisters that spans the entire series eventually grows into a competition over fundamental identity issues such as beauty, intellect, and romantic interests. These tensions are never resolved and as a result Suzy becomes Vicky’s antagonist. This is sad but infinitely relatable. L’Engle doesn’t trivialize the rivalry; neither does she force characters to do what is not in their nature to do.
The Austin family allows their children to experience the full weight of adolescent love relationships. Dr. and Mrs. Austin know little about Vicky’s relationship with Zachary. But the Austins trust Vicky to navigate most of her romantic contact. She can experience the pitfalls of love even as her parents remain ignorant of the details of any particular date. In book four, A Ring of Endless Light, Zachary takes flying lessons. With Vicky in the plane next to him, he plays a game of chicken with a commercial airline pilot. Vicky perceives that his manic behavior is dangerous and eventually concludes that he is no good for her. L’Engle shows us that the family’s values and ideals undergird her decision to let him go. Vicky proves her growth.
Many adolescent readers identify strongly with Vicky’s angst, curiosity, and awkwardness, while parents and adult readers observe that excellent parenting can lead and preserve a free and happy family. Vicky and her siblings are nurtured by the values of honesty, beauty, song, prayer, and reading aloud. These form a balm for the turbulent hearts of the young who must lose certain innocence and gain experience to be whole adults in the world. L’Engle’s young adult fiction explores the needs of adolescents in a fraught and broken world. In the Austin family books, L’Engle displays her vision of a sensitive, beauty-loving family that meets the needs of its adolescent children, a vision that is at-play consistently throughout all of her young-adult fiction.
Elena Sorenson studies fairy tales and writes YA fiction. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado.