An Acceptable Time – Acceptable Themes?

Share on Tumblr

After a recent conversation with Michelle of I Am A Tree [blog since removed], I felt inspired to pick up and re-read Madeline L’Engle’s An Acceptable Time, which had been one of my very favorite books when I was a teen.

More often than not, when I revisit things I was enthusiastic about when I was younger, I’m disappointed by the experience. Happily, An Acceptable Time was still as good a read for me at 24 as it was when I was 14. It’s got a fun plot which is a nice blend of fantasy and science fiction, and many of the things I really appreciated then are even more special to me now – especially the ways in which women are portrayed and characterized.

The main character of the novel is Polyhymnia O’Keefe (Polly, for short), a very capable young woman who is shown to be smart, quick-thinking, courageous and loyal at numerous points in the text. Admirable qualities all, and exactly the sort of thing I wanted in heroines when I was a teenager.

Now that I’m a little older, I can also appreciate the ways in which the background women of the text are constructed as strong and multi-dimensional people. The three most important female characters besides Polly are her grandmother (a noted scientist and an excellent cook), her grandparents’ friend, Dr. Louise Colubra (who is described by other characters as a particularly good doctor, and tends a fabulous garden), and Anaral (a druid and emerging leader of her people who, for all her personal strength, gets faint at the sight of blood). Women in this story clearly have important and influential places in the world, and yet are not merely placeholders of station – they’ve got personalities and quirks, too.

There’s also evidence of (traditionally feminine) nurturing by women in the text, and some thoughtful discussion of the choices women make in a modern society. This excerpt from the second chapter (page 40 in my edition of the book), a conversation between Polly and her grandmother, struck me as particularly interesting:

Mrs. Murry pushed her fingers through her still damp hair. “If a woman is free to choose a career, she’s also free to choose the care of a family as her primary vocation.”

“Was it that with Mother?”

“Partly.”Â Her grandmother sighed. “But it was probably partly because of me.”

“You? Why?”

“I’m a scientist, Polly, and well known in my field.”

“Well, but Mother -“Â She stopped. “You mean maybe she didn’t want to compete with you?”

“That could be part of it.”

“You mean, she was afraid she couldn’t compete?”

“Your mother’s estimation of herself has always been low. Your father has been wonderful for her and so, in many ways, have you children. But”¦” Her voice drifted off.

“But you did your work and had kids.”

“Not seven of them.”

There are no easy answers given in that passage. Polly may have come to a slightly better understanding of her mother’s motivations by the end of it, but those motivations are shown to be uniquely her mother’s – not things that are true of all women. I really enjoyed the way this novel continually treats women as individuals, and their choices and decisions as individual choices and decisions, informed by the broader culture but not stereotyped and without distinctiveness.

So An Acceptable Time gets major feminist points from me, for its thoughtful portrayals of a variety of capable women, and I’d feel very few qualms giving it to a young reader who might benefit from a strong young heroine (and a great supporting cast).

This is not to say that the novel gave me no pause whatsoever, though, on my recent re-reading of it. One small potential sticking-point was what Michelle was bringing up in her blog post – the Christian themes.

I honestly had not remembered An Acceptable Time as a particularly religious book. I’m guessing that it must have just passed right by my younger self on previous reads (I think that I was just so used to made-up religions in fantasy novels that I didn’t even notice the real ones as an adolescent), because it’s probably actually one of L’Engle’s most overtly Christian novels. All of her work has themes of spirituality and faith, but this is one of the few that I can think of where characters actually talk specifically about Jesus (mostly Bishop Colubra, understandably). That might give some pause to potential non-Christian readers. For me, ultimately, it’s not much of an issue. One thing I’ve long appreciated about L’Engle’s sympathetic Christian characters is that they believe the same basic things about morality and ethics that I do, and they don’t claim some kind of monopoly on justness. It is my opinion that her fantasy novels can be appreciated by open-minded people of all faiths (or no faith at all), though some might be a little leery of an uncritical acceptance of L’Engle’s religious ideas on the part of young readers. To that, I have only to say that I think there can never be too much discussion between children and their parents about the books they’re reading.

The other thing that made me raise my eyebrows on this read of An Acceptable Time is something I have a little more trouble defining. I’m not as well-educated in issues of racism and ethnocentrism as I could be, and someone who is could probably say this more clearly and succinctly. Essentially, what’s bothering me is that, even though Polly very thoughtfully critiques the idea of the “noble savage” in the third chapter of the novel, the People of the Wind (a group Polly encounters many times throughout the text as she and other characters time-travel) seem at times like they might be just that.  Peaceful, loving, almost unreasonably forgiving, and in possession of mystical powers of healing and communication, the People of the Wind could fairly be described as existing in some sort of original natural state, “uncorrupted” by civilization. This is further complicated by some confusion in the text over whether the People of the Wind have always been peaceful and mystical, or whether their culture changed with the arrival of the druid Karralys from Europe.

Since the People of the Wind are a fictional group existing in a historical time period in a fantasy novel, I’m a little more forgiving of slight tinges of ethnocentricity and patronizing racism than I think I would be, otherwise. But it’s certainly a topic worthy of discussion and consideration, and I would definitely want to bring it up with any young person to whom I might lend my copy of the book.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Hmm. I’m not sure I’m the right person to judge the presentation of religious themes in novels. To me, the Narnia books crossed the line, since there was almost no way to get the full joy of them without embracing Jesus himself in the form of Aslan. When the themes are more generic than that, however, I tend not even to associate them with one religion or another. But I don’t know if that’s how they would read to, say, someone of the Hindu faith. And I haven’t read this book, but I can say her Wind in Time trilogy didn’t strike me as overtly religious.

    As for the issue of patronizing racism… my guess would be it probably is just that. I don’t think academics of the Lewis-Tolkien set thought there way out of that box. Maybe L’Engle was starting to, and that’s why she presented the critique alone with the trope.

    Still – and I think this is what you were saying – books like this can be a great way to expose kids to a good story AND start some valuable social discussions at the same time.

  2. says

    If you read Narnia up to Book 7 and then skip The Last Battle, I find it’s easier to escape the uncomfortable-ness of the Christian themes.

    This was the one about Meg’s daughter, right? And the ogam stones? I wish I remembered more about it. It was one of my favorites, though. I don’t remember it being overtly Christian. But it could be that, like you, I saw it as fantasy and glossed over them as a young reader. That seems like something I would do as well.

  3. says

    That’s the one, Duru. The Christianity comes into it overtly in the character of Bishop Colubra, who quotes biblical and extra-biblical texts a little bit, and more subtly in the plot involving Zachary – a person who probably doesn’t deserve redemption, but is redeemed anyway. I don’t think anyone would read the book as an attempt at conversion or anything like that, but the Christian ideas are clearly pretty important to the construction of the plot, as well as to characterization.

  4. says

    But I think I may have your answer about Karralys influencing the People of the Wind: Unless I’m remembering incorrectly, The People of the Wind (and The People Across the Lake) are first introduced in L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, where Charles Wallace learns to kythe better by going inside one of the tribe’s members.

    Oh, that’s right! It’s been so long since I’ve read A Swiftly Tilting Planet that I’d totally forgotten about that.

    I think the conversation about Meg’s motivations is particularly interesting when compared to conversations Polly has with other people about her mother in A House Like a Lotus. I might have to post about that, sometime.

    I’ll keep my eye out for your take on An Acceptable Time.

  5. Michelle says

    Thanks for directing me to this! I’m glad you decided to reread it for yourself, as we seem to have picked up on a lot of the same things, though I barely noticed the ethnocentrism. But I think I may have your answer about Karralys influencing the People of the Wind: Unless I’m remembering incorrectly, The People of the Wind (and The People Across the Lake) are first introduced in L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, where Charles Wallace learns to kythe better by going inside one of the tribe’s members. There’s no mention of European influence that I recall, and The People of the Wind are “noble savages,” even though they are at odds The People Across the Lake still(?). (Though neither A Swiftly Tilting Planet nor An Acceptable Time give an exact date as to when Charles and Polly visited the tribe, going by chronological order, you would assume Charles was there first, and “before” Polly.)

    Otherwise, you and I seem to have picked up on a lot of the same things, even isolating the conversation Polly and Kate have about Meg. Hopefully, I will have my thoughts up soon. Thanks again!

  6. Michelle says

    I think the conversation about Meg’s motivations is particularly interesting when compared to conversations Polly has with other people about her mother in A House Like a Lotus. I might have to post about that, sometime.

    Ah, I see. I was wondering why Polly had suddenly brought up the subject. A House Like a Lotus is definitely on my ‘to read’ list, so I would love to hear your thought on that, as well.

  7. Michelle says

    Hey, the LJ feed just vomited a bunch of Hathor’s entries back up, so it reminded me to let you know I’ve FINALLY written down my thoughts. I hope it comes across somewhat coherent.

  8. says

    Awesome, Michelle. I saw that you’d posted your take, but I haven’t had time to thoroughly read it yet – I’ve got it bookmarked for after the con, though!

  9. Michelle says

    For anyone reading who’s confused, the link to the article Michelle’s talking about is:

    http://revolutionf.blogspot.com/

    Ah yes, a link would help! Haha, I was just leaving a note, and she knew where to look, so it didn’t even occur to me. Thanks for your comment as well, I’ll be replying in a minute. :)

    Awesome, Michelle. I saw that you’d posted your take, but I haven’t had time to thoroughly read it yet – I’ve got it bookmarked for after the con, though!

    Thank you! I hope you enjoy it. And I hope you have a great time at WisCon!

  10. Gaby says

    THis book does have acceptable themes.The space/time expanations and theorys were not as complicated as the rest of the books.Well I think that Polly and Zachary should have been friends in the end..I mean it is not his fault that he was ill and was about to die. Plus, he really didnt know that they were going to sacrafice Polly..so i dont see why she could have at least forgive him and left off as friends ( but then again this is the first book that I have read of these series with Zachary Gray) My heart crushed when she said that they couldnt see each other again..I mean..he really loved her and even said that he would never hurt her. And dont you remember that when he found out that they were going to sacrifice her..he yelled and tried all he can to save her, ending up in tears(now tell me how many californian teens do that for a girl)

  11. says

    Gaby, you might find that your opinion of Zachary changes if you read some of the other books he appears in. The character has sort of a history of manipulative, selfish behavior. I always feel pretty bad for him by the time I get to the end of An Acceptable Time, though, even so. He’s a weirdly likable character, despite his flaws.

  12. says

    I think I’m probably the odd man out here, but I’m going to say it anyway. First, a disclaimer: I am a Christian, though I am progressive, so not what most people think of when they hear the word.

    I can’t imagine not giving my child a book to read because it had religious themes, whether or not these themes were Christian. I’ve read all of L’Engle’s books, my mother is a huge fan. I’m sure I was never given these books because we were Christians and the books had Christian themes, just as I know I wasn’t given “Annie on My Mind” to read so that I would switch sexualities and become a lesbian. I was given all of them to read because they are good books that talk about important things. I couldn’t agree more with the point you make about the importance of parents talking with their kids about what they are reading. I plan to always talk about books with my children. But I wouldn’t do it to make sure they weren’t getting the wrong message. If my child reads a book about a character who practices Wicca and then wants to explore that faith I wouldn’t stop them. It can only lead to one of two things. Either they find a path that works better for them than the one they are being raised in or they are strengthened in the faith they are being raised in by comparing it with others.
    Sorry, that got rambly. I guess what I am saying is, would those of you who had a problem (however mild) with the Christian themes in the book have as much of a problem with a book that had a different religious theme, or is it that it is Christian?
    The end.
    PS: On a side note, do you have an entry on Annie on My Mind? Talk about strong female characters! That book led to my first experience with homophobia. I lent it to a friend and after her mother found it I was not allowed over to her house anymore. Amazingly enough, I’m still straight, and so is my friend. I can’t believe we weren’t “corrupted.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.