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.Â Happily, An Acceptable Time was still as good a read for me at 24 as it was when I was 14.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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).Â 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.Â 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.Â “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.Â “But it was probably partly because of me.”
“I’m a scientist, Polly, and well known in my field.”
“Well, but Mother -”Â She stopped.Â “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.Â Your father has been wonderful for her and so, in many ways, have you children.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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).Â That might give some pause to potential non-Christian readers.Â For me, ultimately, it’s not much of an issue.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.