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Authors: Madeleine L'engle

Troubling a Star

BOOK: Troubling a Star
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For Bion & Laurie
who were my companions in Antarctica
“W
ho are you in this book?” we would constantly ask our grandmother, Madeleine L'Engle, about every book that she wrote. Her books have protagonists that many people can identify with, generation after generation, whether it is the brave and clever, gawky and frustrated Meg Murry, or the vulnerable and awkward, but at the same time, sensitive and intuitive Vicky Austin. Madeleine also strongly identified with her characters, and said many times that she was both Meg and Vicky. There was so much that was recognizable as her and her life in her stories, and we wanted to be able to map her fiction to her biography, thereby fixing and understanding her place, and by extension, ours, in the family and the wider world.
Most children want to be told stories about themselves. We were no different, and so, reading the Austin books was always a special thrill, because the narrative is peppered with incidents and details that also featured in family lore, like the adorable
malapropisms of Rob Austin and Vicky's bicycle accident. The Austin family house in the quiet New England village of Thornhill (as described in
Meet the Austins
) is ever-present as a touchstone of their domestic peace, and is modeled on Crosswicks, a pre-Revolutionary War farmhouse in northwestern Connecticut where our grandparents and their children lived in the 1950s. The cross-country road trip in
The Moon by Night
copies the Franklin family itinerary of 1959, during which Madeleine started writing
A Wrinkle in Time
. In
The Young Unicorns
, the Austin kids unravel a mystery at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where our grandmother was the librarian and writer-in-residence for more than forty years.
There is enough similarity of detail in the books to have caused us some confusion: If our grandmother is Vicky, how can she have the bicycle accident that left our own mother with a Y-shaped scar on her chin? If some of the details confounded our sense of reality, we never questioned the underlying truth of the characters and our grandmother's relationship to them. If Madeleine were Vicky, then we felt understood. Because we were Vicky, too.
People would joke that
Meet the Austins
could have been called
Meet the Franklins
(Madeleine's married name), and yet, we knew that Vicky and the Austins couldn't be a simple translation of our grandmother's life, because of the family tension and pain surrounding these books about this family. Madeleine's own children were often shocked at how their own lives were appropriated and rewritten for publication, and felt judged against this very happy and practically perfect family. The line between fact and fiction can sometimes be
blurry for writers, and the temptation to inscribe a certain version of and authority on events is strong.
All of Madeleine's writing, fiction and nonfiction, was an example of how all narrative is fiction, and all fiction can be true. She wrote and lectured extensively on the difference between truth and fact, arguing that it is through story that we human beings approach the truth, not through facts, which can only get us so far. As her granddaughters, this was both liberating and confusing, but we happily suspended our disbelief, and some of our best-loved stories are ones that are culled from her real life, from her days in the theater, from her early years with our grandfather, and the mysterious decade of the fifties.
The five books that are now presented as The Austin Family Chronicles were written over a period of thirty years. A prolific writer of more than sixty books in a variety of genres, Madeleine created a web of characters that grew, changed, and surprised her. As we re-read these books over our lifetime, what strike us are the very different responses we have to this family. At eleven, we thrilled to the references to things that our mother or aunt or uncle would confirm were true. At seventeen, we were cynical about the blur between fact and fiction, and thought we could read our grandmother as if she were a book. In our mature adulthood, we recognize how rich and complicated our grandmother was, and that fact can be the springboard for fiction, and fiction can inform who we are and tell us about ourselves.
 
Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy
March, 2008
T
he iceberg was not a large one, but it was big enough so that the seal and I were not crowded, and I was grateful for that. The seal was asleep after its night of hunting. It was a crab-eater seal, and crab eaters live on krill, not crab, and as far as I know do not eat people. I willed it to stay asleep and not even notice that Vicky Austin was sharing its iceberg, which was floating majestically in the dark and icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean, or that my heart was beating wildly with terror.
The sun was out and the sky was high and blue and cloudless. I was shivering uncontrollably despite my long winter underwear, turtleneck, heavy sweater, bright red parka. I had on lined blue jeans with yellow waterproof pants over them. I wore three pairs of socks under green rubber boots. I was highly visible—if there had been anyone around to see me.
I tried to control my panic, to assess my situation. Several things could happen. I could be missed and someone would come for me. That
was my brightest hope. But I had to face the possibility that nobody would find me in this vast space, and that I would ultimately freeze to death. Or the iceberg might overturn, as they sometimes do, and I would be plunged into the water and die quickly from hypothermia.
I looked around me in all directions. There were dozens more icebergs, many with seals on them. There was a hunched shadow of land on one horizon. No sign of human life. In the water I saw three penguins flashing by, heading for land. Penguins fly in the water, rather than in air. I watched them until I could not see them any longer.
They say that drowning people relive their entire lives in a flash. I'd been on the iceberg only a few minutes, long enough to be terrified, but not long enough to despair. That would come later.
 
How did I get to be on an iceberg in Antarctic waters in January, which is summer—but even summer is cold in that land of unremitting ice. It went back a few months to those last weeks of summer before school starts. I was still fifteen then, feeling lost and alien, though I had yet to learn what being truly alien feels like.
My family and I had come home to our little village of Thornhill, after a year away. My adored grandfather was dead. The only really good thing in my life was that I'd see Adam soon, Adam Eddington, who'd had a summer job in the marine biology lab with my older brother, John. Adam and I had become friends during the summer, and if the friendship meant more to me than it did to Adam, well, I would just have to live with that. I knew that some of the time I was only John's kid sister in Adam's eyes, but there were other times when it was a lot more than that.
In another week John would be going back to M.I.T., and Suzy and I would be in the regional high school, Suzy as an eighth-grader, and I'd be starting my junior year. Our little brother, Rob, would still be in the village school.
It all should have been normal and okay, but I'd been away for a year and I'd grown and changed, and even before school started I felt I no longer belonged. So when Adam called from New York to say he was spending a weekend with his Aunt Serena in nearby Clovenford before flying to California to college and would it be all right if he came for dinner on Friday, it was as though the sun had suddenly come out after a foggy day. He arrived around six-thirty, driving up in an old and beautiful Bentley, much to John's envy. I was sorting laundry, one of my least favorite chores, but I kept on folding clothes, rather than rushing out to join John and Rob, who were admiring the great old car.
The evening was warm, and I had on my best shorts and a clean blouse which I'd actually ironed. I'd have dressed up more than that, but I knew Suzy would be at me. My little sister and I do not always see eye to eye.
When Adam finally came in, he kissed me, or would have, if Mr. Rochester, our old Great Dane, hadn't been all over him, trying to jump up on him, wagging his tail, greeting Adam with all kinds of special affection. Adam managed to shove him down in a gentle sort of way, and kissed me again. But then he kissed my mother and Suzy, too. Then everybody talked at once, more or less, until my father came home from admitting a patient to the hospital. And finally we were all sitting around the dinner table, and that felt right and good.
When everybody had been served, Adam said, “Hey, I have terrific news.”
We all looked at him.
“I've been given a grant to go to Antarctica next semester.”
“You mean now?” Suzy asked.
“No, not this semester. Next semester, in December.”
Our father raised his eyebrows questioningly. “Why Antarctica?”
Adam grinned at him. “Well, Dr. Austin, I
am
a marine-biology major, and it's a major opportunity. I'll be working at LeNoir, one of the small U.S. stations.”
“I thought you were into starfish and dolphins,” Suzy said.
“There'll probably be a few of those at Eddington Point, where the station is, but mostly I'll be working with penguins.”
Mother asked, “Eddington Point?”
Adam grinned again. “Actually, it's named after my uncle. He's probably the reason I'm a marine biologist. He made a couple of expeditions to Antarctica, and he died in an accident while he was out there.”
“Are you named after him?” Suzy asked.
“Yup. Actually, I'm Adam III. My great-uncle, the banker, was Adam I. Adam Eddington, the marine biologist, was Adam II. And I'm Adam III. Listen, Vicky, John's coming over in the morning, but how about if I pick you up in the afternoon, maybe a little before four, and take you to Clovenford to meet my Aunt Serena? I really think you two would like each other.”
“Sure,” I said. “I'd love to.” I'd love to do anything with Adam.
My father smiled at him. “Your Aunt Serena is one of my patients, and one of my favorite ones. I agree with you, Vicky will enjoy her.”
“And she'll enjoy Vicky.”
“They'll be good for each other,” my father said.
But if I'd never met Aunt Serena—if I'd never read Adam II's diary and found his letters—
Wait, Vicky. It's no good hindsighting.
 
After dinner Adam said he had to get on back to Clovenford to Aunt Serena, who was very old and retired early, and John and I went out to the garage to wave him off, with Mr. Rochester at our heels. Waving people off is a sort of tradition in our family.
Before he got into the Bentley, Adam put his arm about my waist. “I know you miss your grandfather, Vicky.”
“Yeah. A lot.”
“He was a special person. One reason I want you to meet Aunt Serena is that she reminds me of your grandfather. She's an amazing old lady.”
“I look forward to it.” I thought he might kiss me goodbye, but John was right there.
“Good night, you two,” Adam said. “It's been a great evening.”
“See you tomorrow,” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Sure. See you.”
I watched after his car as he drove down the road, and John went around the corner of the house to get Rochester. I started to go after them, but stopped and looked up at the
sky, crisp and clear and full of stars. I was home, in the place where I had been born and grown up, and I responded to the beauty of the night sky and the great old maples and oaks, and I was lonely, a kind of loneliness that hurt like a toothache.
I shook myself and headed back to the house. I was going to see Adam the next day. Wasn't that enough?
 
He came for me a little before three-thirty, and I was ready and waiting. I'd put on a flowered cotton skirt and another clean cotton blouse, much as I hate ironing.
Mother asked Adam if he'd like to stay for dinner again when he brought me home, and he said he'd enjoy that. He and John had had lunch with Aunt Serena, and she was usually tired by evening and wanted to eat quietly and go to bed. He'd have to double-check with the chauffeur that it was all right to use the car.
I'd forgotten that a world with people who had chauffeurs still existed. But there's a section of Clovenford that's old and rich, with great nineteenth-century mansions and people who actually have servant problems. Thornhill is older than Clovenford. Our house was built in the middle of the eighteenth century, and it sags comfortably, all the boards slanting toward the big central chimney. One problem my mother's never had is a servant problem.
“See you later, then,” Mother said, and Adam and I went out through the kitchen door and the garage.
“You'll like my Aunt Serena—great-aunt—” Adam said. “She's ninety and occasionally gets a little absentminded, but mostly she's terrific and interested in all kinds of things.”
It was a gorgeous, pre-autumn day. Everything was still green, a bit dusty, because we needed rain. The roadsides were yellow with goldenrod, and occasionally a maple would be tipped with red or orange. We drove downhill, across the river, and then back up into the hills again. We passed the road to the hospital where my father's on the staff, and turned onto a wide street with houses set far back, and green lawns carefully manicured.
“Elm Street,” Adam said. “No elms, of course.”
“Lots of maples, though,” I said. “These are beautiful ones. Suzy's passionate about the way we aren't taking care of the trees on our planet—you know Suzy.”
“She's right,” Adam said, “though we didn't exactly cause Dutch elm disease. Here we are.”
Adam's Aunt Serena's house was large, white with black shutters, and a widow's walk. Adam stopped the car in front of a picket fence with a wrought-iron gate. The gateposts were topped with carved pineapples. “The sign of hospitality,” Adam said, “though I'm not sure where that symbol comes from. You'll find Aunt Serena's very hospitable. You okay?”
“Sure.” But I was a little nervous, a little self-conscious. I wasn't used to people who lived in enormous houses and had chauffeurs.
Adam opened the gate and we walked up a path of pale pink brick bordered with hydrangea and rhododendron bushes. The hydrangeas were in full bloom, a wonderful, deep purple.
A maid in a grey uniform and a white apron opened the door, and Adam flung his arms around her and gave her a big kiss on the cheek.
“Mr. Adam! Mr. Adam! You'll never—” She smoothed her hair, and straightened her small white cap, scolding and giggling all at the same time. I looked around the elegant front hall. There was an enormous mirror in an ornate gilt frame, and under it was a marble-topped table. On a silver tray were several letters. I glanced at myself in the mirror and thought I looked okay. I was nearly sixteen. I did not look like a child.
Adam introduced us. “Vicky, this is Stassy, who's known me since I was in diapers. Stassy, this is my friend, Vicky. John's sister.”
At least he didn't say John's little sister.
Stassy welcomed me with a wonderful smile which lit up her whole face, and led us past a large living room to our right, a formal dining room to our left, on past a library full of what looked like thousands of books, and then to a sitting room where an old woman looked up from a wing chair by a bright fire.
“Mr. Adam has brought Miss Vicky, Madam,” she announced with what sounded like real pleasure.
I stepped forward and took the old lady's hand. It was small and warm and dry. She had curly white hair cut as short as mine, and a finely wrinkled face and brown eyes that looked golden in the firelight. The room was a little warm, but I know very old people tend to feel chilly.
“You're good to come,” she said. “And now we'll have tea, please, Stassy. Anastasia,” she explained to me, “but Stassy is easier.”
“Tea would be lovely,” I said, sitting in the chair Adam had
pulled out for me, across from his great-aunt, with a low table between us.
Stassy wheeled the tea in on a mahogany tea table, with a beautiful silver service, but also a big glass pitcher of iced tea. The sandwiches were little rounds, each with one slice of tomato. There was a big plate of cookies still warm from the oven.
Adam's great-aunt asked me to pour. “And will you be kind enough to call me Aunt Serena? That would please me.”
“I'd love to.” She made me feel completely comfortable, and glad to be calling her Aunt Serena instead of Mrs. Eddington. I poured tea, and Adam passed it to her, and then said he'd rather have iced tea.
I poured tall glasses for both of us. While I was sipping, she looked directly at me, saying, “So you spent last winter in New York.”
“Yes. My dad had a research grant for a year.”
She nodded. “I'm one of his many patients who are delighted to have him back. The doctor who took his practice was eminently qualified, but he didn't have your father's warmth or authority. He heals my spirit as well as my body. There's not much he can do about my arthritic knees, but he can keep my zest for life from flagging. So does my great-nephew, here. I'll miss him.”
BOOK: Troubling a Star
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