The books we love tell a lot about us, particularly the ones read multiple times. And not because it shows you’re “old fashioned” or “feminist” but because if you can understand why a book gets to you so deeply that you’ll return to it again and again you’ll understand something about yourself. For example, it’s objectively true that Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is a great book. But I read it for my connection with the titular professor, a character for whom I have empathy and criticism in equal measure. The fact that I read for the professor (and have little emotional interest in Tom Outland) reveals something about me—whether a truth of personality or a whisper of something I strive to understand.
I recently re-read one of my favorite childhood books, a novel that I read so many times its edges are grey and rumpled and the cover finally fell off. This time, however, I found it painfully wanting. Yet it also provided a telescope down the rabbit hole to my childhood self. I see why I liked it then and it has nothing to do with it being objectively good.
The book in question is Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, easily the least of the four novels about the Murray children (the others being A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet). Many Waters focuses on the “normal” twins between the eldest daughter, Meg, and the youngest son, Charles Wallace. Sandy and Dennys Murray lack the genius as well as the awkwardness of their sibling but they nevertheless get their own adventure. In sum, they accidentally mess with one of their father’s space-time experiments and blast themselves to the time of Noah mere months before the flood that will destroy the known world.
The ancient world L’Engle creates is fascinating. All the people are small with the exception of the mysterious nephilim (fallen angels) and beatific seraphim (angels on earth), each of whom can transform from its beauteous, be-winged humanoid form to a unique animal host. Sandy and Dennys jointly fall in love with Noah’s youngest daughter, a beautiful, virtuous girl named Yalith who falls in love with both of them. Yalith, of course, is not part of the official story, nor is she meant to board the Ark that “El” has ordered Noah to build. What is this odd, religiousy threesome to do?
L’Engle’s solution has Yalith being taken into the “Presence” by one of the seraphim, just as her grandfather Enoch who walked with El and then was no more. Pretty it up with mysticism all one wants, Yalith essentially dies. The twins get home using a combination of seraphim and virtual unicorns and the rains come.
- I could not resist sharing the cover of my copy. Check out these 1980s-styled hotties.
As an adult, I see this as L’Engle’s most conservative novel. In her other Murray books she counters the anti-scientific streak in American Christianity (which has only grown more virulent since she wrote the books) while also insisting on an essential battle between darkness and light, evil and good in the universe. I would call the other three required reading for all Christian children and nearly-required reading for non-Christian children, particularly A Wrinkle in Time. (A claim I cannot make with a fully clear conscious for other series on both sides of the spectrum, on the one hand, Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, on the other, Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.) Many Waters, however, puts L’Engle into ambiguous territory that she can’t write her way out of easily, particularly in a children’s book. It insists that El is good and highlights the virtue of Noah’s immediate family so it cannot or won’t account for the cruelty of wiping out everyone, including Yalith. It’s her least scientific novel, in part because it wants to vitalize a myth. And for a woman with a host of fantastic female characters under her belt, L’Engle peoples this book with women who are caricatures of virtue or vice.
So why did I love it so much as a child? Despite my current dislike, what insight did it bring me that merits this much thought? As a child I was sentimental, spiritual, and imaginative—always longing for transcendent experience. Yet I was also a mini-intellectual, enjoying to think about things, and somewhat inherently personally conservative, enjoying classic plots about princesses and love and Big Truths. (I’m still this way with my imagination; it’s why I’m such a lousy fiction writer.) Many Waters brought to life a story I was raised to believe was historically true, it seemed intensely romantic to my child self, and yet it didn’t flinch from the hardness of a Big Truth (Big Truths, like virtual unicorns, tending to exist in various ways at the same time). It’s little wonder that this somewhat ridiculous novel touched a nerve in me and that I read it and read it and read it again.
Sometimes one re-reads a book, from childhood or otherwise, and discovers something even more magnificent than one remembers. Time and experience bring a new way of understanding the work and you find that it has grown richer. (This happened to me in another recent re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird, which I did not really “get” as a child but fell in love with on re-reading.) I think my days of re-reading Many Waters are now officially over. But I’m still glad I went inside its world one more time. Not because I enjoyed spending more time with the (let’s face it) terribly boring Sandy and Dennys but because I got to spend a bit of time with the child that used to be me.