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
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
It was John's voice and he was calling for me. I suppose somewhere on the inside of my mind I realized it, but with the outside of my mind all I heard was the constant crying of sea gulls and the incoming boom of breakers. I hadn't even seen that the early morning sun had moved across the sky, and the tide had pushed the waves closer up to my feet. I'd forgotten that there was any such thing as time, and almost why I'd come sliding down the steep path to the cove and climbed up on the sunbaked rock.
I wanted to be alone and I wanted to think. Indoors there was excitement and confusion and I guess a lot of happiness. I was the only one who seemed to be unhappy because nothing would ever be the same again. Up to a few days ago my life (and fifteen years is quite a considerable hunk of timeâwell, I'm not quite fifteen, but I'm on the way) had been all of a piece, exciting,
sometimes, and even miserable, but always following the same and simple pattern of home and school and family. And now it was all being thrown away, tossed to the four winds. I wanted to leave all the chatter and babble and be alone to sort things out. Just a few minutes alone down at the beachâwas that so very much to ask?
Now even the outside of my mind couldn't confuse John's angry shouting with a sea gull's squawk. I looked up. He was scrambling down the path, but much more slowly than usual, because he was dressed in grey flannel slacks and a freshly ironed white shirt and was carrying his jacket over his arm. I waved at him.
He sounded furious. “Vicky! Victoria Austin! Get up here! Don't you know what time it is?”
Of course I didn't know what time it was. I'd left my watch with my clothes when I put on my bathing suit. I wouldn't dare use that as an excuse with John, though. He knows perfectly well that I can tell by the sun, that I can tell by the tide. What he wouldn't know was that I had been lost in time, and that my few minutes had stretched out to what was obviously over an hour and I hadn't even realized it.
I jumped off the rock onto the soft sand instead of climbing down. We've always jumped off the rock, so maybe what I was doing at that moment was hanging on to my childhood instead of trying to leap out of it the way I usually do. I hurried across the sand and started up the almost vertical path that leads to the top of the bluff. There's a winding road you can take, full of hairpin bends, but we've always taken the path cut down through the scrubby bushes. The bushes were very useful in helping me to
pull myself up the path quickly, and in keeping me from looking at my rightfully enraged older brother. He had climbed back up to the top of the bluff and was standing there waiting for me. When he spoke his voice was coldly angry. “Have you no sense at all? We've been looking for you for the last half hour. With everything there is to do why do you have to pick this particular day to go mooning off by yourself?”
I didn't answer. He was right and I was wrong and there wasn't any point in shouting in the face of that calm fury. I stared down at my bare feet as I hurried along the dusty road.
A hundred yards down the road was my grandfather's house, if you can call it a house. It's an old stable painted a lovely barn red. The horse stalls are still there but now they're all filled with shelves of books, so it's more like a library that somebody lives in than a house. There's one bedroom with Grandfather's huge four-poster bed, and up above the stalls is a loft with six army cots.
I ran ahead of John, into the stable, hoping I could rush through and up the ladder to the loft without seeing anybody. But of course the first person I saw was my father. I practically knocked him down in my hurry.
He grabbed me by both elbows. “Vicky, your mother has needed every bit of help she could get this morning and you simply went off without a word to anyone. Now get up to the loft and get changed and please do not keep us waiting.”
John tries to copy Daddy when he's angry. He couldn't have a better model. I mumbled, “I'm sorry, Daddy,” and scurried up the ladder. It seemed odd not to have to climb over the recumbent body of our Great Dane, Mr. Rochester, who usually spent most of the time when we were at Grandfather's lying at the foot
of the ladder and being miserable because he couldn't climb it. But that was part of it all, part of the reason I'd wanted to go down to the beach to look at the ocean and rest my eyes where the ocean and the sky became one. This time Mr. Rochester wasn't with us.
Up in the loft Suzy and Maggy were standing in front of the mirror, preening. Suzy's my younger sister, and Maggy's just a year older and has lived with us for the past couple of years, but won't after today. Another reason.
Suzy and Maggy are just about the same size and Suzy is a buttercup-colored blonde, and Maggy's hair is blue-black. Up until this winter people used to look at me pityingly when I was with the two of them. But Uncle Douglas always said I was an ugly duckling type, and suddenly with my fourteenth birthday all my angles and sticky-out bones and unmanageable hair seemed to come to some sort of agreement and I no longer felt wistful if I happened to look into a mirror when Suzy and Maggy were around. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed mirrors very much.
“Well, jeepers, Vicky!” Suzy accused as my head appeared in the loft. “Where have
I thought for a moment about not climbing the rest of the way up, but there wasn't any place else to go. I decided maybe a change of subject would be nice, so I said, “You look gorgeous. Both of you.”
It worked. They started looking in the mirror again. Too old to be flower girls, too young to be bridesmaids, they stood dressed, Suzy in pale blue, Maggy in the softest rose, Aunt Elena's handmaidens, as Uncle Douglas called them. My dress was a very light, clear yellow, and I loved it, though it wasn't nearly as dressed-up a
dress as Suzy's or Maggy's, and I wasn't going to be a handmaiden. I was just going to sit in the pew with Mother, and Rob, my little brother. John was best man, Daddy was going to give Aunt Elena away, and Grandfather, of course, was going to perform the ceremony. It was a very family wedding.
Uncle Douglas is Daddy's younger brother, and Aunt Elena has been mother's best friend since they were at boarding school in Switzerland together. Hal, Aunt Elena's first husband, a test pilot, was killed several years ago, and we'd all been hoping for a long time that Uncle Douglas and Aunt Elena would get married. So why wasn't I glowing like Suzy and Maggy?
If everything else could have been the same, if we could have gone back to Thornhill after the wedding, if everything could have gone on as usual, I would have lit up the beach with joy. But nothing was ever going to be the same again. Before we left for Grandfather's I'd said good-bye to the house, to the dogs and the cats and an entirely brand new completely different life lay ahead. I was scared stiff.
“Hurry up and get
,” Maggy said in a bossy way. “It's almost time to go.
helped make the punch.”
I went into the shower, stripped off my bathing suit, and sluiced off the salt water, being very careful to keep my hair dry, because I'd washed and set it the night before. I'd even remembered to be careful of it while I was in the ocean. I hadn't gone swimming. I just sat in the shallow water and let the cool waves ripple over me. The water flowed comfortingly about my body, the sun beat warmly down upon my head, and the sea stretched out and out until it seemed that sea and sky would never meet. It was hard to tell where the horizon lay, because sea and sky
seemed to blend together in one great curve. In Grandfather's cove the beach repeated the curve, the sea gulls circled overhead, the small waves that broke against my body were lacily scalloped, and there weren't any straight hard lines anywhere to be the shortest distance between two points.
Maggy pounded on the bathroom door. I knew it was Maggy because of the way she pounded; a pound on a door can be just as personal as a footstep or a tone of voice. This pound was a little more violent than usual, because of course Maggy was frantic with excitement. I'd been sitting down at the beach brooding while Maggy had been helping Mother make punch, and of course everything was going to be more different from now on for Maggy than for the rest of us.
Since her parents' death Maggy had lived with us even though Aunt Elena was her guardian, because Aunt Elena is a pianist and had to be away so much on concert tours. Now Maggy was going to live with Aunt Elena and Uncle Douglas, in California, and this was wonderful for her. But if I were Maggy I'd have been more scared, I think, than excited.
I got out of the shower and got dressed and had to shove Maggy and Suzy away from the mirror long enough so that I could fix my hair properly and put on a small amount of lipstick. My nose had turned rather red while I'd been sitting on the beach. I hadn't thought of that when I'd gone off looking for solitude. Well, it wasn't
wedding. No one would be looking at
“Girls!” Mother called from downstairs. “Commander Rodney's here.”
We hurried down the ladder. Commander Rodney is a particular friend of ours, though most particularly of Rob's. Two years
ago when Rob was only four he stowed away on one of the Island ferries. We thought he was lost and went to the Coast Guard headquarters where Commander Rodney helped us find him.
Rob, dressed in navy blue shorts and a blazer and looking very snazzy, was holding on to Commander Rodney's hand and talking a blue streak. John and Grandfather appeared to be studying a large book and looking very calm. Daddy pried them out of the book and sent us off with Commander Rodney, who was to take us to the church.
During the drive I seemed to be the only one who didn't want to talk. This is supposed to have been my moody year, my difficult year, and if anybody noticed my silence, which is unlikely, they probably put it down to that.
I didn't want to talk. I wanted to think. Among all the other changes, Uncle Douglas would never be the same again, popping up for week-ends and being completely ours even when he brought girls up for us to look over in case he ever got serious about marrying one of them. I'd wanted terribly to have Uncle Douglas marry Aunt Elena, but now he would be hers, and Maggy would be his daughter, he would have his own child. I've always felt very special with Uncle Douglas because he's stuck up for me and understood me even when nobody else has. He was the one who'd made me believe I wouldn't always be an ugly duckling, and that one day everything would come clear for me and I'd develop a talent for something particular and know what I wanted to do in the adult world the way John and Suzy always have known. But it couldn't be the same with Uncle Douglas and me any more. This, like everything else, was going to change.
I was sitting next to Grandfather in the car and suddenly for
no reason at all he put his hand on my knee and patted it and I feltâhow can I explain itâloved and cherished sounds soppy but I think it's exactly what I mean, only in a non-soppy way. And suddenly, whammo, I began to feel happy.
At the church everything was confusion and excitement and then Rob and I were sitting quietly in our pew and Commander Rodney was sitting behind us with his wife and kids and the church began to fill up.
Because we were sitting down front we couldn't see who was coming in, but I knew just who it would be: Grandfather's friends from the Island, not the summer people, because those hadn't started coming up yet, but the year-round people, like Commander Rodney and his family, and the retired ones, like Grandfather: Dr. Wood; he's a physicist; and Isaac Ulrich, the violinist; and lots of interesting people like that. Then there would be the Rosses from the drug store, and old Mr. Codd from the grocery store, and Mr. Dolittle, the butcher. They would come in, all dressed up and not looking in the least like their every day, ordinary selves; but then neither did we, and neither did the church. It was full of candles and flowers, and a sense of expectancy filled the nave and seemed to mix in with the sunlight coming softly through the windows. They were partly open, a soft breeze came through, and the sound of the sea was always there in the background as it was everywhere on the Island.
Old Grandma Adams started playing
“Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring” on the organ. It's one of my very favorite pieces of music in the world. I relaxed into listening and then there was Mother walking down the aisle looking just beautiful and so young it
kind of scared me; it's much more comfortable to have her just Mother and not any age at all. As soon as Mother had sat down the Wedding March began and in came Suzy and Maggy, followed by Aunt Elena on Daddy's arm. Aunt Elena's dress was very much like Suzy's and Maggy's, except that it was moonlight color, not silver, not seagreen, but shimmering with both.
Suzy and Maggy won't sit next to me in the movies because I cry. I cried so at
West Side Story
that I was a pulp, and they didn't want anyone to know they were even with me. I had an awful time not crying at Aunt Elena's and Uncle Douglas's wedding, because it was so beautiful. When Grandfather read the wedding service it was as though it were being done for the very first time, as though those words had never been spoken before. Uncle Douglas's and Aunt Elena's voices were low, but very clear. I think the part that brought me closest to crying was when Grandfather took Aunt Elena from Daddy, put her hand in Uncle Douglas's, and Uncle Douglas said after him, “I take thee, Elena, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.” And then when Aunt Elena, taking Uncle Douglas's hand, said, “I take thee, Douglas, to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”