Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ellen Raskin

My ten great books #7: The Westing Game

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Of the hundreds of novels that I must have read between the ages of eight and twelve, the three that have stuck with me the most are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The first two get the lion’s share of love, and not without reason: we like to reward children’s books that leave their youthful readers with valuable lessons. The Phantom Tollbooth, as I’ve written elsewhere, is the best fictional handbook to being alive I’ve ever found, and A Wrinkle in Time contains one of the most moving passages in all of young adult literature, when its protagonist, Meg, realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz. The italics are mine:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

Compared to such peers, The Westing Game might seem like a trifle, “a puzzle mystery,” as it says right there on its paperback cover. As time goes on, though, it’s the one that impresses me the most. It’s every bit the equal of the other two in terms of invention, and it belongs on any short list of the great mystery novels. (A glance at Raskin’s notes only underlines how much care, thought, and sheer cleverness had to go into it at every stage.) If it had been written in French and translated into English—which is impossible to imagine—we might put it on a shelf with the works of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec, who founded a movement defined as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”

Instead, The Westing Game was written by Ellen Raskin, a homegrown genius of a particularly American kind. It’s revealing that she began her career as one of our great commercial illustrators, designing the covers for over a thousand books, including the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time. All four of her fantastic novels have a way of talking among themselves, in what Nabokov, another precursor, called “a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another,” and it reflects the sensibility of an artist used to thinking in terms of the relationships of elements on the page. Reading it again recently, I was amazed by how much it accomplishes in fewer than two hundred pages. It invents an ingenious mystery that doubles as an ergodic text for preteens. Unlike most mystery novelists, who give us a series of names that blur together as soon as we put the book down, Raskin creates over a dozen characters whom I remember vividly after the passage of decades. (Every few weeks or so, I seem to mutter to myself, for no particular reason: “Ed Purple-Fruit. Ed Plum.”) The cast is diverse without making a point of it, and everyone is allowed to be smart, foolish, empathetic, obtuse, and funny. Its wit is incredibly sharp and consistent. There are no villains, aside perhaps from Grace Wexler, whose casual racism is skewered so beautifully that it’s easy to undervalue it. Best of all, there’s no implication, as we sometimes get from L’Engle or Juster, that we’re meant to take the story as a moral lesson. The Phantom Tollbooth turns into something like propaganda for curiosity, while The Westing Game achieves much the same goal—it’s impossible to read it without hungering for more puzzles—simply by serving as an example of what a curious mind can create. As a result, it points more emphatically than any other book at the kind of novels I ended up writing and reading as an adult. Unlike the others, it wasn’t trying to change lives. But it sure changed mine.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

Fifty years later: A Wrinkle in Time

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It’s quite possible that I owe my decision to become a novelist to Madeline L’Engle. When I was growing up, L’Engle was one of my trinity of great young adult authors, back when they were writing what were still called children’s books, along with Ellen Raskin and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And while Snyder had the greatest impact on the kinds of esoteric subjects that still fascinate me—The Headless Cupid was an early hint of a tendency that would culminate in The Icon Thief—and Raskin set a standard for ingenuity that no author has matched since, L’Engle’s influence may be the most profound. Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown. And all these qualities are already there in A Wrinkle in Time, her most famous novel, which was published fifty years ago this month.

When I first encountered A Wrinkle in Time, I was eight years old, and I immediately sensed that this book was something different than the novels I had been reading up to that point. It was an exciting story that gained much of its texture from digressions into science, art, and history, and was accessible to young readers without the slightest trace of condescension. Its characters were both instantly recognizable and marked by the fervor of their excitement about ideas, which flew off like sparks whenever they spoke, and not simply because they were necessary for the plot. Above all else, there was a sense of the personality of the author herself, who wrote about intelligent people because these were the characters she knew the best. I was young enough so that I didn’t entirely grasp how extraordinary this was, or how hard it would be to find more books like this as I grew older. All I knew that this was the sort of thing I wanted to read, and, ultimately, to write.

Looking back at A Wrinkle in Time, it’s astonishing to realize how modestly scaled it is, at least in terms of length: less than two hundred pages long, but packed with enough invention to fuel five ordinary novels. (Compare this to the length of the last few Harry Potter or Twilight novels, and you see how artful L’Engle’s brevity really is.) And it never seems rushed or artificial. One of L’Engle’s great strengths is to take rather precious conceits, like the two-dimensional planet or the Happy Medium, and make them seem less like a series of set pieces—as they do even in such authors as Lewis Carroll or Norton Juster—than an organic sequence of events. A Wrinkle in Time is an episodic novel, but it feels tightly constructed, thanks largely to the strength of the protagonists, who are idiosyncratic, flawed, and heroic. L’Engle melds the tradition of high-concept fantasy with the believable characters of the best children’s literature, to the point where we’re genuinely curious about how their lives will turn out, which we later learn in the novel’s excellent sequels.

It’s hard to imagine a young adult novel being published today with the range of L’Engle’s influences and interests, largely because it’s the kind of book that creates its own readership, rather than appealing to one that already exists. Indeed, even at the time, it was far from a sure thing: its struggles to get into print are legendary, and it was rejected by something like twenty-six publishers. It’s still a strange, unclassifiable novel, with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even allegory, although none of the allegorical elements stand in the way of the plot. (It’s frustrating to see some readers reduce it to a Christian or anti-Communist allegory, as if there weren’t so much else going on.) And the book’s singularity reflects that of L’Engle itself, who combined a restlessly curious imagination with religious faith and a refreshing dose of clarity and common sense. She’s simply one of the most inventive authors of the past fifty years, and her books are a model of how to write beautifully rendered fiction for readers of any age. If I could have any writer’s career, it might be hers.

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2012 at 10:31 am

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