Madeleine L’Engle’s Dragons in the Waters

This entry is as much a reminder for me that “audience matters” as it is an actual review of the book in question. I read this book when it first came out–I was ten or eleven–and I loved it then. Now, rereading it almost 35 years later, I have to admit it’s one of L’Engle’s weaker books, though admittedly L’Engle’s worst is still at least readable. I don’t know if it’s that I’ve outgrown the writing style, or whether some of the material in the book has in the intervening decades become outmoded. Certainly attitudes about the indigenous peoples have changed!…but on to the book.

Dragons in the Waters is part of the O’Keefe series1, though Meg and the younger children are only peripheral characters in this book, unlike Arm of the Starfish. Leonis Phair, last scion of a once wealthy Southern Plantation Family now reduced to penury, is forced to sell her last family treasure, a portrait of Simon Bolivar with whom her great-grandfather fought to free Venezuela, to make ends meet. Her ostensible cousin, Forsythe Phair, shows up just in time to purchase the portrait and donate it to a museum in Caracas, Venezuela. We think. Phair offers to take Leonis’ great-grandnephew, Simon, along on his return to Caracas, as a sort of vacation for Simon. The trip starts badly with a forklift nearly propelling Simon off the pier–he does end up in the water, though as a result of Poly O’Keefe tackling him to knock him out of the way of the forklift–and goes downhill from there.

The voyage ends badly for Phair, as he’s stabbed2, though Simon comes out of it rather better. There are several subtexts and complicating subplots, including industrial waste poisoning the natural beauty of the environment and incidentally giving the locals mercury poisoning, a group of European smugglers, to which group Forsythe Phair belongs and a group of wise beautiful compassionate Indigenous People with a gift for healing3, the Quiztanos. As it happens, this last group is the one into which Quentin Phair, Simon’s ancestor, married over 150 years earlier but abandoned for life amongst others of his culture. The Quiztano High Priestess has been waiting for The Fair to return ever since4, and she believes Simon to be the one for whom she’s waited.

Dragons in the Waters strikes me as being one of L’Engle’s weaker books, though in fairness L’Engle’s worst is still better than your average teen books, and the “locked room” aspect of a murder on a ship at sea is interesting. It lacks the strong family element in both A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins, and the science fiction aspects of the former. I just wish she hadn’t veered so much into the mystical metaphysical aspects of science fiction in her later works; their absence in Dragons in the Waters is almost a relief, despite the post-colonial cultural appropriation5 theme grating on even my more than slightly oblivious nerves. At least L’Engle doesn’t present Quentin Phair as a Perfect Human; he’s a bigamist who’s abandoned his Indian wife for someone who belongs to his own culture, with nary a word of explanation to his first wife.

1a sequel series of sorts to the Wrinkle in Time books, for those who weren’t paying attention; the books involve the children of Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe.
2no, I can’t remember who did off him, despite having read the book
3augmented by medical degrees in the outside/allopathic world
4not sure if it’s the same one who knew Quentin Phair
5I’ve always wanted to say that


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