Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus

Interesting! At least if you’re a fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s works.

I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail about who L’Engle is; either you know who she is, or you’re probably not all that interested in children’s and teen/YA literature, but if you’re somewhere in the middle, start here.

This isn’t a straightforward biography, but rather a collection of interviews with people who knew L’Engle. The basic idea is: interview a range of people who knew Madeleine L’Engle–writers and editors, family members, fans and friends. The book’s broken down into several sections, approximately by the type of person being interviewed–friends, family members, people who knew her years ago and those who knew her more recently, professional acquaintances and those she mentored.

Marcus did do well to select a range of people to include in this book; however, his selection struck me as a bit heavy on the people who knew her professionally. This could be a plus or a minus, depending on what you want to know about the person being written about. I don’t know if this was Marcus’s choice or a necessity resulting from the fact that she’d died some years before this book’s publication and that at a fairly advanced age after a prolonged illness involving not only physical debility but mental entanglements–in short, many of her close friends of long duration may have preceded her, and the people who knew her in her later years might not be left with an idea of what Ms. L’Engle was like in her youth.

Ruefully, I’m left feeling a bit mixed about the book. Not all of the interview subjects are positive, though that’s not quite the disparaging remark it sounds; it would be all too easy to gush about someone with L’Engle’s stature, if you were the kind to be impressed with such a person. I’m glad in this regard that Marcus simply included the interviews themselves, with minimal editing for flow. The words here are the words of the people he spoke to, not his own interpretation. While I understand that she did use people and situations from her own life in the fiction she wrote, such as the adoption of Maria after the death of the child’s parents, I’m also bemused by how much of her own autobiography was…er…glossed over–was her father’s illness a result of lung damage from mustard gas or from alcoholism?

In one way, it’s a little disappointing to find out the reality of such an iconic writer (at least if you’re into fantasy and religion); why should she not be as perfect as her characters? In another…why should she BE as perfect as her characters? They were created fictions, she was real, both better and worse than I imagined her. Not that she was horrible, mind. She was human. Kind to her fans, struck dumb with the awe of reading the author of A Wrinkle in Time. Drawing the curtain of denial over her family members’ flaws. Loving her husband. Spending time with her writing when her kids wanted her as Mama. And so on. A real person. And in the end, I’m grateful to know this much more about her.

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