Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: The Moon By Night by Madeleine L'Engle (1963)

The Moon By Night is the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin series, occurring roughly two years after the events of Meet the Austins. Vicky, who was then twelve, is now fourteen, and experiencing the typical doubts and growing pains associated with adolescence. In addition to her personal changes, she’s also forced to confront some serious family upheaval. Uncle Douglas has, as predicted by the family in Meet the Austins, married Aunt Elena, and Maggy, the orphaned girl who has been staying with the Austins will now move in with Elena and Douglas, who are her legal guardians. The rest of the Austins will move as well, from Thornhill, their childhood home, to New York City, where Mr. Austin has found work as a doctor. Before heading for the city, however, they take a road trip to Laguna Beach, California, where Douglas, Elena, and Maggy will make their new lives. On the way, the Austins visit well-known attractions like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, make the acquaintance of a snide and sickly young man named Zachary Gray who does his best to woo Vicky, and share in surprising adventures involving everything from bears to flash floods. Vicky also makes her own internal, spiritual journey, as she begins to come of age.

Back in the Fall, when I reviewed Back When You Were Easier to Love, I wrote, “The right book is the one that just fits. It clicks with [the] reader in a way that makes her feel as if the book was written specifically for her. “ I haven’t felt that way about a book in a while, but I definitely did have that feeling while reading The Moon By Night. I really identified with Vicky’s journey and felt that many of her internal and emotional experiences mirrored my own. In fact, while the road trip is of course an interesting storytelling vehicle, I think the emotional journey was the more compelling aspect of this book. I like, for example, the way Vicky characterizes her need for time away from her family:

It was about time for me to be alone for a while. On a camping trip you’re falling over each other twenty-four hours a day. Most of the time it’s fine, but every so often you need to get out. You have to go off by yourself or you just stop being you, and after all I was just beginning to be me. Sometimes, like that evening at Palo Duro with the scouts yelling back and forth as if they owned the place and nobody else had a right to be there, I felt that doing nothing but be with the family was making me muffiny, though we’re not a muffiny family. So that’s not really what I mean. I guess what I mean is, I felt they were sort of holding me back, keeping me from growing up and being myself. (p. 70)

The reference to “muffins” comes from the Anti-Muffins chapter in Meet The Austins, but is also briefly explained in this book - probably due to the fact that "The Anti-Muffins" was removed from the original text and replaced later on. I love L’Engle’s understanding that a teenager can love her family and still want to be apart from them, and I loved the philosophical nature of the idea that “you just stop being you” in the presence of others. I can recall having feelings such as these at the age of fourteen, but I never had words for them until now.

I also really like the way the road trip provides opportunities for the Austin family to see how the outside world looks at them, and how they differ from families and groups in the rest of the country, and even outside of their country. Zachary, for whom all the Austins except Vicky feel little affection, is the most threatening example of this, because he embodies a fatalistic outlook that the Austins have never really considered or encountered. Other characters pose similar puzzles, though - especially the “hoods” who harass the Austins at one of their first campsites and some Canadians they meet who have decidedly negative opinions of American tourists.

As with the two L’Engle titles I’ve already reviewed, this one, too, has a spiritual side. The title of the book comes from Psalm 121, in which Vicky finds great comfort:

The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day
Nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil;
He shall preserve thy soul. 
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in
from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Vicky also has an important conversation with Douglas about her doubts about the existence of God, which touches on the questions all faithful Christians face - mainly, how we are to believe in God when there is no definitive proof of his existence. Speaking to this conundrum, Douglas makes some of the most significant comments of the entire book, at least as far as Vicky’s religious life is concerned. He says that “People should never try to make God in man’s image,” and that “without [God] we’re just a skin disease on the face of the Earth.” He encourages Vicky to believe despite her lack of understanding and ultimately plants the seed that allows Vicky to realize the sentiment expressed in my single favorite line from the book:

The point was that now I knew it didn’t matter whether or not I understood. It didn’t matter because even if I didn’t understand, there was something there to be understood.

There are some things about this book that unquestioningly date it to the 1960s - the concern over impending war, Mr. Austin’s dislike of women wearing pants, the fact that Grace Kelly is still alive - but the themes are as relevant to fourteen-year-olds - and to adults, too - now as they ever were. This review, though already on the lengthy side, really only scratches the surface of what this book has to offer; I have no doubt that future re-readings will shed light on layers and connections that didn’t surface for me in this first reading.

I very highly recommend The Moon By Night, especially to people of religious faith. It’s also a great summer vacation story, and the perfect book for quirky kids who often find themselves on the margins, even of their own families.

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