The Austen Family Chronicles, by Madeleine L’Engle (juv/YA fiction)
“In this award-winning young adult series from Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Vicky Austin experiences the difficulties and joys of growing up.”
I found A Ring of Endless Light, the fourth book in The Austen Family Chronicles, at a thrift store earlier in the year and immediately fell in love with it. It reminded me of the higher-quality books I read as a girl and gave me quite a feeling of nostalgia. I loved the beach setting, and I felt at home with Vicky and her family—so much so that I read the other four novels in the series: Meet the Austens, The Moon by Night, The Young Unicorns, and Troubling a Star.
In The Young Unicorns, Chapter 17, Canon Tallis makes this observation about the Austen family:
“I think the closest we ever come in this naughty world to realizing unity in diversity is around a family table. I felt it at their table, the wholeness of the family unit, freely able to expand to include friends, . . . and yet each person in that unit complete, individual, unique, valued.”
This statement about the Austen family runs as a theme throughout all of the novels. I particularly appreciate how each family member and friend is, in his or her unique way, critical to Vicky’s development as a responsible, loving, spiritual person.
In The Moon by Night, Vicky has been acting strangely, and members of her family believe it’s because a boy is having a bad influence on her. The boy, to be sure, says things to disturb Vicky, but much of her disquiet of mind has to do with her own observations on how cruel and unfair life often is, and this has led to a crisis of faith. It turns out that her Uncle Douglas is the family member best suited to address these issues with her:
“So in my heathen way, Vicky, when I wasn’t much older than you, I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are, as you’ve been seeing lately, a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality.” (Chapter 14)
The Austens soon move to New York City, and Vicky laments that “everything’s different,” and “everything’s changing, including me, and I hate it!” Her father reminds her how much she believes in freedom, and says:
“But we aren’t free to remain static, to refuse to change. That isn’t freedom. That’s death, death either for the individual person or for the family.” (The Young Unicorns, Chapter 8)
After their year in New York City, the Austens spend the summer on Seven Bay Island with Vicky’s grandfather, who is dying of cancer. Vicky is forced to face death in ways she never expected. When the family learns, in Chapter 11, that a friend has been in a serious accident and is in the hospital, close to death, Vicky’s sister Suzy is skeptical that her family’s prayers for the man will do any good:
“Prayer didn’t keep Jeb from being hit by a motorcycle. It didn’t stop Grandfather from having leukemia.”
“Prayer was never meant to be magic,” Mother said.
“Then why bother with it?” Suzy scowled.
“Because it’s an act of love,” Mother said.
Her mother’s words have a profound effect on Vicky. She asks her grandfather:
“How do you pray for someone like that?”
Grandfather held out his open hand, palm up. “There are many different ways. I simply take him into my heart, and then put him into God’s hands.”
As death hovers and the grief becomes too much to bear, Vicky must choose whether she will allow her spirit to be engulfed in darkness or to expand with “endless light.” It is her family’s strong influence, combined with the love of unusual friends, that allows Vicky to survive spiritually.
By the following autumn, when Vicky and her family have returned to their home in Connecticut, her spirit has settled somewhat. In Troubling a Star, Chapter 3, Vicky and her father discuss human mortality with a dear friend, an elderly woman Vicky refers to as “Aunt Serena.” Vicky observes:
“Maybe our intimacies are more precious if we know they may be taken away.”
Aunt Serena, who has lost people she loves, declares that she doesn’t regret investing herself in those relationships. They talk about their own fondness for each other and how statistics show that Aunt Serena will likely die long before Vicky does. Vicky doesn’t like this particular statistic, and Aunt Serena replies with this profound observation:
“Statistics do not understand that until we accept our mortality we cannot even glimpse the wonder of our immortality.”
It’s a truth made even more beautiful by hard experience in a family—not just the Austens’ but, hopefully, our own.
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