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In Sarah Arthur’s new book A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, she tells of a frequent interaction L’Engle’s daughter Josephine had with fans who had read L’Engle’s memoirs and felt they knew her family well.
“You have to remember that my mother is a fiction writer,” Josephine would say.
“No,” the fan would say, “I’m talking about her nonfiction.”
“You have to remember that she is a fiction writer,” Josephine would repeat.
That sort of statement must have been as equally hard to deliver as it was for the fan to hear. Arthur’s book reveals several aspects of L’Engle’s life and prodigious career. The part I was most fascinated by is her discussion of L’Engle’s elastic relationship with facts.
L’Engle felt that stories should be about what happens, not necessarily about what happened. For example, there is a riveting story in one of her memoirs about an unpopular new family in town whose house caught fire and whose children were saved by the heroic actions of a grumpy farmer. Great story except for one detail: it never happened. L’Engle would say its “emotional premise” was true, but the story wasn’t factual. What do we make of that?
Over the years, L’Engle told interviewers that her breakthrough book A Wrinkle in Time had been initially rejected by 27 publishers. And 30 publishers. And 37 publishers. And over 40 publishers. Does it matter? The point is a lot of publishers rejected a book that wound up a classic. How important is the precise number?
In one sense, aren’t we all Pontius Pilate asking the question, “What is truth?” I recognize that there can be large “T” Truths that facts sometimes obscure. But don’t the facts matter? Are there such things as “facts” in a postmodern world, or just facts and alternative facts?
When I think about truth and story-telling, I think of how the Coen brothers started the movie Fargo with the statement:
This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
Of course, Fargo is a work of fiction, and even that statement is part of the fiction. The Coen brothers wanted to make a movie that felt like a true crime story. They included their statement to get the audience thinking in a certain way.
We easily accept variations on the truth. Certain retailers advertise their “Biggest Sale Ever” once a month. We aren’t outraged, we just want to know if the sofa we’ve had our eye on is marked down. And we have put up with “fake news” for years—I’m thinking of the supermarket tabloids and their unending headlines about half-monkey-half-human babies, Elvis sightings, and alien plots to blow up the internet. Does the existence of those “papers” bother you?
When does not getting all the facts straight become problematic? It’s easy to demonize those we don’t like when they have trouble with what we perceive as truth. But what do we do with loved ones or beloved figures like L’Engle when they are intent on not letting the facts stand in the way of a good story? When is hyperbole a problem? There is a reason the memoir genre is called “creative non-fiction.”
Perhaps my biggest question is this: Are there different standards for different people? There is incessant talk about the lies and half-truths of politicians. Is there a different standard for politicians than memoirists? Furniture salespeople than dentists? Financial advisors than journalists? Pastors than relatives?
Part of the tension that makes Frederick Buechner’s Godric work is the question of whose account of Godric’s life the reader should believe. Godric tells his story unadorned and often includes unflattering details. His official biographer Reginald cleans the old saint’s story up, saying, “for the sake of him who is Himself the Truth, I leave some small truths out.”
What do we include? What do we leave out? What do we clean up? These aren’t easy questions. Do we ever really know both the small ‘t” and capital “T” Truth about other people? “Don’t admire people too much,” Cal Jarrett warns his son Conrad at the end of Ordinary People. “They’ll disappoint you.”
I commend Arthur’s book for its examination of these questions as they relate to the career of Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle was a great writer who happened to be as complicated and human as any of the rest of us. L’Engle labored in that liminal space other Christians with serious literary talent, like Buechner, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, worked. Careers there have not been easy.
There’s a lot about L’Engle to admire, but Arthur knows too much about L’Engle and humans in general to go in for hagiography. Her book tells the truth, not by choosing one side over the other, but by placing the themes of L’Engle’s life and career in paradoxical tension: Sacred and Secular, Faith and Science, Religion and Art, Faith and Fiction.
I appreciate the tension, because I don’t expect definitive answers to any of the questions I’ve raised in this piece. I’m okay living with the tension. A Light So Lovely shines an overdue light on L’Engle, in all her glorious inconsistencies.
If you enjoy L’Engle, or are simply interested in the life and impact of a significant Christian literary figure, the book’s official release is tomorrow.