Meet the Austins by Madeline L’Engle
originally published 1960
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1997
Genre: Juvenalia, young adult
Synopsis & Review: The moment Maggy Hamilton steps into the happy lives of the Austin family, she disrupts their harmonious world, bringing with her all the sullenness and insolence of her own misery.
Vicky Austin knows she should sympathize with Maggy for being an orphan, but she can’t help but resent her for making life so difficult. It looks like Maggy may be a member of the family for a long time, possibly forever. Vicky remembers the happy times and finally accepts that things will never be the same, but she wonders what’s to come. (cover blurb)
The Austin family–Mother, Father, John, Vicky, Suzy, and Rob, plus innumerable cats and two dogs–live in a rambling old farmhouse on a windy Connecticut hill, a mile or two off the main road. They are a close, literate family, with great consideration for one another (sound familiar?), and live a pleasant, comfortable life. And then one night the phone rings, and their close family friend Uncle Hal is dead. In the wake of his death as a test pilot, his partner’s motherless little girl, Maggie comes to stay with the Austins, bringing a discordant note into their harmonious lives. Maggie is spoiled, selfish, loud, and attention-seeking, everything the Austin parents try to teach their offspring not to be.
How did I miss these books? I loved A Wrinkle in Time, and read several of the sequels, so how did I manage to never encounter the Austins? Perhaps it stemmed from my diffident reading of An Acceptable Time, a book I had a hard time giving a crap about (though I still own it) and was highly disappointed by. Polly just never did it for me the way the older generation of Murrays did, I guess. Despite my disappointment at not growing up with the Austins, I am delighted to have discovered them at this late date.
Twelve-year-old Vicky observes her family over a year, as they continue their own lives and care for Maggie. The spectre of Death overshadows their lives following Hal’s death and Maggie’s arrival, coloring much of their experience. Vicky and John struggle with their adolescence; Suzy transposes her anxieties about death onto animals during a reading of Charlotte’s Web; and acceptance and its relative worth becomes a major theme for many of the characters. Uncle Hal’s death and Maggie’s arrival are the two major dramatic incidents of the novel, for it is a family story, one that follows the usual rhythms of the Austin’s lives while they cope with death and change.
This is a family story, and like others in the genre it is an episodic, a chronicle punctuated by the cycle of changing seasons and rites of passage. But encompassing this chronicle is also the overarching problem of Maggie. Throughout a year in their lives, the family gradually accepts and assimilates Maggie, reaching out to her and teaching her their values of love and charity, until she becomes of of the family by the novel’s end. Though not obviously a fantasy in the style of A Wrinkle in Time, Meet the Austins is very much a kind of fantasy for readers (younger and older), one that places family life into the context of a pattern, challenging the randomness and often arbitrary nature of life outside of fiction. In Meet the Austins L’Engle re-imagines traditional social structures and include a rural intimacy with nature and its cycles, creating a world in which a burgeoning adolescent can exercise control. Continuity–and how change affects it–are a major concern for the novel.
Fifty years later, the Austins seem even more fantastical than they did upon their first publication. They seem almost hopelessly idealized–and often a bit goody goody–they would be too much if it weren’t for the often painful honesty with which L’Engle writes them. Though families like the Austins may have been fantasies even when she first wrote them, they are composed of realistic parts. The difficulties Vicky has sympathizing with Maggie, the way Charlotte and Wilbur’s plights strike Suzy, the children’s fretfulness when ill, Vicky’s unreasoning pain and terror after her bicycle accident, and many other such incidents make a tapestry of true feelings, true experiences that readers recognize and appreciate.
For me, Meet the Austins was an extremely emotional read. I would compare it to Bridge to Terabithia in terms of its affect on me; while I understood the sadness of the situation on reading it when I was younger, I did not comprehend it until much later, after experiencing my own pain and loss. Meet the Austins speaks very honestly and forthrightly about the pain of loss, the difficulty of grieving, and how it affects people differently. The value of these dialogs cannot be underestimated in our current culture, which sanitizes and avoids dealing with death and grieving whenever possible. Vicky’s accident and hospital sojourn were also difficult for me, bringing to mind my experiences during my most painful and serious accident, the time that I broke my back. Even the moment of finally succumbing to the pain and terror was reminiscent of my own experience–like Vicky, when I broke my back, I kept myself together well enough till I got home and my mother took me to the hospital, but in the Emergency Room, I finally gave in and just started shrieking all my pain and fear–and I find it amazing and admirable that L’Engle could so accurately capture such a vividly painful moment and make it resonate so strongly.
It is those details–and all of the details of the Austin’s lives–that Vicky observes that so enrich Meet the Austins for readers. A really lovely, enjoyable book; I cannot recommend it enough.
This was the first book I read for Dewey’s Read-a-Thon.
Read also: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, The Saturdays and Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright
Cover: Ugh! I hate the cover I read! The inset picture is fine, but those pencil portraits surrounding it are gross, and would have put me off as a child. Looking through a cover gallery, I must say that Meet the Austins has really had the short end of the stick coverwise. I like the very Seventies version, and the newer Square Fish cover the best.
The funny thing was that I went to sleep almost as soon as he left. I woke up when lunch was brought in, and one of the nurser tried to feed me some soup, but I couldn’t eat that, either. Some of the other doctors, friends of Daddy’s and Mother’s, stuck their head sin the door to say hello to me, but I didn’t feel much like talking. I felt all kind of knocked out. I closed my eyes and kept going to sleep, not really a proper, good sleep, just kind of a gray doze, but while I was dozing, I didn’t hurt so much. Then I woke up and found Mother sitting by the bed. She’d brought down a book John had sent me, and cards the little ones had made me, and another book from Nanny, but I didn’t want to read or even be read to. I just lay there holding Mother’s hand and I kept wanting to cry, but I didn’t. And I wanted again, as I had wanted the night before, to be young and small enough so that Mother could pick me up and hold me in her arms and rock me the way sometimes she still rocks Rob because he enjoys so much being a baby.