A Ring of Endless Light
originally published 1980
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 16th printing, 1980
Genre: Young adult, Bildungsroman, fantasy
Synopsis & Review: Almost sixteen, Vicky Austin’s summer begins with her first funeral. Family friend Commander Rodney is dead of a heart attack that occurred after he saved a wealthy young man who had sailed out into a squall. On top of Commander Rodney’s death, the Austins are on Seven Bay Island to spend the summer with Grandfather, who is dying of cancer. While Vicky tries to reconcile herself to the mortality all around her, Commander Rodney’s son Leo turns to Vicky for love and support, and she also meets Adam, a young man working with her brother John at the marine biology station. Like the proverbial bad penny, Zachary Gray, the young man with a heart condition and deathwish arrives on Seven Bay Island, and it was of course he who sailed into the storm that killed Commander Rodney. All three young men try to claim Vicky’s notice, Leo and Zachary out of friendship and desire, and Adam for his own purposes. He senses an openness in Vicky, something he can use for his private marine biology project, an attempt to communicate with dolphins. As much as he’d like to believe she’s just John’s kid sister, Adam becomes more aware of Vicky as a bright, loving young woman. And when the catastrophe comes, it is that lovingkindness in Vicky, her friends, and her family that will carry her through.
I’m pretty bummed that this is the last of the Austin Chronicles. (I skipped The Young Unicorns for now, because it didn’t hold my interest sufficiently before someone else in Multnomah County wanted to read it, the jerk. Some day.) At least I still have the rest of the Kairos books to look forward to (there’s a helpful chart/family tree in the beginning of this copy).
After reading A Ring of Endless Light, I definitely recall The Moon by Night with more fondness than I did before; something about reading it enhanced the other for me. The three Austin books I’ve read have all been singularly lovely, and also all concerned with death, loss, and grieving. It was difficult at times to read AroEL because of the very strong emotions it aroused in me; reading of Vicky’s pain and grief, and her fears for her grandfather, brought back the intense and devastating hurt I suffered when my mother died (also of cancer, though much more quickly). But L’Engle captures it so beautifully that reading Vicky’s suffering becomes cathartic, offering a release too often denied in twenty-first century America. We don’t let people grieve anymore; six months we deem excessive (it’s enough to make one long for the days of full mourning and crepe veils). We shove the dying into hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices, and we avoid them. Our cemeteries are like golf courses, but visited far less frequently. We’ve made death antiseptic and foreign, and it should be anything but.
Vicky is young, and I think it’s easier to learn all this stuff when you’re young. What stuff? Well, ARoEL is all about life and death, and sex and love, and how they all intertwine to make the beautiful mysteries of living and human existence. Vicky gets this from conversations with her grandfather (and some gorgeous seventeenth century poetry), communion with the dolphins, her ardent suitors, her family, and everyday life. Everything comes together as one, like a rainbow becoming white light, and all this love and intimacy amidst death is what Vicky learns to handle. In a culture as sick as ours, drenched with violence but denied intimacy with death and disparaging of grief, these lessons are difficult to learn. But L’Engle makes a beautiful, moving, and comforting case for life and the ability to survive grief and loss.
I wish I had read this one when I was younger, if only so that it could have been a comfort to me as an adult. Reading it now moved me to tears several times (I’m tearing up just flipping through it). But I didn’t, and mostly because the Eighties covers were so fricking dorky. Ugh. Dolphins are okay, but they just seemed so Lisa Frank New Agey when I was a kid. I’m really glad that I went back to read the Chronos books and met the Austins, prompted in part by the Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge.
Cover: Nice and clean, capturing the cool serenity and joy Vicky gets form the dolphins. I would have read this version. Maybe.
Grandfather’s voice was low, and yet it could have been heard a mile away, I thought. “You are only immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
No one could miss the joy in Grandfather’s voice as he said those alleluias, and his face was so alive, so alight, that I didn’t hear what he was saying next. It was as though I had moved into a dream, and I woke up only when, gently, but firmly, he pushed away one of the funeral-type men who was handing him a vial of dirt. It was obvious he was making the funeral people frustrated, rejecting their plastic grass and their plastic dirt. He was emphasizing the fact that Commander Rodney’s death was real, but this reality was less terrible than plastic pretense.
19 February – 20 February