This collection of short stories from Madeleine L’Engle is comprised of both previously published work and stories never before published. It includes stories she wrote as a very young woman and ones that show a more experienced hand. As many other readers are, I’m primarily familiar with L’Engle’s work for younger readers (most famously, A Wrinkle in Time). I had never read any short stories from her before so all of these were new to me. It’s a definite mix here, both in terms of skill and content. Many feature women, some of whom are even named Madeleine. There are stories of struggling actresses, hints of romance, and small town dramas. Most feel true to life but a couple have a fantastical element, even dipping into horror.
My primary complaint with many of these stories was a slightly unfinished quality. More than one seemed to end just as they were getting interesting. “Madame, Or…” spent a lot of time setting up a school for young ladies and the story was full of a growing sense of dread but just as I felt like I was truly glimpsing behind the curtain, the story ended. “Julio at the Party” did a fine job of introducing a variety of characters at a party but ended at the moment of impact. While this may be a stylistic choice, reading stories over and over again that ended at these abrupt moments added up to leave me feeling unsatisfied.
By far the highlight of the collection for me was the final story, “A Sign for a Sparrow”. This stood out for a number of reasons, firstly because it was a science fiction story, set in a post-nuclear future. (Nuclear description is a recurring theme in L’Engle’s work.) An exploratory ship sets out from Earth, hoping that the messages they are receiving from another planet speak to the possibility of a new home. The main character is a “Godder”, one of the few who still believes in the existence of God, and he and his crew-mates make a bet about what they’ll find when they arrive and what it might say about the truth of creation. The ending is both a surprising twist and a beautiful statement about life. I’ll admit, my own biases and religious beliefs likely lend me to appreciating the ending and what it says about the universe but I also think L’Engle does an excellent job in creating an entire fictional future world in just a few pages.
For fans of L’Engle’s work, even if you simply enjoyed her young reader books as a kid, there are some interesting moments here and you might enjoy seeing a new glimpse at the writer. If you haven’t before read Madeleine L’Engle’s writing, I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to start.