Book Review: Becoming Madeleine

How can it be that a woman I never met had such an influence on me that ten days after my husband’s death I was quoting her on this blog? I’m talking about author Madeleine L’Engle. Anyone who has been following my blog for any length of time will know her as one of my favorite authors, not for the fiction she is most famous for, but her Crosswick Journals series. One of my first posts on here was about her influence on my writing and my marriage way back in 2009.

I was in my late 30’s when I read A Circle of Quiet, identifying with the writer who was also a mother, a woman who “escaped” the cacophony of a noisy household to burn garbage in the back yard. I often did the same. Her thoughts on the craft have been very influential in my writing:

“To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (Walking on Water, page 140)

Because it was about caring for her husband during his cancer, I read Two-Part Invention while David underwent cancer treatment in 2006. I was devastated by her loss. It was the first book I read after David died in 2012. Madeleine walked me through those first steps of the dark unknown of grief. 

“Now I am setting out into the unknown. It will take me a long while to work through the grief. There are no shortcuts; it has to be gone through.” (Two-Part Invention, page 228)

Madeleine L’Engle’s words touched my heart and soul so deeply, I mentioned her several times in my book  Refined By Fire; A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her granddaughter Lena graciously wrote a blurb endorsement.

“Mary Kenyon’s Refined by Fire reminds me of my grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle, who taught so many of us that writing can be a form of prayer that leads us to grace. I was moved to read how her influence inspired Mary to write and heal as well. Mary’s writing style is extremely accessible, and her voice raw, authentic and brave. By the end I was crying with her. I would definitely recommend her book to anyone who is going through any type of loss.”-  Léna Roy, granddaughter of Madeleine L’Engle

So it was with much anticipation I awaited the publication of Lena and her sister Charlotte’s biography of their grandmother, Becoming Madeleine.

madelieneMarketed as a middle grade biography, don’t let that stop you from reading it yourself. This delightful book speaks to the hearts of writers and wannabe writers, as well as Madeleine L’Engle fans. It includes photographs, poems, letters and journal entries from Madeleine’s childhood, teens, and through her successes (and failures!) as a writer. I felt a real thrill of delight when I saw the photo of Crosswicks, as if spotting a favorite place. I couldn’t bear to highlight anything in this lovely book so marked pages  I want to return to with sticky notes instead.

I was fascinated by the mind of the young Madeleine, her mature insights. From her journal, at losing her beloved grandmother she called Dearma;

“I think this has been my passing from childhood into girlhood, because as mother says, though I am fifteen, I have really been a child all these years. And I read in another book that a person is never dead until you have forgotten then, so Dearma can never be dead to me, because I will never forget her.”

Then there is her reaction to a rejection from Good Housekeeping for a poem she’d sent at age 16. She not only added the rejection letter to her journal, on the opposite page, she’d written “I got this delightful little refusal from Good Housekeeping today & my poem was returned all dirtied. Someday Good Housekeeping will ask me to write poems for it!! 

There were a few surprises. While I’d known about the loss of her husband through the Crosswicks Journal series, I hadn’t realized she’d lost a son years later. When I read that, I wanted to pick up pen and paper to write her a letter. Which just goes to show you; the true power of a good biography is that it brings the subject alive. 

“We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Thank you, Léna and Charlotte. You have managed to bring illumination to this famous writer’s life who just happened to be your grandmother. I hope you have already considered the possibilities in working on an adult biography, as well.

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