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‘The Moment of Tenderness,’ by Madeleine L’Engle: An Excerpt | Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘The Moment of Tenderness,’ by Madeleine L’Engle: An Excerpt

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In some ways only a tiny handful are what may be considered “vintage L’Engle,” or the kind of story a knowledgeable reader might expect from her: one in which challenges are overcome and growing pains are real, but so, too, is the promise of joy and laughter. Even the title story in this collection is bittersweet, as the moment of tenderness becomes a memory and something apart from the main character’s daily life. The final story, “A Sign for a Sparrow,” is set in a post-apocalyptic future, with Earth no longer able to sustain life after nuclear war and civil society in disarray. The only hope for human beings is to find other habitable planets. The main character is a cryptologist who must leave his wife and child in order to find a better world for them and the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. His journey and what he finds at the end of it recalls what she said of her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time: that it was her “psalm of praise to life,” a story about a universe in which she hoped to believe.

In another way, though, all of these stories are indeed “vintage L’Engle” in that they resist fitting easily into “young adult” or “adult” categories. She always insisted that she was simply a writer, with no qualifications or labels. When A Wrinkle in Time was making the rounds of publishers she would be asked by skeptical editors, “Who is it for? Adults or children?” and she would respond in frustration, “It’s for people! Don’t people read books?” These stories, too, are for people, and while some feature younger protagonists, they also span a range of genres and styles. Additionally, most of these stories resist a resolution and a tidy triumph for the protagonist (a feature that some would argue is the necessary hallmark of books for younger readers). Taken as a whole these stories express a yearning towards hope—hope for intimacy, understanding, and wholeness. In moments of despair or seasons of doubt, that yearning and its depiction can feel more authentic and optimistic than more neatly resolved narratives or stories with overtly happy endings.

The village of Mt. George in Vermont, to which Bill and Stella Purvis had moved from New York, was a monogamous one. In the three years they’d been living there they’d never heard of anyone being divorced, and adultery was unheard of. Once, in a neighboring and slightly more sophisticated village, in which both separations and divorces were not unknown, a summer resident was said to have entertained men friends in a more than casual way while her husband was overseas during the war, and a nice, juicy scandal evolved; this rather ancient morsel was still considered a tasty tidbit on the Mt. George party lines.

[ Return to the review of “The Moment of Tenderness.” ]

There was plenty of gossip in Mt. George, much of it unfounded and a good bit of it malicious, and there was a raw edge where the village was divided between the old timers who had been there for generations and the newcomers, like Bill and Stella, who had moved in since the war, and who now numerically equaled the natives. Even where warm friendships were formed between the old and the new there was still the unhealed wound that might break open at any time: over redecorating the church, or who should head the committee for a church supper, over PTA programs or the Republican caucuses, or simply over the fact that the newcomers had installed indoor plumbing and thermostatic heating immediately and as a matter of course; one does not live without these things; whereas for the people who were born in Mt. George and whose parents and grandparents were born there before them, a privy and struggling with coal and chopping wood or an ugly kerosene heater out in the middle of the living room had been an accepted part of their upbringing, and an indoor toilet, which they called a “flush,” was something for which they might have waited twenty years. Stella could easily understand an unformulated resentment over the fact that the newcomers took two bathrooms and a warm house for granted.

Not that any of them were rolling in wealth; there wasn’t a swimming pool or a tennis court in the village. Bill, like most of the newcomers, was what was called a “young executive” in one of the factories in the neighboring manufacturing town of Stonebridge (So one can’t escape being a commuter, one can’t escape suburbia, Stella thought; it can happen even in Vermont). The Stonebridge country club was on the outskirts of Mt. George and most of the newcomers belonged to it, rather grimly enjoying golf or the Saturday night dances.

It was at one of these dances that Bill and Stella first got to know Steve and Betty Carlton. Steve and Betty were in a way a bridge between the old and new residents in Mt. George, since Betty was a native and Steve was from Stonebridge. Steve was a doctor and Stella had had him in once for one of the children and liked then his quiet manner and obviously innate kindness. On this particular evening the Purvises and the Carltons happened to be the only people from Mt. George at the country club so it seemed natural for them to have a drink together, and then Bill asked Betty Carlton to dance and after a moment Steve asked Stella.

He was not a brilliant dancer, not nearly as good as Bill was; he simply walked with an easy rhythm about the dance floor, managing not to bump into anybody else, not seeming to notice the intricate steps that Bill and Betty and some of the other couples were executing. It was rather, Stella thought, like riding one of the old stable horses that are saved for the children or for people who have never ridden before: easy, pleasant, and completely unexciting. He looked rather tired, and Stella was tired, too, her three children having been unusually rambunctious that day, so they simply moved quietly about the floor together, not talking much except to mention the weather and the unusual amount of rain, and the fact that there was nobody else at the country club from Mt. George.


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