Meet the Austins – Madeleine L’Engle

Meet the Austins?  Why thank you, I think I will.

(That was a terrible joke, so feel free to groan and write a scathing comment).

Once again, “my” cover is not to be found online.  I can’t wait until the scanner is back with me (it is on loan right now) and I can scan a bunch of covers.  There doesn’t seem to be any indication of who illustrated the cover of “my” book, but the Austin kids (John, Vicky, Suzy, Rob and Maggy the addition) are pictured on it looking very Austin-ish.  The only problem with the cover is that Vicky has curly hair and is quite pretty, whereas Suzy’s hair is straight and stringy, and she looks a bit homely.  Anyone who has read the book would know right away that although Vicky will grow up to be a beauty (says her Uncle Douglas), she’s considered the plain one next to Suzy’s shining curly-blond self.  Since readers like Vicky best and want her to be the pretty one (well, at least I did), the cover artist is forgiven.

Meet the Austins is essentially an introduction to the Austin family: Dr. Austin and his wife, and their four children.  John is the eldest, the younger two are Suzy and Rob (the “baby”).  Vicky, aged 12, is the narrator: the second-oldest child, sensitive and with a gift for description (a good trait to give a narrator, obviously).  It’s hard to say what the book is “about”, because it’s essentially about the Austin’s family life as they grow up in a small community in the U.S.  It seems that they have been living comfortably and happily, and there wouldn’t be much “plot” in the sense of a series of events, if it weren’t for Maggy Hamilton.

Vivacious and unpredictable Maggy Hamilton is the spoiled daughter of a doting daredevil father who, with his co-pilot, dies in a tragic accident (around page 5, so this doesn’t spoil anything).  The Austins are devastated – the co-pilot was a close family friend.  And then, Maggy shows up, with her grief, selfishness, and baggage.  Maggy is the kind of child who never cleans up, who runs around in circles screaming like a tin whistle when excited, who breaks toys and then wants more, who has never, ever, ever been curbed.  In other words, the perfect Nightmare Child.  The book more or less follows “a year in the life of” the Austins, with Maggy as our yardstick.  By the end of the book she is slightly less selfish and slightly less terrifying…and we are given a good solid picture of Austin family life: school, home, cherished visitors, and finally, a summer trip to their grandfather’s “barn”.

Sound boring?  It’s not!  Vicky’s narration gives the book the flavour of a diary.  We follow Vicky through her grief, her conflicted feelings about Maggy, her self-reflections, her small rebellions, her growing up.  She doesn’t grow up all the way.  Lucky for us, L’Engle saves up Vicky’s development for other books: The Moon By Night, Ring of Endless Light, and Troubling a Star.

What I like most about Meet the Austins is that I have no idea when it takes place.  L’Engle wrote it in 1960, but I would never have known.  The Austins life in all its tumbly homeyness could take place anywhen.  I read it in the 1980s and I always pictured them living in my time.  I reread it last month, and the only strangeness was the lack of references to certain technology, the regular use of a record player, and the fact that Vicky wore a skirt.  Then again, I know plenty of people who wear skirts, I just am not one of them.

Incidentally, did you know that (ahem): “Laurel-Leaf Books bring together under a single imprint outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction particularly suitable for young adult readers, both in and out of the classroom.  Charles F. Reasoner, Professor Emeritus of Children’s Literature and Reading, New York University, is consultant to this series”?  I only saw this most important and impressive bit of knowledge when I was looking for the cover illustration credit.  I am so glad that, instead of giving credit to the illustrator, Laurel-Leaf Books chose to illuminate readers with this bit of pomposity information.  I feel…enlightened.  And either smarter for reading an “outstanding” work of fiction chosen by a Professor…or silly for enjoying a book that is particularly suitable for people younger than me.

Reading Ages: 10 and up.  It bears reading at any age.

Favourite Austin family moment:  When Suzy stops eating pig because of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.  It’s totally something that could actually happen.  It also reminds me of Lisa Simpson (Liiiiiiisa, don’t you loooooove meeeee?  I thought you looooooved meeeeee!).  That might just be me, though.

Rating: A


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