Review: The Moment of Tenderness showcases author Madeleine L’Engle’s darker, profound work

Compiled by granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, The Moment of Tenderness traverses many genres, themes, and emotions. While it has its weaker moments, fans of L’Engle will enjoy this diverse, dynamic collection.

Illustration+by+Katina+Zentz

Illustration by Katina Zentz

Addie Bushnell, Arts Reporter

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Readers across many generations are familiar with Madeleine L’Engle, the author of the beloved young adult sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time, but L’Engle’s latest collection of short fiction, The Moment of Tenderness, introduces her audience to a side of her not yet seen before.

The collection features 18 short stories compiled by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, who discovered many of the stories after her grandmother’s death in 2007. According to Voiklis’s introduction in The Moment of Tenderness, a few of the stories were written by L’Engle for creative writing classes during her time at Smith College. Voiklis writes that the original manuscript for the short story “Gilbert Must Play Bach” had a teacher’s comments and even the grade (A-) written on its pages.

The Moment of Tenderness is a collection that may surprise casual fans of L’Engle. Much of the writing isn’t reminiscent of L’Engle’s usual whimsical style — rather, the collection opts for simplicity and depth of character. The stories themselves deal with sensitive, often troubling themes, such as childhood loneliness. Readers shouldn’t expect the hope and divine goodness present in L’Engle’s more famous works; this collection is, without a doubt, a darker peek inside L’Engle’s imagination.

L’Engle’s imagination isn’t the only thing at work in The Moment of Tenderness. The collection is undoubtedly autobiographical in some ways. L’Engle’s early life was fraught with difficulties. Her father had sustained lung damage during World War I that left him ill until his death in 1936, and the family moved often in hopes of finding the best climate for soothing his condition. L’Engle herself struggled in school, and as a result, she was sent to a number of different boarding schools throughout her childhood.

“The Mountains Shall Stand Forever”, which appears almost verbatim in L’Engle’s 1945 debut novel The Small Rain, follows the character of Ellen, who has just written to her father, begging for him to take her out of boarding school and let her live at home with him. Her father’s reaction to this letter haunts her for the rest of the story. “Summer Camp”, one of the stronger works of the collection, explores children’s penchant for cruelty in a disheartening tale of a girl bullied by her peers and a camp counselor who fails to help her.

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While The Moment of Tenderness features more miserable characters and melancholic plots than readers may expect from L’Engle, the collection also offers glimpses of the compassionate, hopeful author that L’Engle would eventually become. Stories like “White in the Moon the Long Road Lies” and “One Spring Day” are lighter in comparison to the rest of the collection, and perhaps just a bit sentimental.

Fans of the Time Quintet series will be satisfied by some of the later stories in the collection. “Poor Little Saturday,” a stand out piece, features an adolescent boy who ends up befriending a witch and her ward, and becomes acquainted with their menagerie of wild animals. The wonderful, quirky characters harken back to fan favorites like Meg Murry and Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which.

“A Sign for Sparrow”, the final story of the collection, will be appreciated by those who enjoy the philosophical and religious content of L’Engle’s work. The piece is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a husband leaves behind his wife and newborn baby to search for potentially habitable planets.

Overall, The Moment of Tenderness is a provocative collection, but many readers may find it a bit hit or miss. While the emotional depth and unsettling ambiguity of many of the stories make for a profound and meaningful reading experience, some of the collection feels unpolished and unready for publication.

Although it’s nice to read the never-before-seen-work of a beloved author, The Moment of Tenderness may not be worth it for readers who aren’t devout followers of L’Engle’s work. Loyal fans may enjoy studying L’Engle’s early life and the development of her writing ability, but most readers won’t be missing out if they pass on this collection. For those who’ve never picked up L’Engle before, it’s probably best to skip ahead, and go straight to A Wrinkle in Time.

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