Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!
About Amanda Sellet
Amanda Sellet is the author of By The Book: A Novel of Pros and Cons. She recently learned that there is a 2002 Disney Channel adaptation of A Ring of Endless Light, starring Mischa Barton as Vicky Austin, to which she says: Not today, Satan.
Mention Madeleine L’Engle, and the first heroine that leaps to mind is likely Meg Murry, who blips around the galaxy via tesseract and enjoys a midnight snack on dark and stormy nights.
I love Meg (who doesn’t?), but I never aspired to be her. Secret Math Genius was beyond the realm of fantasy. The L’Engle character who spoke to me was Vicky Austin, specifically teen Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light.
The Austin family is a little less sci-fi, though it’s easy to imagine them partying with the Murrys over a leisurely dinner at either family’s quaint New England home. There would be a lot of talk about literature and music and art, with a few metaphysical brain teasers thrown in. Vicky wouldn’t be able to chat formulae and theorems with the scientists at the table, but she’d understand the human side, her deep poetic soul intuiting essential truths.
That’s the kind of person she is. Quiet and thoughtful, mostly ordinary-looking but hopefully growing into a certain stealth attractiveness by virtue of her mind, an aspiring writer, religiously inclined, close to her family, at home in the ocean: Vicky was the most me fictional character I’d ever encountered. Plus, she had a summer beach house, three young men clamoring for her attention, and (I cannot stress this enough) the ability to communicate telepathically with dolphins.
Okay, maybe not a perfect analogue for my life, but surely it was only a matter of time. And getting closer to dolphins.
It’s weird how pieces of a book stick with you. Vicky ordering sole on a date with a boy who doesn’t have much money because she knows it’s the cheapest thing on the menu. Drinking ice-cold Coke with a wedge of lemon on a hot summer day. Her ailing grandfather introducing her to 17th-century poetry, including the lines by Henry Vaughan that give the book its title:
“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light”
One of the first classes I took at my hippie-dippie liberal arts college – directly inspired by Vicky’s love for the subject – was 17th-Century Poetry and Prose. It was a bit of a comedown to discover that the metaphorical uplift shared space on the syllabus with treatises on fishing, but such is life: the bitter with the sweet. (Coke with lemon, I’m happy to report, goes down a lot easier than “The Compleat Angler.”)
Re-reading A Ring of Endless Light as an adult, a number of things surprised me. What I remembered as a story of innate goodness and dolphin-bonding is shadowed pretty heavily by death. It opens at the funeral of a family friend, and Vicky’s beloved grandfather is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. A good man is hit by a car and lies comatose in the hospital; while there, Vicky witnesses the death of a child.
Then there’s the not-so-secret death wish of one of her suitors, the handsome and filthy rich Zachary Gray. Maybe if Vicky were a little more forthcoming about his proclivities, her parents would think twice about letting their 15-year-old daughter take off in his Alfa Romeo for the evening.
A Ring of Endless Light was first published in 1980. The world has changed, as has children’s literature – and not just in terms of slang, though I don’t see “zuggy” making a comeback anytime soon. At 15, Vicky has a huge amount of independence. She goes on formal dates with a guy who would be in college if he hadn’t been kicked out of so many fancy high schools and has a burgeoning connection with trainee marine biologist Adam.
She also puts up with crap that would immediately be labeled today for what it is: sexism, manipulation, an armada of mental health issues. Most of that is courtesy of Zachary, who cannot possibly be hot enough to justify his nightmarish personality, but there’s also Nice Guy Leo, to whom she is not attracted at all. Despite telling Leo on numerous occasions that she’s only interested in friendship, he keeps trying to force Vicky to give him more, apparently thinking that what he wants must surely carry the day.
That was one kind of information I took from the book, as an adolescent who’d never come closer to romance than the note passed across my desk in elementary school asking me to “go around.” From Ring I learned there would be guys who looked great on paper but made you feel deeply uneasy, and not just because they were more “sophisticated.” Others would see your lips moving but ignore the words because they only ever tuned into Radio Me. Driving both types was the assumption that as a young woman the physical vessel of your body existed for male pleasure, an object to be commented upon and a place where their desire held sway over yours.
Although I couldn’t have articulated the nature of the wrongness back then, I felt it in Vicky’s interactions with Zach and Leo. The contrast with Adam, who was interested in Vicky’s ideas, never ogled or pushed boundaries, and took her swimming with dolphins, was unmistakable. Of course Vicky speaks to him mind-to-mind, the way she does with dolphins. He’s the only one listening.
While the romantic threads provide plot impetus – stupid Zachary, always stirring the pot – Ring is really the story of Vicky figuring out who she is and what she believes. Part of that is external, the sudden glimpses of yourself as you must appear from the outside, and the seesaw of assessing your own feelings about your body at the same time the world is saying, “I’ll tell you what you’re worth.”
Do you remember that vulnerability? Does it ever go away?
This being a L’Engle book, people are far more than the sum of their physical parts. They have minds and souls, and many of her characters access that part of themselves through art. This was one of the books that made me want to know things. Different languages. The history of music. Philosophers and poets. The Austins are the kind of family who read Shakespeare out loud after dinner, for fun. They are not leading unexamined lives.
For Vicky – and for me – there is also a spiritual dimension to the quest for meaning. A Ring of Endless Light isn’t a finger-wagging Christian allegory. Not everyone is a believer, and even those who are don’t necessarily align themselves with a specific religious tradition. Is there anything beyond this existence? Does suffering have meaning? How are we meant to go on living in the face of loss? These are open questions, and not even Vicky’s saintly grandfather has all the answers. Or rather, as he makes clear to Vicky, he can’t answer them for her, because everyone has to reach their own conclusion about the eternal why.
Near the end of the book, Vicky gets a dose of despair almost deep enough to drown in. Since this isn’t a story about Embracing Your Inner Nihilist (hallelujah!), Adam takes Vicky to see the dolphins, who know what she needs: a song of mourning, the press of a living body, and the smack of a flipper. She surfaces choking and sputtering but alive, alive, alive in the stinging salt of the ocean and a strange exultation of soul.
Vicky’s grandfather gives her a final instruction: “You are to be a lightbearer. You are to choose the light.”
As simple as that. As essential as that. Are you on the side of ignorance and greed and ignoring (or perpetuating) the suffering of others – or are you doing your part, with whatever gifts and opportunities you’ve been given, to drive back the dark?
What Vicky’s story said to me was that the world was full of both sorrow and joy. One could be survived with the help of the other, but there was an element of choice involved: To see and feel, to engage and respond.
Although I never made a Vicky Austin Vision Board, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that my adult life has a distinctly Austin-esque vibe. House full of books and music, check; married to a scientist, check; working as a writer, check; super into food, check. I’m still waiting for my chance to commune with dolphins, but hopefully I can remain enough like Vicky – open, receptive, on the side of light – that when the time comes, I’ll be ready to frolic in the waves with child-like delight.
Title By The Book: A Novel of Pros and Cons
Author Amanda Sellet
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Contemporary, Romance
Publication Date May 12th 2020 by HMH Books For Young Readers
Find It On Goodreads ● Amazon ● Chapters ● The Book Depository ● Barnes & Noble ● IndieBound
In this clever YA rom-com debut perfect for fans of Kasie West and Ashley Poston, a teen obsessed with nineteenth-century literature tries to cull advice on life and love from her favorite classic heroines to disastrous results — especially when she falls for the school’s resident Lothario.
Mary Porter-Malcolm has prepared for high school in the one way she knows how: an extensive review of classic literature to help navigate the friendships, romantic liaisons, and overall drama she has come to expect from such an “esteemed” institution. When some new friends seem in danger of falling for the same tricks employed since the days of Austen and Tolstoy, Mary swoops in to create the Scoundrel Survival Guide, using archetypes of literature’s debonair bad boys to signal red flags. But despite her best efforts, she soon finds herself unable to listen to her own good advice and falling for a supposed cad — the same one she warned her friends away from. Without a convenient rain-swept moor to flee to, Mary is forced to admit that real life doesn’t follow the same rules as fiction and that if she wants a happy ending, she’s going to have to write it herself.