This collection of forgotten short stories by the beloved writer of A Wrinkle in Time offers a fuller view of her mastery.
The discovery of unpublished work by a now departed writer is always a treat. When that writer is Madeleine L’Engle, it is undeniably cause for celebration. The Moment of Tenderness collects 18 short stories found among L’Engle’s papers by her granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis. Dating primarily from the 1940s and ’50s, all but one were written before A Wrinkle in Time made L’Engle a household name.
The stories cover myriad genres, with only a couple falling into the category of speculative fiction that we’ve come to associate L’Engle with (and oddly, these are among the least successful stories in the collection). The early stories in the book center on childhood and adolescence, and Voiklis surmises in her introduction that these—and indeed, many of the stories—are autobiographical in nature. They beautifully capture the sense of loneliness and yearning that is common to smart, somewhat isolated children. “The Mountains Shall Stand Forever” and “Summer Camp” both provide subtly chilling portraits of the cruelty children can adopt in order to run with the pack. Similarly, there is a Shirley Jackson-esque discomfort in “The Foreigners” and “The Fact of the Matter,” two of the numerous stories set in an insular rural Vermont community and narrated by a central character named Madeleine.
Before turning to fiction writing, L’Engle tried her hand at acting, and that experience informs stories about young, single women trying to make it in theater in New York City. These, like some of the Vermont stories, offer sharp slices of the midcentury American zeitgeist, when certain possibilities for women were just beginning to open up. L’Engle here enters the territory of such masters of the form as Alice Munro, John O’Hara and John Cheever.
Some of the stories are so affecting—in particular, the elegiac title story, the aforementioned “The Foreigners” and the somewhat shocking “That Which Is Left”—that it is surprising they did not find publication in L’Engle’s lifetime. Voiklis points out that her grandmother did recycle some of this material later as episodes in novels or incidents in memoirs, a fact that provides a glimpse into the writer’s process. “You have to write the book that wants to be written,” L’Engle once said.
Due to the timelessness of her Newbery Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time, many people may think of L’Engle as a children’s author or a science fiction writer, or both. The engaging stories in The Moment of Tenderness collectively offer a different, fuller view of this talented master.