In 1980 Madeleine L’Engle published her novel A Ring of Endless Light focusing on the continued life of the Austin family. In contrast with the Murry-O’Keefe family the books that revolve around the family are mostly stand alone and the reader doesn’t have to exclusively have to read the series in order (as in you could read A Wind in the Door or Many Waters without reading A Wrinkle in Time to get into the story. A Swiftly Tilting Planet requires some previous knowledge of A Wind in the Door.) The lives of the Austin family require some previous reading of books focusing on them.
Spoilers from this point on
The primary theme of this novel is death with the very first page taking place at a funeral of a family friend of the Austin family known as Commander Rodney, who suffered a heart attack after saving a rich kid from drowning. Vicky Austin and the rest of her family spend their time on an island that they normally spend no more than two or three weeks at each summer due to her grandfather’s battle with a form of leukemia.
The topic of death is one that is ever looming over Vicky’s mind due to the revelation that it was her own friend Zachary Gray whom Commander Rodney had saved despite the fact that Zachary was trying to commit suicide at the time. Meanwhile Zachary is trying to come to terms with the death of his own mother who was killed in a car accident, but unlike the Christian traditions of the Austin family, Zachary’s mother was cryogenically frozen in hopes that in the future she can be “saved”.
I haven’t read any of the other novels featuring the Austin family or Zachary Grey, but it’s easy to gather that the worlds of the two families clash completely with the humble, religious, and educated Austins, and the rich, entitled, buy your way out of trouble Gray family. From what I’ve read about L’Engle’s work concerning the character Zachary Gray, L’Engle had seen him as the “ultimate redemption story” she never got to finish.
Although the primary topic of death being a major theme in A Ring of Endless Light, it does play background noise at times to Vicky’s trials as a typical teenager; she likes boys and has “finally become beautiful enough to attract them.” However, unlike modern YA literature, Vicky isn’t in a “team Edward/team Jacob” love triangle. While she does have two characters with romantic interest in her (the above mentioned Zachary Gray and the son of Commander Rodney, Leo), Vicky doesn’t spend her time pondering over “which one is good for me?” and focuses more on herself and concentrates more on helping Leo recover from the death of his father and functioning as Zachary’s moral compass at times.
Vicky also has a third romantic interest named Adam that doesn’t show feelings for her due to the events that previously happened in The Arm of the Starfish (gotta get around to reading that).
How Vicky approaches ‘dating’ each of these boys is actually a relief. She never officially goes on a romantic date with any of them, she actually didn’t like Leo too much at the start of the novel, but does grow to genuinely care for him as a friend by the book’s end even with Leo’s desire to take the friendship further. Despite the best efforts of Zachary and Leo Vicky is very firm in what she doesn’t want from them and by the climax of the book, Vicky has lost any previous infatuation with Zachary after a incident with him flying a plane.
Adam is a college student studying dolphins and marine biology. He’s handsome, athletic, and honestly who wouldn’t fall for someone that is dolphin approved? It’s one thing to be approved by a cat or dog, but dolphins are one of the most intelligent sentient species on earth. If a dolphin approves of a boy, he’s the type you bring home to mother. Adam doesn’t actively pursue Vicky romantically ever in the book, but is very grateful for her help in his research. (Side note, this form of science would probably be mocked in real life).
In terms of the plot with dolphins, Adam hypotheses that because of Vicky’s artistic abilities as a poet, she should be able to connect with dolphins. And that she does through a form of telepathy previously used in L’Engle’s books known as kything. There is a significant amount of growth between Vicky and Adam where towards the end it is all but confirmed the two are in love with each other since Vicky is able to call Adam in her time of greatest distress.
The climax of the novel does heavily involve the above topic of life, death, and dolphins. Through kything the dolphins give VIcky an idea of what the universe is like beyond what she knows of on the planet earth and a deep understanding of what is beyond life and death.
In the climax of the novel while rushing to see her grandfather, Vicky is briefly left in charge of a sickly child also suffering from terminal illness. Sadly said child has a seizure and dies in Vicky’s arms sending her into a deep despair challenging not just her religious beliefs, but everything the dolphins told her and her faith that there is good in humanity despite all the sorrow and evil in the world. The plots come full circle when Vicky is healed of her sorrow through the healing abilities of the dolphins.
Outside of romance and death, A Ring of Endless Light does have some interesting callbacks to her previous work outside of the Austin family. When Vicky has a small conversation with her little brother Rob, he asks her about the possibility of a planet with a population that has no sight and no hearing, which DOES exist in L’Engle’s universe (the planet Ixchel visited in A Wrinkle in TIme). There is also the above mentioned callback to A Wind in the Door, and the fact that Adam did do some research with Dr.O’Keefe (aka Calvin O’Keefe).
I also do enjoy the fact that even though A Ring of Endless Light being published nearly forty years ago, the topics seen in the novel are still relevant today. Is it okay to let a loved one die from terminal illness and is it bad to prolong their life via “hooked up to a machine”? Is it bad to slaughter animals even though said animals eating the source of income/food for your family? Can all diseases be “healed by science”? Etc.
In Comparison to the Disney Channel Original Movie
While the movie adaption isn’t bad (it’s a lot better than any of the DCOMs released since Highschool Musical), it is very toned down from the book in many ways. One of the major differences is the reduction of the cast size from nearly twenty characters, to about eight named characters. The theme of death is toned down significantly with the dolphin plot taking place as the central plot.
Instead of being mystical creatures, the dolphins are still pretty damn mystical, but do not serve the same purpose in the film as they do in the novel, where instead of being the source of Vicky’s healing from her trauma, they’re involved in a “illegal net fishing is bad!” plot that reminded me a lot of another DCOM called The Thirteenth Year.
Zachary is also toned down from being reckless and suicidal to just being rich and unaware of the world around him (his father owns the fishing company that has dolphins getting tangled up in nets). Adam goes from introverted scientist to excited marine biologist who is pissed about dolphins getting killed in fishing nets.
It’s not a bad movie, but if Disney could have gotten away with The Color of Friendship, they could have at least handled the topic of death better than Vicky’s grandfather suddenly croaking after the dolphins were saved (ironically Vickey’s grandfather didn’t die just yet in the book.)
I give A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle, four out of five dolphins (seriously, we need to go back to writing about dolphins in YA, WHY AREN’T THERE MORE DOLPHIN STORIES??)