A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

The Crosswicks Journal – Book 1

1972. Harper SanFrancisco. Paperback. 246 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: a comment left on a post of Rachel Held Evans‘ blog, a comment which I can’t seem to find now.

In a nutshell:

This was the first of four Crosswicks Journals written by Madeleine L’Engle, an author best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time (though Arm of the Starfish is the book I remember her for.) Crosswicks was the name of the New England house where she and her husband lived, sometimes joined by their adult children, or grandchildren, or sundry other relatives and friends.

L’Engle freewheeling journal touches on writing, faith, self, and family.


A Circle of Quiet is a rambling sort of book, befitting its ‘journal’ status, but L’Engle does return to several themes over and over in the book. In the beginning, L’Engle states that she has recently discovered and become enamored with the word ‘ontology’ which she defines in the book as “the word about the essence of things; the word about being.” She calls it her “word-of-the-summer.”

Unfortunately, the word ‘ontology’ did not resonate with me at all. It’s almost a dead word for me in that it conjures no feeling, no revelation, no connotations or associations. So whenever L’Engle revisited this favored word throughout the book, I couldn’t follow along with her enthusiasm about it.

Actually, I didn’t connect well with L’Engle’s book overall. Part of it was the datedness of the book. I liked the time-capsule experience in some respects, to see the early 1970’s through the eyes of someone living it in the present. I loved the references to Flower Children, Hell’s Angels, and Jesus Freaks. However, sometimes L’Engle just seemed very far away, generationally. When she analyzed the ‘young people’ of her time, those ‘young people’ were my parents’ generation. She talks of them benevolently and with a desire to understand them, but I eventually got tired of her pontifications about their passions and rebellions.

Perhaps there was also a personality clash. L’Engle admits that she is very opinionated and stubborn. I have a very calm and diplomatic personality, to a fault sometimes. I found myself sometimes thinking that L’Engle was overreacting or being too serious. I think it’s good to read books by authors with different approaches to life than my own. However, I was hoping that A Circle of Quiet would be a book that spoke to me and it didn’t overall.

So I gleaned for meaning instead – a passage here, an anecdote there. I did find the story of her son’s pet turtle very funny. And then I was unexpectedly brought to tears by the following passage:

I remember quite clearly coming home in the afternoon, putting my school bag down, and thinking, calmly and bitterly, “I am the cripple, the unpopular girl,” leaving my book bag where it lay, and writing a story for myself where the heroine was the kind of girl I would have liked to be.

Warning, parents, teachers, friends: once a child starts to think of himself this way, it’s almost impossible for the “image” – I think that’s the right word here – to be changed . . . I still tend to think of myself in the mirror set up for me in that one school. I was given a self-image there, and not a self, and a self-image imposed on one in youth is impossible to get rid of entirely, no matter how much love and affirmation one is given later.

p. 145

At the time that I was reading A Circle of Quiet, I had been mulling over an ugly thing a classmate had told me when I was twelve. He was a bully and his words deserved no traction, and yet I had to admit they still had some residual power anyway. Thus when I read this passage by L’Engle, I recognized the truth in her words. So, I guess the book did speak to me after all, even if just for that one time.

I think other readers may find this book will be right up their alley. L’Engle talks quite a bit about writing children’s literature, so if you want to read behind-the-scenes observations from a classic children’s author, there is some good stuff to be found in A Circle of Quiet. Click the links to Rebecca Reads’ review or Regular Ruminations’ review below for some more excerpts and quotes.

Others’ reviews:

Lesley’s Book Nook – “Unfortunately, A Circle of Quiet failed to deliver the same emotional insights [as Two-Part Invention, another Crosswicks book] and I wound up skimming the majority of the book.”

Rebecca Reads – “I found this book to be a relaxing, slow read. I would read a few pages, pencil in hand to mark passages that stood out to me.”

Regular Rumination – “This book was like sitting down with Madeleine L’Engle and having a conversation . . . She has an opinion about everything, and I would be lying if I said I agreed with absolutely everything she wrote about.  I don’t, but I never doubt that if I’d had the chance, we could have had a lively debate with no hard feelings.”


Filed under Book Review, Memoir and Personal Essays

3 responses to “A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle

  1. I read all the Crosswicks journals years and years ago and really enjoyed them, but I almost always love the journal format. I know what you mean about the datedness of it, but I ended up finding it kind of charming. As I recall, though, I didn’t get the ontology thing either.

  2. Nan

    It’s funny, but I think I like the ‘idea’ of Madeleine L’Engle better than I do the writer and her works. It’s been this way as long as I can remember. I keep thinking I want to read her, and when I begin I just cannot connect. I liked A Wrinkle in Time okay, but I mostly liked the parts that took place in real life in that great house. Ontology is way too close to oncology for me to get any good vibes from it. This was a really excellent, thoughtful review. I so enjoyed reading it.

  3. Teresa – Yeah, the datedness wasn’t particularly irritating. I think just the constant references to “the young people” made her sounds kind of fusty. Also, glad to know I’m not the only one who did not quite follow where she was going with ‘ontology.’

    Nan – I like what you say about liking the ‘idea’ of Madeleine L’Engle – I can think of several authors that applies to for me as well. And yeah, ontology is just not an attractive word. I’m glad you enjoyed my review. It took me a little while to figure out what I wanted to say about this book.

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