Meg thought of Mrs. O’Keefe waiting downstairs.
Yes. That was a victory for the enemy, indeed. That Beezie, the golden child, should have become the old hag with missing teeth and resentful eyes was unbearable.–A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L’Engle
Madeleine L’Engle, who passed away just a few years ago, was one of the most prolific children’s literature writers of the 20th century. She always seemed to understand children, even in old age. Perhaps that is because, as she once said, “the great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” She was also a believer in the complexity of children–she’s also quoted as saying “you have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Now, we’ve discussed the complexity of children here at PTM in the past. We’ve also discussed children’s literature as a concept. L’Engle seems to get both of those things.
And one of her most profound but oft-neglected characters, Mrs. O’Keefe, is so because she comes to illustrate the ways that abuse and tragedy can change a person. When we meet Mrs. O’Keefe in the first book of the Time Quartet, A Wrinkle in Time, she is a sour old lady with the inability to understand her children. She’s rude, and she’s grumpy. But in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the last book of the series, we see her as a child–Meg, who has grown up and married Mrs. O’Keefe’s son Calvin, is amazed when she makes the connection: “Branwen Zillah Maddox. B.Z. Beezie. Mrs. O’Keefe. That golden child was Mrs. O’Keefe.” The names here are important. Not only do they tie together ancestry (which is a huge focus of the novel, which has a complex plot that spans centuries and uses multiple perspectives), but they represent the change that the girl Beezie goes through to become Mrs. O’Keefe.
When we first meet Beezie, she is blowing dandelions and making wishes with her grandmother and her younger brother, Chuck. She’s interested in story-telling, and she begs her grandmother to give her as much information as possible about her ancestors. She’s entranced by history. She loves her brother fiercely. She’s golden haired and bright eyed–a far cry from the old woman, toothless, wrinkled, and barely communicative, who we see in the present-day Murray’s kitchen during Thanksgiving dinner.
And then Beezie’s story takes a turn. Her father’s business is in trouble–and he soon dies from what is hinted to be a heart attack. Enter Duthbert Mortmain, who “offers” to marry Beezie’s mother and take over the store. And he does. Mortmain doesn’t want to hear the children laugh; in fact, he doesn’t want to hear them at all. As Chuck astutely observes, “he doesn’t like what doesn’t belong to him.” Eventually, his dislike turns to abuse. He boxes Chuck’s ears; he pinches Beezie, leaving her black and blue, and sexual abuse is hinted at in the text. And then he knocks Chuck down the stairs, fracturing his skull and leading the grandmother into a downward spiral ending in death. Chuck is institutionalized at the behest of Mortmain when Beezie’s mother becomes pregnant. Beezie is left to the protection of Paddy O’Keefe, a rough classmate who will protect her from Mortmain but is his own kind of dangerous–and she eventually marries O’Keefe, predominately for protection.
Beezie’s story is one that we don’t want to hear. But it’s one that we need to hear, and we need to take it into account. We must think of how girls become women, and why girls become the women they do. We must think of the ways that death, abuse, and sex affect the women we become and the women we meet. We must think about the golden children who become haggard women, and we must write their stories. Beezie Maddox is a cautionary tale because she’s all too real.