by Leah Heim, Ball State University
It’s fall semester, and that means Ball State University’s Digital Literature Review is officially geared up for another year of literary criticism and analysis. As one of the lead editors, I humbly invite all readers, scholars, and writers to join our staff in exploring this year’s journal topic— representations of the post-apocalypse. Our curriculum addresses such rich issues as religious Armageddon, female post-apocalyptic experience, and environmental disaster. And we’ve thrown in some zombies too, for our readers’ literary enjoyment. It’s the midterm slump, yet the passion of our class discussions has only burgeoned. All seems positioned for the creation of an astounding journal.
But this is not an easy time to read post-apocalyptic literature. With the disaster of this hurricane season, the recent atomic threat of North Korea, and the ever-present worry over societal unrest, it may be difficult to enjoy the study of imagined apocalypses. We at the Digital Literature Review understand. However, I believe that our journal has a particular obligation to continue our work in the face of these terrors. To illustrate this fact, I refer to a book by one of my heroes— Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
Named after a line of a poem by Conrad Aiken, L’Engle’s book is the third in her Time Quintet series, the first installation of which is her famous children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. While written for a juvenile audience, L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet discusses a topic that could make parents uneasy— nuclear war. The story follows fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace Murry as he journeys through time and space to stop an imminent atomic threat by Mad Dog Branzillo, a dictator of a small country who has obtained missiles from a few “powerful friends” (9). Such a circumstance harkens back the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which would have been within memory for many of the text’s first readers in 1978.
While the entire book deserves examination, it is the first chapter that displays eerie relevance to our world today and to the mission of this year’s installment of the Digital Literature Review. The story begins on Thanksgiving Day in the Murry household, where the entire family has gathered together to celebrate. Meg Murry O’Keefe and the rest of the Murry family work to get their Thanksgiving meal on the table; as such, L’Engle creates a strong atmosphere of nostalgia and harmony for any reader with similar holiday memories. Suddenly, however, Dr. Murry— the family’s kind patriarch and a renowned scientist — receives a call from the President of the United States, who explains that Mad Dog Branzillo intends to start nuclear war and that the world has only twenty-four hours “in which to avert tragedy” (9).
What began as a pleasant day for the Murry family is shattered by the imminent death of humanity. However, the Murrys sit down at their Thanksgiving meal anyway, adhering to their usual holiday routine. When Meg, panicked, questions their devotion to such mundane habits in the face of an apocalypse, her father offers these wise words:
“You know, my dears, the world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful or reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” (26)
Examining post-apocalyptic literature in today’s global situation might seem depressing at best and insensitive at worst, for we, like the Murrys, live in a world a button away from disaster. We understand that disregarding these issues will do nothing for the betterment of the situation, but there’s the rub. For when we devote ourselves to the study of our fatal reality, how can we move forward? How can we overcome incapacitating hopelessness when we grasp the immensity of our world’s problems? Like Meg Murry O’Keefe, we want to do something, but, also like Meg, we don’t know what to do. And it’s easy to become petrified as national complacency and desperation collide, like hot air meeting cold— as fear rips through our country with a tornadic roar.
Sometimes it feels as if I have watched this storm since birth, and when I heard that the theme of this year’s Digital Literature Review was post-apocalypse, I seriously contemplated whether or not I had the emotional stamina to subject myself to conversations about dying worlds. But, happy coincidence, I revisited Madeleine L’Engle’s childhood gem, and this scene at the Murrys’ Thanksgiving table made my decision for me. For in the end, the Murry family doesn’t recede into complacency and ignore their desperate situation, but they don’t spend the day with screams and tears either; they sit down at a table and talk. And this is what the Digital Literature Review does; we talk. We are not complacent, but we are not hopeless, because we can still talk. A couple of college students likely won’t find solutions to all the world’s problems, but, nevertheless, we hope to create a space of peace and reason in which our minds can address the topic. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we cry. This is only human, only the way we cope with life on our swiftly tilting planet. But in the end, the Digital Literature Review works tirelessly to create our own calm, rational environment amidst the terrors of both reality and fiction, and we humbly invite the world to come into this place, to join us in our quest to understand even these darkest frontiers of the human condition. Let us do so with peace and reason. I think that’s what Madeleine L’Engle would have wanted.
So, sit down and make yourself comfortable. Let’s talk.
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Crosswicks, Ltd., 1978.