The Young Unicorns: Set in 1968, it’s a story as distant as a Jane Austen novel

The Young Unicorns by Madeline L’Engle science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Young Unicorns by Madeline L’Engle science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Young Unicorns by Madeline L’Engle

Madeline L’Engle published The Young Unicorns in 1968. It features the Austin family, who were introduced in L’Engle’s 1960 novel Meet the Austins. In The Young Unicorns, the scientific, artistic Austin family has moved from a small rural Connecticut town into New York City. They live in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which figures prominently in the story.

The Young Unicorns has no overlap with the WRINKLE IN TIME quartet except for one specific character mention, but it shares concerns and themes. This book, published for young adults, deals with science, spirituality and morality, and within its pages the characters, children and adults alike, struggle to determine what is the right thing.

Dr. Austin is a doctor and a scientist who is working on the specialized application of laser technology in microsurgery. His family looks after the girl, Emily Gregory, who lives in the downstairs flat of their converted mansion apartment house. Emily was blinded in a strange accident after she surprised a break-in. Josiah “Dave” Davidson is her helper, reading homework to her and escorting her places. Dave is connected to the cathedral; his father is a craftsman there. Coming from a bad and broken home, Dave briefly spent time in a street gang called the Alphabats. He has left them behind and never talks about it… but they want him back, badly. A mysterious person, who operates from a strange underground headquarters, is very interested in the laser, particularly the one formula Dr. Austin has that activates the device. Canon Tallis, an Episcopal priest from England, has been called in to investigate strange goings-on near the cathedral and with the Alphabats, and he tries to protect the Austin children as they become involved in the mystery.

This is less of a review and more of a response piece, so be prepared for spoilers.

The story is certainly dated, but the suspense holds up and the laser applications aren’t that far off from what we have now. The emotional and ethical struggles are real; when Dave swears something on a Bible, and then comes to realize that he’s sworn to a bad thing, the book does not minimize or condescend about his ethical struggle. It’s a real dilemma. Reading The Young Unicorns in 2019, though, I was most struck this time through by how much it’s a time capsule. For good or bad, this book fictionalizes a way of living that now seems as distant and foreign as any Jane Austen novel.

Other than the obvious geopolitical and technological changes, the world of the Austins — white, professional, single-income, reasonably well-off (the numerous children can go to a private school) — is parsecs away from life today. Some differences are almost laughably big: the Alphabats (well, first of all there’s the name) carry switchblades, not Glocks, of course. The Austins don’t seem to have a television. They get their news from the local papers, and after the big family dinners, they gather in the living room to read to each other or have a musical evening, since Emily is a musical genius. Children, even seven-year-old Rob, are free to wander around the streets any time of day or night and they are perfectly safe. Part of the genuine suspense in The Young Unicorns is the creeping sense of wrongness in a neighborhood they have come to trust. On a Sunday afternoon, after church, Dr. and Mrs. Austin sit in the living room reading the Sunday paper, and she brings in her basket of mending. Her basket of mending.Austin Family Series (5 book series) Kindle Edition

Clearly, some of the comfort of the Austin life comes from the fact that they belong to the group to whom all societal privileges are extended. They are not people of color; they do not live in a poor rural area; they are not marginalized in any way. As a picture of how people wanted to believe that life looked, this book is perfect.

Mrs. Austin is a strong character who perfectly depicts middle-class life in L’Engle’s 1968 society. Mrs. Austin willingly gave up a career in music and theater to have children and run a household (in this she resembles L’Engle herself). Mrs. Austin explains more than once in the book that she chose this, that she loves keeping a house and raising her children, and that she’s “not a slave” because the children do chores. She copes with the increasing tension, distrust and isolation in her family by housekeeping.

Mrs. Austen looked at the unappetizing mess of French toast and syrup that the children had scraped off their plates and into Mr. Rochester’s bowl, put most of it in the garbage, got out the vacuum cleaner and set about cleaning house. 

Later, when Dr. Austin shuts down completely, freezing her out and treating her, in her words, “like the lowliest of scrub nurses,” she goes into the kitchen to make cookies or something.

If she could occupy herself with something familiar like baking, perhaps she would not cry. 

Near the end of the book, Mrs. Austin is right there when the family makes a midnight trek to the cathedral to rescue Rob. The two Austin daughters, Vicky and Suzy, do not feel bound to the feminine traditions of the 1950s. Suzy, smart and analytical, plans to be a scientist, and her parents clearly support this. They support Emily following her musical talent (although Emily, being a musical genius, is in a different category). Vicky’s lack of direction does not come from parents who are limiting her options; they are presented as the believable struggles of a young woman who is afraid to commit to the one that calls to her the loudest, because she fears failing. It’s not that Mrs. Austin is a propaganda character; it’s that there used to be mothers like her, and I don’t think are that many anymore, just as I don’t think the Morningside Heights neighborhood exists as it does in this book. At the same time, she is a propaganda character: a standard bearer for defined gender roles, even if she has to tell us too many times how she is just fine with it.

This golden, idyllic depiction of “separate but equal” partners is not the biggest difference between L’Engle’s 1968 world and ours. That has to be the expectations and treatment of large institutions, governmental and spiritual. While one character in a highly placed position worries aloud that two other doctors who worked on the laser projected have fled the country (after their apartment was ransacked and Emily blinded), he comments that they are in the hands of “a foreign government.” It happens to be Great Britain, but still. This is a cover, and the reader intuits that, but there is no thought that the US government might be doing anything bad, or that it has anything other than the best interest of USA citizens at heart. It’s 1968. People were protesting our military involvement in Viet Nam, but Watergate hadn’t happened yet. The Pentagon Papers hadn’t happened. Air America, the CIA and crack cocaine hadn’t happened. Church scandals and cover-ups actually were happening, but we didn’t know it. While there was disillusionment because of Viet Nam, there was not, yet, the massive and complete distrust of any large system. Nowhere in The Young Unicorns is this more clear than in the treatment of the men of the church who live at the cathedral.

It’s no secret to L’Engle fans that she loved the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Her adult novel A Severed Wasp was set in and around the cathedral. In The Young Unicorns, the cathedral is a location, a symbol and a place for her to unleash her glorious powers of description. Needed or not, L’Engle’s love for the place shines through in every opportunity she takes to describe the cathedral, the chapels, the various outbuildings, the gardens and the crypt. L’Engle is a disciplined writer, not a self-indulgent one, and the crypt leads us to a location that is a shadow cathedral: a surreal, vividly described secret location that would stand up to any modern fantasy novel for its weirdness. Still, it’s a “shadow cathedral,” one set far away from the actual cathedral grounds (although a tunnel from the crypt leads to it). L’Engle does not, and perhaps cannot, conceive of the cathedral itself being a home for fascism and evil.

L’Engle was an open-minded believer. She accepted the premise of atheism, and she embraced faith. The men of the cathedral want to do what’s right. They are upright men. For two of them, the challenge is figuring out what that is. Spiritual leaders, whether they are neighborhood rabbis or highly placed Episcopalian priests, are moral men, figures of good, who will protect children and fight for what’s right.

As a twenty-first century reader, I thought I was accepting this just fine until seven-year-old Rob, who has gone to the cathedral by himself (alone! By himself!!), meets a churchman in the nave. After a few minutes of conversation, the churchman invites Rob up to his office for tea, and Rob accepts. I knew the churchman was a morally good character, and I knew this was 1968. My twenty-first-century mind still screamed, “No, Rob! Run!” at the page.

More seriously, though, L’Engle crafts the plot so that the cathedral, even though it’s the heart of the conspiracy to change people’s brains using the laser and thus control behavior, is innocent of any corruption. The plot twist about the villain is carefully planted and diligently tended throughout the story, leaving the church and church leaders un-besmirched at the end.

A present-day suspense writer setting a story in and around a church, any church, would not be able to do this. They would have to bring up the idea that the church was complicit, even if only to disprove it. We are cynical and distrustful now, even of institutions we want to love. L’Engle had no such cynicism. Even though the cathedral leads directly to the place where evil is committed, the cathedral itself is innocent. There is a bad man misusing the power of the cathedral; L’Engle never questions whether the system itself, with its concentration of wealth, luxury, political and spiritual power, might be problematic. A present-day writer would not be able to turn away from that question.

As a twenty-first-century reader, I was impressed (to put it mildly) at the erudition of the Austin children. Emily plays Bach, of course, but Suzy quotes John Donne and the dinner table discussions are not about what happened at school, but the nature of free will and the “freedom provided by the structure of discipline.” There is a conversation about whether suffering strengthens characters that will offend some millennials, who see this philosophy as an excuse for those who cause suffering. It isn’t only L’Engle’s characters who are erudite; clearly she expects her young reader audience to pay attention and think about these same issues. The young people are complicated and not glorified. Suzy struggles with sibling rivalry, feeling left out because Emily and Vicky are close friends; Emily lashes out with anger, at times, in frustration over being blinded; Dave pushes everyone away for fear of appearing weak. And the parents, while present and competent, make mistakes. Dr. Austin’s attempts to keep his family safe by holding them at a distance put them at greater risk.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a thirty-something writer friend of mine, and he said that growing up, he and his friends had never been aware of a sense of optimism about the future. This nearly broke my heart. Between 1968 and the early 1990s, did we lose the sense that things can be better, that we can make them better?

I would love to give The Young Unicorns to a teen who is taking an American History class. Here is one way the best and brightest of us thought we could be, back in 1968: honest, curious, welcoming and embracing. Is it reachable? Or is optimism (and maybe innocence) as far away as the drawing rooms of Jane Austen?

Published in 1968. In this award-winning young adult series from Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, Vicky Austin experiences the difficulties and joys of growing up. The Austins are trying to settle into their new life in New York City, but their once close-knit family is pulling away from each other. Their father spends long hours alone in his study working on the research project that brought the family to the city. John is away at college. Rob is making friends with people in the neighborhood: newspaper vendors, dog walkers, even the local rabbi. Suzy is blossoming into a vivacious young woman. And Vicky has become closer to Emily Gregory, a blind and brilliant young musician, than to her sister Suzy. With the Austins going in different directions, they don’t notice that something sinister is going on in their neighborhood—and it’s centered around them. A mysterious genie appears before Rob and Emily. A stranger approaches Vicky in the park and calls her by name. Members of a local gang are following their father. The entire Austin family is in danger. If they don’t start telling each other what’s going on, someone just might get killed.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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4 comments

  1. Marion! This is an excellent, well-written, thought-provoking essay/review. I need to go re-read these books with an adult eye to see what my younger self missed the first time around.

    • I don’t know if it would be what you missed, or if it’s just how much our thinking has changed.

      • A little bit of Column A, and a little bit of Column B, I think. There’s so much that my younger self wouldn’t have had context for and, simultaneously, so much that’s changed about the modern world and how we would tell Rob to absolutely NOT go to tea with the churchman.

  2. This is a fascinating review! Thanks so much for posting it.

    I feel a bit shy mentioning this to someone who may recall 1968 a lot clearer than I do; I was only five then. But my thought as someone who first read this novel as a teen in the 1970s is that “The Young Unicorns” is both part of its time and a conscious exercise in utopia-building.

    By 1968, American women had been entering the outside workforce for decades – hence, Mrs. Austin’s defensiveness over her choice to be a homemaker. (If she’d entered the outside workforce, I’m sure we’d have heard her being defensive about *that* choice.) Gangs and other criminals had become an increasing problem for cities, and Morningside Heights appears to have been undergoing struggles for a while. And though I grew up in a white, professional, single-income home, under loving parents, I certainly didn’t have a home life like the Austin kids did. I doubt very many kids did, in any era.

    I don’t think that Madeleine L’Engle was unaware that much of the real world of 1968 was fairly grungy; the cathedral must have been involved in the struggle for sanity, as her novel suggests. Rather, I think she was putting forward an alternative for what life could be like – presenting the Austin family and the cathedral as oases in an increasingly dangerous world. What characters keep saying about the Austin family is that they’re *unusual*, not that they’re typical of their time.

    I was born too late to remember Vietnam – maybe you have a better sense of this than I do – but reading about American life at that time, I do get the feeling that many Americans’ disillusionment with authority began in the 1960s. I’m sure you’re right that Watergate and the Pentagon Papers worsened matters, but couldn’t L’Engle’s novel be seen, not as obliviousness to the possibility of corruption of authority, but rather as a promotion of her belief that there is still good to be found in places of authority? If so, I think that she sidesteps the issue you raise, of “whether the system itself, with its concentration of wealth, luxury, political and spiritual power, might be problematic.” But I think that other people at the time were raising that issue. (For that matter, the issue of corruption in the church had been a live one since ancient times.)

    What I *don’t* think was happening, until around this time, is that such matters were being discussed in juvenile literature. To put this novel in context, it was published just one year after S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.” Juvenile fiction was only just starting to explore the possibility that authorities might fail young people. What’s groundbreaking about this novel is that it flirts with the idea of religious corruption. That would have been unthinkable in juvenile literature, just five years earlier.

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