The Moon by Night (by Madeleine L'Engle)

A couple of years ago I decided to re-read through the works of several authors whose books I have enjoyed, in a somewhat structured way. I realised that although I had very much liked the few books I had previously read by Madeleine L’Engle, there were a surprising number which I had never read. Our collection was somewhat eclectic, and my adult son removed the ones that were his - but I’ve managed to acquire most of the ones we were missing from charity and thrift shops.

‘The Moon by Night’ is the second book in the Austin family series intended for young teenagers. I read ‘Meet the Austins’ almost exactly a year ago, and then made the chronological mistake of reading ‘The Young Unicorns’ earlier this year, not realising that it was the third in the series. Not that it particularly matters. Even ardent fans of L’Engle’s writing do not always agree on the best order to read the books, and each one stands alone anyway.

‘The Moon by Night’, as with the first novel, is narrated by Vicky Austin. She’s almost fifteen when this book opens, and thinking about the future. We don’t know, at first, why she is so concerned and what is going to change, but quickly learn that her uncle is getting married to her mother’s best friend. Vicky has been dreaming by the sea and is almost late for the wedding…

The bulk of the book, however, features the family travelling around the US and parts of Canada on a lengthy camping holiday. Vicky has an older brother, John, who is soon to go to university. Her younger sister Suzy is determined to be a doctor, and they also have a much younger brother, Rob. There’s a fair amount of family interaction, with minor squabbles here and there, and a lot of love from the parents who, on the whole, are quite relaxed.

Two young men are introduced in the book, both of them interested in Vicky, and very different in personalities. Vicky herself learns a lot about herself and what matters to her over the course of the book, and that’s really the main theme. There are many incidents at different campgrounds including interactions with pleasant (and unpleasant) people, as well as close encounters with a variety of wild-life.

Some parts of the book felt to me like a brief travel guide - Vicky describes the landscapes of the different states they pass through, in some detail. This was interesting at first, but by about half-way through I started skimming or even skipping the car journeys, unless there was some conversation. The author was clearly familiar with the identifying features of each state, some of which rang true (we lived in the US for a couple of years and did some travelling camping ourselves a couple of times) so I assume it was all accurate.

But although Vicky occasionally stops short and says that anyone wanting to know more can read a travel book, I still found a tad too much detail about the geography of the US, and rather a lot, here and there, about natural history too. The author also gently demonstrates her anti-war agenda and her horror at what white Europeans did to the original Americans; I don’t have any problem with that, in theory, as I agree with her. But it felt a bit odd to be mentioned so many times in a novel.

I didn’t dislike it; I think it could make a very good read-aloud for children interested in American geography and landscapes, perhaps tracing the journey on a map. But equally it felt as if the informative side of the book was there to fill out a somewhat limited storyline.

Certainly worth reading by fans of Madeleine L’Engle. It makes a good sequel to ‘Meet the Austins’, as well as introducing a significant and intriguing character who reappears in some subsequent books (not just Austin ones). It also, for those who like continuity, covers the gap between the Austin family living in a very small town in the first book, and a flat in New York in the third book.

As with all L'Engle's books there's an underlying Christian theme, but it's quite low-key and not at all preachy. Vicky herself is not entirely sure about her faith but is quick to defend those who are.

My edition is a British one, in which some American words have been changed ('petrol' for 'gas', for instance) but others, such as 'station wagon', have not. I'm not sure why publishers bother to make this kind of change, as most British children are familiar with American words - but it wasn't too intrusive and I didn't really notice until well over half-way through.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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