Sat, Feb
16
2002

Biography of the Murry-O'Keefe Family, from 1956-2001

Based on the Time Quartet and O'Keefe Family Series of Novels by Madeleine L'Engle

Introduction

When I was between the age of eight and ten, my mother read to me Madeleine L'Engle's book A Wrinkle in Time. I enjoyed the book as a child, but didn't think about it much in the years that followed. I was just too busy with high school, then University, and then a soul-killing job that almost eliminated my writing and reading altogether. Then I met my wife, and we took up the tradition of reading stories to each other at bedtime. Now that I'm twenty-nine years old, I return to A Wrinkle in Time, and I discover that this story hasn't left me in the twenty-one years since it was read to me. The visit to the two-dimensional planet returns vividly to my mind, as does Meg fighting the Monstrous IT on the planet Camazotz with the only weapon she has: love.

I also, once again, fall in love with the character of Meg Murry, and very much enjoyed (if vicariously) the obvious chemistry between her and Calvin O'Keefe. So I decide to read more.

This web page has been made in appreciation of Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet and O'Keefe family series of novels. I cannot provide you with a definitive examination of all of L'Engle's works, but I can provide a lengthy review of the eight books that make up these two particular series, and provide something of a history of the fascinating Murry-O'Keefe family.

Complicating this process is that Madeleine cared far less about how consistently her characters aged than she did about telling a good story. Not only was she was unclear as to Meg's age in A Wrinkle in Time, but it's also clear that she intended her books to be set at some date in the future. However, her books have been written over such an extended period of time (1962 for A Wrinkle in Time compared to 1989 for An Acceptable Time) that the indefinite future has caught up and passed this series of books, allowing us some flexibility in setting down dates.

Problem One: Establishing 'Year Zero'

Although deciding to set A Wrinkle in Time in any year is an arbitrary decision at best, there are a number of limiting factors. I initially considered setting A Wrinkle in Time in an alternate version of 1962 (the same year it was originally published). It is clear that Meg Murry's universe is a parallel one to our own, where South American military dictatorships such as Vespugia exist and are nuclear powers. However, Karen Funk-Bloucher noted that A Wind in the Door makes mention of a moon landing happening during Kate Murry's childhood. A Wind in the Door takes place roughly two years after A Wrinkle in Time, placing a moon landing within Meg Murry's universe at a point before Meg Murry was born. At the same time, Dragons in the Waters makes mention of being set 'at the close of the twentieth century'. Crossover characters (see the bottom of this article) further complicate matters.

Move A Wrinkle in Time up to 1970, and the mentioned moon landing comes less early and requires less suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, it pushes A House Like a Lotus well into the 1990s. That book contains a reference to the Iron Curtain as a current political reality. If we set A Wrinkle in Time in 1962, then A House Like a Lotus becomes more feasible, placed in 1989.

So, it's a matter of what impossibility you are more willing to accept: a moon landing that happened twenty-five years too early, or the Iron Curtain coming down ten years too late.

For the purposes of this article, I am arbitrarily setting A Wrinkle in Time in 1970.

Early History

Following the Korean War, Doctorate students Alex Murry (possibly born 1928) and Katherine ("Kate", maiden name unknown, possibly born 1929) met and married. Alex was a physicist, while Kate's work was primarily in microbiology. It is possible that Alex might have worked in the US Army (given his connections with top-secret government work later in his life). Soon after their marriage, Margaret (Meg) Murry was born to the couple in 1956. This was followed by twin brothers Alexander (Sandy) and Dennys Murry in 1960, and Charles Wallace Murry late in 1965.

The Murry family settled in a country house in Connecticut. Childhood for the Murry children was very happy, as both Alex and Kate were loving and capable parents, although some of the pastimes might be considered out of the ordinary. Alex entertained his daughter Meg with mathematical games, for instance, and both Kate and Alex took the time to test their children's intelligence (again, with tests that the children viewed more as games). As a result, they knew right away that there was something special about Meg and Charles Wallace.

Sandy and Dennys were the 'normal' children of the family, performing well in school both scholastically and in sports. Thus they were not targets of taunts from their peers. Meg Murry, however, felt awkward in school; her mathematical games with her father gave her too many shortcuts that her teachers weren't ready to teach, and she was not patient with the by rote learning of her classes. She was (and remained) an atrocious speller and had great difficulty with English class. Her difficulties almost got her classified as an idiot by her impatient teachers, and her late physical development, her plain looks, and her 'odd' and brilliant parents made her the focus of much derision from her classmates.

Charles Wallace was the most special of all the Murry children, however. Physically slow in developing, he did not appear to learn to talk until he was four years old. When he reached the age of four, however, he spoke in complete sentences. His ability to learn new words was astounding, and he knew enough to conceal his abilities from people outside of his family, who had previously labelled him a moron. Charles Wallace also had the ability to intuit the thoughts of both Meg and his mother, almost to the point of telepathy.

Calvin O'Keefe was born to Paddy and Branwen O'Keefe in 1956. Calvin was the third son of a very large but unhappy family. Many of that family's recessive genes found themselves in Calvin, making him quite different from his brothers and sisters. Although he was adept at school, both scholastically and in sports, and generally popular with his classmates, he still felt himself an outsider. Like his mother (as seen in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), he did share some lingering gifts from his old Welsh family, including the uncanny ability to know to be at a particular place at a particular time.

Between 1956 and 1967, Dr. Kate Murry finished her second docterate while Dr. Alex Murry received recognition and promotion for his work within the U.S. government. Alex Murry's work culminated in the Tesseract Project, which explored the possibility of long distance space travel in the wink of an eye. Volunteers for the project drew straws, and Dr. Alex Murry ended up slated to go second. The first attempt to tesser a man occurred in 1967. After hearing nothing from the first subject in over a year, Dr. Alex Murry made his attempt to Tesser, and disappeared from the face of the Earth in 1968.

A Wrinkle in Time

Sandy and Dennys are stated to be ten years old.

Charles Wallace is strongly implied to be five years old

Meg has just started high school, and is probably in grade nine. She certainly hasn't skipped ahead any grades, and thus we can assume that she is fourteen years old

Calvin has skipped ahead a couple of grades, and is implied to be Meg's age, so call him fourteen as well

A Wrinkle in Time stars Charles, Meg and Calvin as equal partners, with Meg acting as the viewpoint character. Sandy, Dennis, and Drs Kate and Alex Murry make significant appearances in this story.

Wind in the Door

Charles Wallace is strongly implied to be six years old; possibly an old six. If he were a young five in A Wrinkle in Time, two years might be close to passing. Therefore...

Sandy and Dennys are twelve years old

Meg and Calvin are both sixteen years old

A Wind in the Door features appearances by the entire Murry family and Calvin, with Calvin and Meg sharing the bulk of the action, and Meg as the viewpoint character.

Many Waters

Sandy and Dennys mention that they are looking forward to their next birthday, so that they can have licenses to drive. If Connecticut has similar driving regulations as what Polly remembers in A House Like a Lotus (she gets her license on her sixteenth birthday) then the twins are fifteen, going on sixteen. Therefore...

Charles Wallace is nine years old

Meg and Calvin are both nineteen years old

Many Waters gives Sandy and Dennys the starring roles. Meg and Charles Wallace have cameos and aspects of Meg's college life are discussed. Calvin doesn't get a mention.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Charles Wallace is explicitly stated to be fifteen years old. This makes Meg and Calvin awfully young to be married and having kids, but not impossibly young. If we say that Charles Wallace is a late fifteen, then we can say that Meg and Calvin are late in their ages as well, fudging their ages a year forward when Polyhymnia is born. For A Swiftly Tilting Planet, however, we are forced to say...

Meg and Calvin are both late twenty-four years old.

Sandy and Dennys would be twenty years old (and they are in pre-law and pre-medical school respectively).

A Swiftly Tilting Planet focuses on Charles Wallace, with Meg in the background providing moral support. Calvin gets only a telephone call into the action, but the rest of the family have scenes. The baby within Meg (Poly) kicks.

Arm of the Starfish

When Poly introduces the children, the implication in a number of cases is that they were born two years apart. If you apply this consistently, and work up the chain from Rosy (just born), then Poly is twelve, which is consistent with the implication in the story. From this we can gather that...

Meg and Calvin are thirty-seven years old

This is further confirmed in House Like a Lotus where Rosie is listed as four, and Poly as sixteen. If Rosy is a newborn here, then Poly is twelve. A House Like A Lotus does state that Peggy (who is four in Arm of the Starfish) is six, but given all the other factors listed here, then I am inclined to believe that Peggy's age in House Like a Lotus was a typo.

Arm of the Starfish gives Poly and Calvin the biggest roles of the family, but Meg makes significant contributions. Calvin's assistant, Adam Eddington is the viewpoint character.

Dragons in the Waters

Poly's age isn't explicitly stated. She could be anywhere from thirteen to fourteen. If so, then:

Charles (O'Keefe) is eleven to twelve years old and...

Calvin is thirty-eight to thirty-nine years old

Dragons in the Waters gives a lot of action to Poly and Calvin, and gives psychically prophetic dreams to Charles. The viewpoint character is guest Simon Renier, however.

A House Like A Lotus

Poly is stated to be sixteen. If so, then:

Meg and Calvin are forty-one years old

Sandy and Dennys would be thirty-seven years old.

A House Like a Lotus is told charmingly in the first person by Poly O'Keefe, and features excellent glimpses into the life of the O'Keefe family, especially Meg and Calvin.

An Acceptable Time

Poly is stated to be eighteen. If so, then:

Meg and Calvin are forty-three years old

Rosy, the youngest child, is now six. Four out of the seven O'Keefe children are now in their teenage years.

An Acceptable Time gives most of the action to Polly, but Drs. Kate and Alex Murry make appearances, and Calvin and Meg get a telephone cameo.

A Wrinkle in Time (Published: 1962 - Set in 1970)
(See Review)(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

Because of the secret nature of Alex Murry's work, his wife and his children were never notified of his disappearance. Even two years after hearing nothing from her husband, the government would only say to Dr. Kate Murry that he was away on top-secret business and could not be contacted (this strongly suggesting that she had no role within the US Army or the US Government). This caused considerable strain on the Murry family, particularly for fourteen-year-old Meg, who missed her father dearly. However, she found comfort from fourteen-year-old Calvin O'Keefe, who knew that his meeting with Meg and her family portended great things for his life.

Calvin never accepted the malicious gossip that circulated through the town regarding Meg's father, and his heart must have gone out to poor Meg. But on the same day that he meets her, they are contacted by the otherworldly characters of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. With their help and with the help of Charles Wallace, they find out where Meg's father is being held. Calvin and Charles Wallace try to fight the monstrous forces imprisoning him, but it is Meg who finally defeats the Monstrous IT.

Upon returning to Earth, Dr. Alex Murry contacts the government and gives them a full report. Because Tessering is just too difficult to control, the Tesseract Project is shut down or significantly scaled back. Alex is probably given a long leave of absence to get reacquainted with his family. Meg and Calvin start to spend a lot more time with each other in high school and outside it. In September 1971, Charles Wallace attends school for the first time...

A Wind in the Door (Published: 1973 - Set in 1972)
(See Review)(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

Charles Wallace, like Meg, has difficulty adjusting to school life, and finds himself frequently bullied. This isn't his biggest problem. The dark forces that he, Meg and Calvin fought on Camazotz now try to destroy him, by attacking his mitochondria. Calvin and Meg get help from a cherubim named Proginoskes and from Mr. Jenkins, the principle at Charles Wallace's school. Using kything (telepathy that is more than just the transference of thoughts, but the sharing of being - now there is no doubt that Meg and Calvin are going to end up married), naming and the power of love and of being, they defeat the dark forces (now referred to as the Echthroi) and save Charles Wallace's life.

Following her son's recovery, Dr. Kate Murry successfully isolates farandolae from mitochondria and is awarded the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, returning to active work for the U.S. Government, Dr. Alex Murry continues his work in temporal physics, eventually experimenting with a prototype time machine. Much to the disapproval of his wife, he takes the prototype home with him for more experiments. This leads to...

Many Waters (Published: 1986 - Set in 1975)
(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

An accident with the time machine sends Sandy and Dennys back to biblical times, where they experience firsthand the events leading up to Noah's flood. They manage to return home unharmed, with help, and probably don't speak about their experience to their parents (and maybe not to Meg or Charles Wallace either). The experience causes them to become more independent of each other. Although they remain close, from this point on each develops more in his own way.

Many Waters focuses on twin brothers Sandy and Dennys Murry. Meg's life in college is mentioned, as is one of the fields of her study (biology -- one of her papers is entitled The Million Doller (sic) question: the chicken or the egg, amino acids or their polymers. Dennys notes "she may be a mathematical genius, but she still can't spell."). Calvin O'Keefe is not mentioned at all, but it is assumed that he is also in college, studying marine biology. Indeed, as he was a couple of years ahead of Meg in high school, he probably started college a year or two before Meg, and is well on his way to his first degree.

Calvin and Meg continue to go through college, with Calvin (without the financial support of his family) going through an accelerated program that resulted in him completing his combined Masters/Ph.D. around 1979 (six years of study -- remember that he is one or two years ahead of Meg in school -- assuming he entered University at seventeen). Meg graduates with a Bachelors Degree (or a Masters Degree, if she goes through a similar sort of acceleration through University as Calvin) in some mathematical field during the same year (five years of study, assuming she enters University at eighteen).

Upon graduation or immediately before (1978 or 1979), Meg Murry marries Calvin O'Keefe. They've clearly been in love with each other for nine years, but we're never told when Calvin proposed to Meg. Where they promised to each other before they went off to University, or did Calvin's (or Meg's?) proposal occur during University? It is implied that Meg and Calvin attend different universities (if they were attending the same school, Sandy or Dennys would probably have said that they were car-pooling; instead, they say that Meg drives to college alone), and thus might have been apart from each other for long periods of time, except for a couple of weeks during the summers of 1973 through 1977.

Once married, Meg and Calvin move into a small apartment in New York City. Within a year, Meg is expecting her first child, just in time for the events of...

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Published: 1978 - Set Thanksgiving 1980)
(See Review)(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

The threat of nuclear war returns, not from the Soviet Union (whose relations with the United States are said to be quite good at this point) but from the South American military dictatorship of Vespugia. Calvin is away giving a groundbreaking paper to a conference in London; Meg, who cannot travel as she is pregnant and recovering from a cold/flu, attends her family's Thanksgiving dinner without him (the first time they have been separated since their marriage). Also visiting the dinner is Calvin's mother. Related, distantly, to Vespugia's dictator, Mad Dog Branzillo, she has been called to the Murry home by the same uncanny force that called Calvin to Meg in A Wrinkle in Time and she gives Charles Wallace key information on how to prevent Branzillo from threatening the destruction of the world.

Through the use of kything, and with the help of the unicorn Gaudior and the hindrance of the Echthroi, Charles Wallace travels back through Calvin's family history and experiences the joys and sorrows of the family generations ago, subtly altering things so that certain "might have beens" take place, and Mad Dog Branzillo is never given a chance to become what he is.

Charles Wallace's actions alter history to the point where Vespugia is run by a more rational leader, and no longer an imminent nuclear threat. On another level, Charles Wallace's actions result in the softening of the character of Calvin O'Keefe's mother. Given Ms. L'Engle's theme of the interconnectedness of all things, and small changes having big impacts, who knows the full extent of Charles Wallace's actions? It could be as good an explanation as any for why the Universe of the Murry family is so different from our own.

The Birth of Meg and Calvin's Children

Polyhymnia O'Keefe (christened by Canon Tallis, a close friend of Calvin) is born about three months later (possibly February 1981). By this time, Meg has decided delay her doctorate. It is suggested in A House Like a Lotus that she did not want her children to find themselves in her shadow the way she felt herself in the shadow of her brilliant mother. It is a decision she will have mixed feelings over for many of the years following.

Poly's birth is followed in quick succession by Charles (1983) and then by Alexander (Xan) (1985), Dennys (Den) (1987), Peggy (possibly short for Margaret) (1989), Johnny (1991) and Mary (also known as "Rosy")(late 1992 or early 1993). Soon after Poly's birth, Calvin pursues his studies of the regenerative abilities of starfish and moves himself and his family to the island of Gaea off the coast of Portugal. It is on this island that Charles and the rest of the children are born. By the age of thirty-five, Calvin has made a considerable name for himself in the field of marine biology. Meg assists him in his work, especially when it comes to handling complex equations.

Charles Wallace fades from the family history at this point. Later books suggest that he is around to pay visits to his nieces and nephews (he is said to be close to his namesake Charles), but he is conspicuously absent in the remaining books. Poly notes in, A House Like A Lotus that he is on a secret mission somewhere, suggesting that he might be carrying on his father's work with the US Government... or possibly doing universally important things against the Echthroi (they fade from the family history too) just like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which.

Arm of the Starfish (Published: 1965 - Set in 1993)
(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

The Echtroi may fade from Calvin and Meg's life, but Calvin's work on the regenerative abilities of the starfish breeds its own form of trouble. The promising and potentially earth-shaking nature of his discoveries are such that it attracts the attention of nefarious people, who go so far as to try to kidnap twelve-year-old Poly O'Keefe. With the help of student assistant Adam Eddington and Calvin's longtime and well-respected friend Canon Tallis, Calvin's family escape unharmed, and his work does not fall into the wrong hands. It remains one of the O'Keefe family's more stressful years, however.

Canon Tallis deserves mentioning, because of the significant role he plays in Arm of the Starfish and other L'Engle novels. Canon Talis is Poly's godfather, and the man who christened her. Therefore, we must conclude that Canon Talis' deep friendship with Calvin extends back into Calvin's University years, given that Poly was conceived barely a year after the receipt of Calvin's doctorate. He was probably a significant influence on Calvin's research, and quite possibly was the person who got Calvin started on the regenerative abilities of starfish in the first place.

Meg, Calvin and their family soon move off of Gaea after the events of Arm of the Starfish and take up residence in Benne Seed, an island off of the coast of South Carolina.

Dragons in the Waters (Published: 1976 - Set in 1994?)
(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

Possibly taking a break from his overwhelming research, Calvin takes his two eldest children, Poly and Charles, for a trip to South America. Unfortunately, he and his children get caught up in a power struggle surrounding a portrait of Simon Bolivar. Quite possibly swearing off vacations altogether, Calvin and his two eldest children return to Benne Seed.

A House Like a Lotus (Published: 1984 - Set in 1997)
(See Review)(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

After the excitement generated by Calvin's work in Arm of the Starfish, it appears as though Calvin manages to win himself and his family some security and much needed privacy. Perhaps Uncle Sandy had something to do with this. Sandy graduated from law school to become a highly successful lawyer, who soon made a name for himself taking on and beating corrupt multinational corporations. He and his Greek wife Rhea (wedding date unknown) are Poly's favourite aunt and uncle, and Sandy is a staunch confidant and protector. It's clear in A House Like a Lotus that this desire to protect extends to Meg and Calvin as well. Perhaps this protection is not just emotional. Sandy's twin, Dennys, is also married and has one daughter, Kate. She and Poly's brother, Charles, switch homes for an extended period throughout Poly's fifteenth and sixteenth years.

Poly's sixteenth year is free of government intrigue as she, uncle Sandy, uncle Dennys, Meg and Calvin are able to spend a lot of time with Maximiliana Horne, a brilliant woman who is dying of a tropical parasite. Through a tragic event, and a trip to Athens and Cyprus, Polly comes of age, and comes into her own as a capable and self-confident young woman.

There are small hints of a marital strain between Meg and Calvin at this point. Maxa notes that Meg seems restless with her life, regretting somewhat her decision to postpone her doctorate until Rosy was in school (which could be as late as 2008, when Meg is fifty-three!). Once alerted to this, Polly also sees that her mother appears tired of her hectic family life. Fortunately, Meg and Calvin are able to weather this small rough period through their deep and longstanding love for each other, and with some assistance from Maxa and Ursula.

An Acceptable Time (Published: 1989 - Set in 1999)
(See Review)(Purchase the paperback or the hardcover)

Calvin's work continues unhindered for at least the next two years, allowing Poly to graduate from high school and consider college without incident. A visit to her grandparents' home in Connecticut, however, reunites her with Zachary (first met in A House Like a Lotus), and causes her to fall through a time gate to a point three-thousand years in the past.

Although it makes sense that Poly had to return to her grandparents' home in order to share a similar time travelling adventure that her parents experienced, Poly's experience is different. Instead of government experiments gone awry, Poly's time trip occurs accidentally, due to a natural occurrence of a time gate. On one level, this is explainable by the fact that Drs. Kate and Alex Murry are now clearly retired (Alex is suffering from bouts of arthritis) and are in their early 70s. It's doubtful that either would have access to such equipment to facilitate Poly's journey. However, the appearance of a naturally occurring time gate close to the same home where Meg and Calvin went off on so many adventures can not be a coincidence. It could well be one reason why Alex located his home where he did initially, so as to assist the Tesseract project in the first place.

The biography of the Murry-O'Keefe family ends here, for now. The latest reports suggest that Madeleine L'Engle is working on a story entitled The Eye Beings to See featuring Meg Murry at fifty (Poly would be twenty-six, Rosy fourteen). Only Madeleine knows where the family goes from here, but all indications are that the Murry-O'Keefes go on to live long and fulfilling lives.

Crossover Characters

One of the many things that upsets this carefully composed chronology are the characters who cross over between this series and the Austin Family series of L'Engle books. These characters include Zachary Gray, Adam Eddington and Canon Tallis. The Austin family series is a separate series of six novels, featuring its own detailed family history. All it would take would be for one of these books to be explicitly set on a particular date, and one of the characters to be given a specific age in relation to that date. The ripple effect would carry through to the other characters and into the Murry-O'Keefe series and knock the whole thing down like a house of cards.

A Severed Wasp and A Ring of Endless Light do the most to upset this chronology. Explicitly set before the end of the twentieth century, A Severed Wasp nevertheless features Suzy Davidson (nee Austin) as married and having four kids. In A Ring of Endless Light, we revisit Adam Eddington exactly one year after the events of Arm of the Starfish. In A Ring of Endless Light, Suzy Austin is thirteen, and is thus the same age as Polyhymnia O'Keefe. Even if we assume that A Wrinkle in Time took place in 1962, suggesting that Suzy was born in 1973, then the earliest that A Severed Wasp can reasonably occur and feature Suzy Austin with four teenaged children is 2007 (or 2015 if we assume that A Wrinkle in Time is set in 1970).

However, Madeleine would probably tell me to just relax and enjoy the books. And so I shall. And I hope that you've enjoyed my attempt to put the Murry-O'Keefe series of novels into a coherent timeline.

Special Thanks

I must thank Marseille Bunk and Karen Funk-Blocher for their kind assistance in proofreading this web page and catching many mistakes.

Links to Other Madeleine L'Engle Resources


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