Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Review - Meet the Austins

Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle was the first book published in the Austin family series which also includes The Moon by Night, The Twenty-Four Days before Christmas, The Young Unicorns, A Ring of Endless Light, Troubling a Star, and the short story, "An Austin Family Christmas." Although Meet the Austins was published in 1960, I never read the book as a child. I did read a lot of other L'Engle books including the Murry family series and the Camilla books, but somehow or other the Austin books never caught my eye. I first read the Austin books as an adult in my 20's rather haphazardy without regard to chronological order or the order of publication but just whatever I happened to see on the library shelves first. Recently I decided to reread the series in the order of publication.

I remember Meet the Austins as an easy read about a loving family that pretty much gets things right as they live their lives in the world with its typical ups and downs. I was not an unschooler when I read it before, and I didn't have such a well defined life philosophy as I do now. I am happy to say that I still think the book is a good read and definitely suitable for "modern youth."

Although the book was published in 1960, there is nothing in this book to "date" it. I quite honestly could have been reading a book about children in the 21st century. OK, there are no computers or cell phones, but I have read lots of books recently that do not make mention of modern technology. The book has long chapters, and although it is not difficult to read, the flow does not mimic most of the popular novels currently being published targeting 4-6th graders. Those who are use to short, snappy chapters and to-the-point sentences, might need to get use to the longer attention span required for an older book.

Now onto the story. The book is really good. It is about a family with four kids aged 4-15 living in the country. They take in a fifth child whose parents have both died until other arrangement can be made for her. Her personality does not blend easily into the family, and the primary plot of the novel is her and the family's adaptation to the situation. Themes include the importance of love, consistency, and safety in our lives; and the importance of diversity/nonconformity in society.

How did the book mesh with my life philosophy? Well, the parents spank their kids. I would not spank my kids. I do understand the theory behind spanking though, and I do not think it is any worse than other punishment like time outs as long as it is carried out in a thoughtful manner. My point is that one shouldn't punish their kids at all. The parents use a few other methods of punishment that turn me off too, like making their kids spend time away from the family when they have done something wrong and not letting the siblings comfort each other. There is also an overriding sense in the book that crying is a bad thing to do. I cry a lot, and it is not at all bad for me. (If I didn't cry, I would be likely to do worse things.)

In spite of the parenting techniques exhibited in the book, the children are well loved, well adjusted, and for the most part happy. The book definitely has a "good family" feel. The kids' interactions with each other are very loving, ideal even. They are still realistic though; the siblings occasionally get angry at each other and make mistakes.

As in all of L'Engle's books that I remember, there is a bit of spiritual underflow in this book. L'Engle was very spiritual herself and a member of the Episcopalian church. The spirituality is not of the "hit you over the head" with theology type though, but more a clear belief that God is in charge and that he will take care of us and make sure that everything is OK in the end. I feel that the spirituality in this book would not offend anyone, and if anyone disagreed with the statements made, it would be a good discussion starter about spiritual beliefs. Having said that, in this particular book, I think there is too much religion to make it a "the whole class" has to read book in a public school environment although having it as a part of a classroom library would be great.

I would recommend this book to my children. It could lead to great discussions about families, parenting, and spirituality.

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