Meet the Austins, Madeleine L'Engle, Vanguard Press, 1960, 191 pp
THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ
When Meet the Austins was published in 1960, Madeleine L'Engle was two years away from publishing her break out book A Wrinkle in Time. Somewhere I read that she was quite discouraged as an author at this time, even though she had been writing stories since childhood. She got published but prior to Wrinkle in Time her books had not sold well. In the long run, Meet the Austins grew into her second most well-known series.
I loved this book. It has all the charm of my favorite childhood book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but is set in contemporary times. L'Engle had a rather sad and lonely childhood, spent mostly in boarding schools. She must have channeled all her longing for a close family life into this book.
The Austins live in comfortable but not overly prosperous conditions in a rambling house somewhere outside of New York City. Mr Austin is a medical doctor, Mrs Austin a stay-at-home mom. Four kids, two dogs, several cats. Classical music, books (their mother reads to all four every night before bed even though the littlest is four and the oldest in high school.) An uncle who lives in the city is an artist and Mrs Austin's BFF, Elena, is a touring pianist.
Into this idyllic scene comes seven-year-old Maggy, who has just been orphaned and has no where to go. Maggy was the daughter of one of Elena's friends but since Elena is often touring, the Austins take her in. The little orphan is a spoiled brat who behaves badly so the Austins tame her with love and their special brand of discipline, but not before she manages to bring turmoil and even danger to the family.
The story is predictable, narrated in the first person of Vicky, an observant 12-year-old who sounds much like L'Engle, but the tone is an indescribable mix of common sense and warmth. I can't imagine any reader not falling for this family and wanting to be part of it.
Interesting biographical fact: L'Engle and her husband adopted a seven-year-old girl in 1957. The child's parent who left her an orphan had been a close friend of Madeleine's, who by 1957 had a 10-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son.
Meet the Austins is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)