Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

dragonsReleased: April 1, 1976
Pages: 326 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Fate and destiny, family history, shared human consciousness, value of ancestors, overcoming one’s past, finding one’s place
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+

★★1/2

A stolen heirloom painting…a shipboard murder…Can Simon and the O’Keefe clan unravel the mystery?

Thirteen-year-old Simon Renier has no idea when he boards the M.S. Orion with his cousin Forsyth Phair that the journey will take him not only to Venezuela, but into his past as well. His original plan to return a family heirloom, portrait of Simon Bolivar, to its rightful place is sidetracked when cousin Forsyth is found murdered. Then, when the portrait is stolen, all passengers and crew become suspect.

Simon’s newfound friends, Poly and Charles O’Keefe, and their scientist father help Simon to confront the danger that threaten him. But Simon alone must face up to his fears. What has happened to the treasured portrait? And who among them is responsible for the theft and the murder?

Forward

I decided to read Dragons in the Waters after Troubling a Star this month 1) because I had already owned it, 2) because it was another novel set at sea, and 3) I wondered if I’d get The Arm of the Starfish vibes, considering it’s another book that features another male protagonist who comes into contact with the young and precocious Poly O’Keefe (Meg Murray’s daughter).

I feel I remember starting this book, but I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I own it in a fairly nice condition in an older cover print. I just don’t remember when I bought it. There are a few other Madeleine L’Engle books I own but haven’t read and have since decided to keep despite the fact I’d never read them. These include the books from the Time Quartet, Many Waters and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I’ve given them both a shot in the past, but they’re much heavier science fiction and trippy in a way I don’t like.

Not knowing why I had yet to read (or didn’t remember) Dragons in the Waters, I hoped it would nicely compliment the other L’Engle works I knew I wanted to read and showcase this month on Betwined Reads. Unfortunately, I did not really enjoy this book and actually thought about not reviewing it. But I didn’t my time spent trudging through the book to go to waste, and turned my experience into a teachable by attempting to explain what went wrong for me. So here is the review for the book I rated 2.5 stars.

My Thoughts

That’s right; this is Madeleine L’Engle novel that I did not really like or enjoy very much. I found the plot overcomplicated and the novel cluttered with useless characters that seemed were only present to serve as red herrings to the murder mystery. It’s also a novel that I don’t think would really appeal to children, despite the young characters in the novel. They’re all so unusually bright, intuitive, and precocious.

The novel opens with 13-year-old Simon Renier who is boarding a ship for a trip to Venezuela accompanied by a long-lost relative who just bought a family heirloom from his legal guardian and great aunt Leonis. He has been raised by this elderly but wise woman since he lost his parents. Poly and Charles O’Keefe comment that Simon seems like he’s from another era because of his isolation from other children. He’s a kind, intelligent, and polite boy that was raised in near poverty but with a woman who is a relic of Southern aristocracy.

…Neither Mr. Theo nor Aunt Leonis would want him to moan and groan, and he didn’t intend to. But when a memory flickered at the corners of his mind he had learned that it was best to bring it out into the open; and rather than making him sorry for himself, it helped him get rid of self-pity…

This book explores many different character points-of-view, not just staying over Simon’s shoulder. We see what his Aunt Leonis gets up to while he’s away and also get to know the intimate side of other characters on the ships that their fellow passengers don’t get to see. At first, I thought all these older side characters were just there as red herrings, but upon further reflection I realize that each of them come to terms with something in their past that was haunting them while aboard the ship.

Many of the scenes with characters I was excited to see show up in this novel felt more like they were mere cameos. I loved Mr. Theo in The Young Unicorns (a review for which is now coming later this year!) and I love “Uncle Father”, a.k.a. Canon Tallis, but their parts were so minuscule in this book. Canon Tallis in particular swooped in like Hercule Poirot, seemingly just to tell everyone what he has deduced based on his interviews with a few central characters.

This book, like Troubling a Star, has some political, social, and environmental commentary, which I have since learned is typical of a L’Engle novel, but it’s done a lot better in other of her works. If I had to decide on what is the big take away from this novel, I couldn’t tell you. That’s just how jumbled everything was in my opinion. I just found this book over-long and lacking in a unified message. There’s still a lot of heart in this book, though, and if you have patience you might be able to see this one through.

Craft

I do not know anything about Madeleine L’Engle’s writing life or insight on the work that goes into creating her books, so much of what I will say here (about Dragons in the Waters specifically, not her others works) is speculation. Something about this book feels like it was a written with less regard for plot and more reliance upon formula of elements that make a murder mystery.

If I had more time or the inclination, I think it would be a fun experiment to try and rewrite this novel with a stronger plot outline. The heart of the story is about Simon discovering who his ancestor was and how past injustices have drawn Simon to Venezuela. I think that’s a strong hook for an intriguing story. I’m all for stories where ancestors’s past actions influence the destinies of current day characters (see L’Engle do it better in Troubling a Star!)

Unfortunately L’Engle complicates this story by having a lot of side characters with unique histories that help advance Simon’s destiny and provide red herrings to the murder mystery. These side characters take up a lot of page time, without interesting me much in the slightest.

One thing I really didn’t like is how L’Engle called hispanic people Latins. I’ve never heard that before, but it read to me similarly to the way it sounds when old white people call black people negroes. I don’t at all think it was intentional racism, and I’m aware that it was a different time, but this word gnawed at me in a peculiar way. Grouping people colloquially by a name that specifies race or color so explicitly is not really something we do anymore.

Also, there were subtle implications that race was related to temperament. Many of the characters in this book were of mixed heritage, but there were specific aspects of their character/personality that L’Engle explicitly links to their hispanic roots. None of these instances were derogatory in any way, but I don’t think anyone would appreciate someone placing so much emphasis on a racial or ethnic background to explain who a person is or how they act. Even if it’s meant as a compliment.

I appreciate that L’Engle loved writing novels were American came into contact with other parts of the world and people of different nationalities. Her books always praise people based on their goodness and not their education, race, or economics. Nevertheless, this book serves as a reminder that even the most well-meaning of writers need to be careful in writing people who are of different identities.

Outgoing Message

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little series if you’ve been keeping up with each review thus far. This marks the final review I’ll be doing of Madeleine L’Engle’s works until later this year when I get to The Young Unicorns (a cosy autumnal read).

I didn’t imagine that these posts would bring in much traffic, as Madeleine L’Engle’s been gone for a while now and YA has changed so much. I used to idealize YA written in the past. I loved reading how teenagers lived before the technology and social media that emerging when I was still in middle school. I’ve realized I’m searching for something whenever I reach for a L’Engle book, although don’t ask me what that is. I’m still trying to figure that out.

Next up is my review of The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende, a fantastic hispanic author! If you want to catch up on the reviews that came before this one, here they are linked below:

A Ring of Endless Light

The Arm of the Starfish

Troubling a Star

Have you read Dragons in the Waters? If so, what’d you think?!

Thank you for reading!
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