Old Favorites: The Arm of the Starfish, by Madeleine L’Engle

Everyone knows Madeleine L’Engle from A Wrinkle in Time, unquestioningly her most famous book. Some people even remember Meet the Austins, about a family with four children going through some issues.  My personal favorite of her works is A Ring of Endless Light–which I reread at least every couple of years.  Whether you’re reading her science fiction, realistic fiction or issue-driven novels, her characters practically jump off the page as people you would want to know in your life.  There’s a reason she won a Newbery Award, a Newbery Honor, and collected a variety of other literature prizes.

However, some of her books have sort of faded into the background of children’s and teen literature. And Both Were YoungCamilla. The Young Unicorns.  (all of which I love, of course.) These are all still great books and worthy of attention,  but there are so many books out there, that not every book can remain in the public eye forever. So some of Ms. L’Engle’s books have slipped off the radar of current readers, although most librarians and some teachers still remember.  My mission (and yours, if you choose to accept it) is to keep plugging those books so that they don’t just disappear into the far-too-big out of print status.  So I’m starting with The Arm of the Starfish, originally published in 1965.

* * *

At the beginning of The Arm of the Starfish, marine biology student Adam Eddington is  about to depart on a flight to Portugal to spend the summer studying with the world-famous scientist Dr. O’Keefe on the island of Gaea.  (Now, not to spoil the surprise for anyone, but I have to just insert here that I read this book four or five times before I realized that Dr. O’Keefe is the all-grown-up Calvin from A Wrinkle in Time. Talk about a “d’oh!” moment. It doesn’t make any difference in the story, really. But it’s an interesting tidbit to remember.)

Adam is a little nervous to be going so far away, even though he’s very interested in the work he’ll be doing assisting Dr. O’Keefe. When his flight is delayed, he’s astonished to have a beautiful girl sit down beside him and strike up a conversation…and even more surprised when she warns him about Dr. O’Keefe. According to Kali, Dr. O’Keefe is untrustworthy, unreliable and probably up to something underhanded. She points out a clergyman–Canon Tallis–standing nearby with a young red-headed girl, and says he’s a phony working for Dr. O’Keefe. After the conversation, Adam’s head is reeling, and he’s not sure who to trust.

When the plane is diverted and Adam is almost arrested in Spain, he’s rescued by Canon Tallis and the girl, Poly, who turns out to be Dr. O’Keefe’s daughter. Instead of making things clearer for Adam though, it just makes everything more mysterious. People are having cryptic conversations over his head, and sharing significant glances.  Then, while in his charge, Poly disappears. Kali shows up and helps Adam to retrieve her…but Poly is at Kali’s father’s home, and Adam isn’t sure what exactly her motives are. His uncertainty is only cemented by his tentative friendship with Joshua,  a young man working for the American Embassy.

By the time Adam arrives on the island to work with Dr. O’Keefe on regeneration of starfish, there are more mysterious events, more random clues, and Adam learns that something odd is going on in the laboratories of Dr. O’Keefe.  But who can he trust? What is Dr. O’Keefe really studying?  Will Adam ever find his way out of this dangerous situation?

* * *

I loved this book. I loved it when I first read it, and I love it now. The characters, from Kali to Canon Tallis to Dr. O’Keefe all have secrets. Even young Poly has something she’s hiding. Each character has distinct motivations and reasons for why they do what they do, and their stories twine around each other. The mystery is unraveled in bits and pieces, but all the elements were right there. As in all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books, there’s a strong sense of right and wrong, of faith, and of justice.

Adam Eddington was first introduced in this book, but also makes appearances in A Ring of Endless Light and Troubling a Star. (Most of L’Engle’s characters cross over into at least one other book, and often more.)  His story crosses over with both of L’Engle’s famous families–the Murrey/O’Keefes (see the covers above) and the Austins.

Readers who enjoy mysteries, marine biology, spies, and/or strong characters will enjoy this book. I read it in fifth grade, but since Poly is twelve and Adam is seventeen, anyone between those ages would probably enjoy it as well. It’s  thought-provoking and could be a good parent/child book club selection, along with A Ring of Endless Light.  Really, any of L’Engle’s books would be a great jumping off point for sharing and discussion.

So…read. Enjoy! And then, let me know what you think.



2 thoughts on “Old Favorites: The Arm of the Starfish, by Madeleine L’Engle

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