Chelsea Clinton has lived an unusual life, but the stories she shared in her speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night were meant to make her, and her parents, seem more ordinary. Pop culture helped in that effort. She spoke of Hillary reading Goodnight Moon to Chelsea and Chugga Chugga Choo Choo to Chelsea’s daughter. She referenced Bill binge-watching Police Academy with her. And she brought up a classic science-fiction novel:
I remember one week talking incessantly about a book that had captured my imagination, A Wrinkle in Time. Only after my parents had listened to me would they then talk about what they were working on, education, healthcare, what was consuming their days and keeping them up at night.
It is quite, yes, ordinary that teenage Chelsea might have been smitten with Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 book, a young-adult fiction touchstone. But it’s possible to read greater significance into the mention of this particular young-adult-fiction touchstone on the night when her mother became the first female major-party presidential candidate.
“Bookish girls tend to mark phases of their lives by periods of intense literary character identification,” wrote Pamela Paul in a 2012 New York Times column. “For those who came of age any time during the past half-century, the most startling transformation occurred upon reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning classic, A Wrinkle in Time. … It was under L’Engle’s influence that we willed ourselves to be like Meg Murry, the awkward girl who suffered through flyaway hair, braces, and glasses but who was also and to a much greater degree concerned with the extent of her own intelligence, the whereabouts of her missing scientist father, the looming threat of conformity and, ultimately, the fate of the universe.”
The parallels between Meg Murry and adolescent Chelsea Clinton are obvious from that quote alone, right down to the description of braces and unruly hair. As Lindsay Lowe noted for The Atlantic in 2013, Meg is an introverted, brainy heroine rather than a spunky, hotheaded one, a distinction that likely appeals to both Clinton women. And Meg, like Chelsea, is the daughter of two very high-powered parents—a spacetime-hopping astrophysicist dad and a microbiologist mother who eventually wins a Nobel Prize. There are extra-textual comparisons to be made, too: L’Engle once said that the novel was originally rejected by dozens of publishers, partly for the reason that it “had a female protagonist in a science-fiction book, and that wasn’t done”—a gender barrier of a different sort than the one broken last night.
Dig more into the book’s plot and you find other levels on which it’s a fitting thing to have invoked at the DNC. Meg travels through wormholes searching for her missing father, who’s trapped by a force known as IT, an embodiment of evil that can control peoples’ minds. Christian faith figures in throughout her struggle, including when Meg is told to turn to 1 Corinthians 1:27: “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” How does she eventually defeat IT? By using the only thing she has and IT does not: love. The force, in other words, that this week’s convention has repeatedly announced trumps hate.