Released: September 30, 1994
Pages: 336 pages (paperback)
Theme(s): Conservation, environmental protection, patriotism, authoritarian governments vs. democracy, post-Cold War, world conflict
Genre(s): YA / Contemporary / Fiction
Age Group: 12+
The Austins have settled back into their beloved home in the country after more than a year away. Though they had all missed the predictability and security of life in Thornhill, Vicky Austin is discovering that slipping back into her old life isn’t easy. She’s been changed by life in New York City and her travels around the country while her old friends seem to have stayed the same. So Vicky finds herself spending time with a new friend, Serena Eddington—the great-aunt of a boy Vicky met over the summer.
Aunt Serena gives Vicky an incredible birthday gift—a month-long trip to Antarctica. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But Vicky is nervous. She’s never been away from her family before. Once she sets off though, she finds that’s the least of her worries. She receives threatening letters. She’s surrounded by suspicious characters. Vicky no longer knows who to trust. And she may not make it home alive.
Unlike with The Arm of the Starfish, I could remember the first time I read Troubling a Star. I don’t know why, but I just remember I read in in a big hardcover format. Maybe because this book was published in the 1990s, the library still had a first-edition hardcover copy with the dust jacket. I’m pretty sure I read this one around 8th grade and still remember some of the stuff that really resonated with me.
Specifically, I remember really relating to Vicky about being ignorant of what was going on in the world internationally. Since about 6th grade, standardized reading assessments had always recommended I read more non-fiction, newspapers, etc. I had been really adverse to that kind of thing when I was younger. I was happy to keep my head in the clouds, much like Vicky! I never saw it as a bad thing, maybe because of these books (and similar ones)!
Anyway, this book is very different from many of L’Engle’s other works stylistically and tonally. I think it was because so much time had passed since she’d written about Vicky Austin. I feel like she may have known this was the last time she’d write about Vicky considering how this book finds the girl in such tremendous danger that is heightened by the naivety for which she is cherished in earlier books.
I rated this book 3.5 stars, primarily because I found the novel dragged for me at certain parts. I’ll be honest, the major appeal of rereading this book was to continue reading about Adam, but he is barely present in this book. Regardless, I think this novel has some important lessons and a message I find really important. (And after having read Dragons in the Waters, I look upon this book with more appreciation.)
This book is set a little over a year after A Ring of Endless Light (reviewed last week) but was published about 14 years after. You might wonder why I make a note of the years between the books, and it is because I find it helpful when I’m considering character consistency in the books. For this book, I think it is integral because it’s the final that features the beloved Vicky Austin.
We get to see the Austin family settle back into their home in Thornhill after a year away in New York (see The Young Unicorns) and their final summer with their beloved grandfather (see A Ring of Endless Light). Vicky has found it hard to fit back into her school where the kids seem less cultured and less eager to branch outside of their hometown.
Luckily, Adam Eddington connects her with his (great) Aunt Serena. She fills a void left by the loss of her grandfather and helps keep Vicky connected with Adam who attends college in California. Vicky learns that her Adam is the third in his family, a proud line of men who worked in science. His immediate predecessor, Aunt Serena’s son, vanished in Antarctica after performing crucial work on the continent.
After receiving the generous gift of passage to Antarctica to visit Adam Eddington where he has an internship, Vicky finds herself naturally drawn into the mystery of what happened to Adam II and unwittingly into the politics behind his work on the continent. Before she leaves for Antarctica, she begins receiving mysterious messages in her locker at school. The threatening notes only increase the closer she gets to Antarctica, coming alongside Adam’s increasing cryptic letters that seem to signal his lack of interest in her.
Much of Troubling a Star is set in the Vespugia (a fictional South American country run by a power-hungry dictator) and aboard the Argosy, a scientific crew ship that hosts an eclectic bunch of people interested in Antarctica for variety of personal reasons. Vicky finds herself unexpectedly thrown into danger where people mistake her naivety as a disguise of something that threatens their plans to exploit the continent for their country’s own gain.
…The planet has been sending us multiple messages, and the powers that be have ignored them. So it’s up to us, and my guess is that when you’ve finished this trip you’ll feel as protective of this amazing land as I do…
I loved the insight into the politics surrounding this continent in the 20th century. It’s not something I knew much about and I’m interested in learning more. I don’t know when exactly the book is set, but I can only imagine the environment is even more threatened now, which is especially sad considering much of this book is concerned with educating readers, through the characters, about how important it is they take what they learn aboard the Argosy home to protect this land from the devastation that in 2018 seems inevitable given the current U.S. political climate.
Before I get started, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t admit I thought this book was rather clumsy on first impression. It’s very different from L’Engle’s other works, for the two reasons I’ll elaborate on below. First, she experimented in this book with a new style of storytelling that I found somewhat effective in keeping my interest piqued at the start of each chapter.
This is the first book of L’Engle’s that I’ve read that jumps back and forth between a current danger and the events leading up to that present day drama. Most of the story is told in flashbacks. From the beginning we see Vicky has been stranded on a glacier and is waiting for someone to realize she is missing and return for her before it’s too late. She doesn’t reveal what exactly led to her being stranded on the glacier, so we can only guess until the end of the book where her flashbacks catch up to the moment she is saved.
The second reason this book felt very different from her others is that I picked up on a sense of urgency to speak about environmental protection. This is not the first of L’Engle’s books to get political. I think she does it very cleverly by creating fictional countries that stand in for the ones she was truly critical of at the time, Vespugia representing unstable South American countries with dictators and Zlatovica representing the unfortunate countries Russia hid under its Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
This book is very critical, and rightly so, of people who act blindly for the advancement of their own country at the expense of the rest of the world. It’s clear that L’Engle was trying to teach readers of this book about Antarctica, to foster the same kind of love I can only imagine she felt for this formidable land and its creatures. I applaud the effort, but as someone who first and foremost looks at the story at the heart of a novel, I found the environmental message which took away from the story I would’ve loved more from.
My biggest takeaway from this book, from the writing perspective, is that I found myself thinking about how I’d go about writing YA contemporaries like L’Engle in 2018. The world is still a dangerous place, Antarctica is far worse off than it was in the 90s, there are even more problems facing young people today. I feel like L’Engle’s books are not just stories you’re meant to gobble but time capsules with insight into the period in which they were written that we can read not just for enjoyment but with a critical eye…
I hope you’re enjoying these reviews if you’ve been keeping up with them. In case you weren’t aware, I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite books by Madeleine L’Engle this month (see my reviews of A Ring of Endless Light and The Arm of the Starfish).
Next week I’ll be sharing one more Madeleine L’Engle book review for Dragons in the Waters. To be honest, I didn’t really like it and didn’t really want to promote it on my blog. So it’ll be a different kind of review for me. To foil that book, I slightly adjusted course this month to fit in The City of Beasts by Isabel Allende, the book review of which I will share next week as well!
Have you read Troubling a Star? If so, what’d you think?!