Well, I am glad I listened to my friend’s sincere request that I read The Arm of the Starfish (1965) and Dragons in the Waters (1976) before I abandon Madeleine L’Engle… and I find it extremely interesting that The Arm of the Starfish was written between A Wrinkle in Time (1962) and A Wind in the Door (1973), in fact, only three years (so, for an author, fairly immediately) after A Wrinkle in Time. The story centres on young Adam Eddington, who has been sent to Europe to work with Dr. O’Keefe (Calvin, that is). There, he is caught up in corporate intrigues and torn between the alluring young Kali and Calvin and Meg’s eldest daughter, Poly.
The Arm of the Starfish is not science fiction, nor is it the questionable fantasy that L’Engle engaged in later. It is, in fact, pure espionage, delivered successfully to a younger reading audience. My one disappointment was young Adam’s inability to discern the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” Granted he is only 16, and granted he is enticed by a beautiful young socialite, but with his years of association with “Old Doc” Didymus, you think that he’d have developed a sufficient degree of loyalty not to be immediately and disastrously swayed by the first pretty face that came along. He is presented as a relatively street-smart New York youth, but this characterization is not delivered in his actions or attitudes. L’Engle should have cast him as only naïve, and there would have been less of a problem. Apart from this discrepancy, though, the novel is very successful.
Taken as a pure, unadulterated mystery, Arm of the Starfish satisfies. It has the requisite number of players—leaders and followers—and a premise that was valid not only in 1965, but is still today: corporate power is unassailable, often even for governmental agencies. Adam gets caught in the middle of a corporate attempt to steal scientific research, and in the end learns a number of valuable lessons about what really matters in life. L’Engle manages to depart from her usual strong Christian stance to include both admirable and corrupt church officials and a very positively presented atheist as part of her cast. That the atheist dies is perhaps problematic, unless you believe the underlying theological position of the novel, which is far more humanist than others of her texts. Overall, I would highly recommend The Arm of the Starfish to young readers wanting an exciting and yet ideologically supportive text. It is unlike anything by L’Engle I have yet read.