Another win for Madeleine L’Engle, the mystery writer. Dragons in the Waters, like The Arm of the Starfish (1965), presents a well-structured, interesting mystery set in exotic climes, this time aboard a steam cruiser headed from America to Venezuela. Again, Poly O’Keefe, Calvin and Meg’s oldest daughter, is a central character, this time joined by her two-year-younger brother Charles, whose dreams are sometimes visions. This tendency to the paranormal is artfully introduced in The Arm of the Starfish, when Charles’s seemingly irrational tears are noted as foreshadowing crisis: in that case, the death of a friend. In Dragons in the Waters, his dreams help steer the children’s understanding of the complex relationships between the adults aboard the ship, and ultimately the informal investigation of the murder of one of them. The plot is tight and leaves no loose ends; the characterization is up to L’Engle’s usual high standards.
One interesting aspect of Dragons in the Waters (that is also present in a significant degree in A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), which shares other characteristics) is the exploration of an indigenous culture, in this case the fictional Quiztano tribe. As in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, L’Engle does not tackle the lived experiences of a real indigenous tribe, but nonetheless does present a sympathetic relationship between the more forward-thinking Americans (i.e.: the Murry-O’Keefe family and their friends) and historically disadvantaged cultures. I would love to see what Native American reviewer Debbie Reese thinks of these texts and L’Engle’s representation of indigenous cultures… From my privileged, very White perspective, I think she has done a good job. Her Quiztanoes are healers. While the ancestor of the children’s friend Simon is responsible for helping the Quiztanoes to build “Caring Houses” (explicitly different from hospitals), which seems like yet another “White-man-teaches-the-Native-a-better-way” trope, L’Engle is careful to have Quentin Phair—the ancestor—be a flawed individual, with some positive ideals. The balance is there in his life as well as his accomplishments; all he brings to the Quiztanoes is a sense of how to strengthen their own culture and way of living so that seven generations later it can still exist in a world dominated by American and European powers. Ultimately, their culture is shown to provide for Simon what American society no longer can, which is a very powerful commentary on what really matters in life.