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Certain Women: A Novel

Certain Women: A Novel

by Madeleine L'Engle


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An award-winning author explores the meaning of family in a novel that draws parallels between the lives of a modern man and an ancient biblical king.

As he struggles with cancer, legendary screen actor David Wheaton contemplates the one role that always eluded him: King David. Comparing his own life to that of the biblical ruler, David recalls his own numerous wives and children, forcing his daughter Emma to confront the memories of her family’s unconventional past.
As David’s loved ones gather to say goodbye to their patriarch, Certain Women masterfully links past and present in an emotional story rich in dramatic tradition, showcasing the struggles—both ordinary and extraordinary—of family life.
From the renowned author of A Wrinkle in Time, Certain Women is a wise and “memorable work” (Kirkus Reviews).

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504049467
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) was an American author of more than sixty books, including novels for children and adults, poetry, and religious meditations. Her best-known work, A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most beloved young adult books of the twentieth century and a Newbery Medal winner, has sold more than fourteen million copies since its publication in 1962. Her other novels include A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Ring of Endless Light. Born in New York City, L’Engle graduated from Smith College and worked in theater, where she met her husband, actor Hugh Franklin. L’Engle documented her marriage and family life in the four-book autobiographical series, the Crosswicks Journals. She also served as librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan for more than thirty years.

Date of Birth:

January 12, 1918

Date of Death:

September 6, 2007

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Place of Death:

Litchfield, CT


Smith College, 1941

Read an Excerpt

Certain Women

A Novel

By Madeleine L'Engle


Copyright © 1992 Crosswicks, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4159-1



And David said to Saul, Let no man's heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine.

And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.

I SAMUEL 17:32, 49

The Portia, a shabbily comfortable fifty-foot boat, was tied up at the dock of a Haida Indian village a day's sail out of Prince Rupert. Emma Wheaton perched on the side of the bunk in the pilothouse, where her father lay propped up on pillows.

"I see Death as somewhat like Goliath," David Wheaton said, "but I am not allowed even a slingshot as I go to meet him." The old actor's voice was still clear and strong. He looked at Emma; at Alice Wheaton, his wife, sturdy in jeans and a red flannel shirt; at Norma Hightree, regal, over six feet tall, seated on the revolving chair by the wheel. Even seated, Norma nearly reached the brass rails installed under the ceiling for use when the sea was rough and the Portia was rolling. "King David is a role I would dearly love to have played."

Norma spoke, her voice calm and deep. "You have more than a slingshot, David. You have your entire life."

"Eighty-seven years." He nodded slowly. "Full years. Full of my work. I have been a good actor."

"You are a good actor, Papa." Emma regarded her father. Despite his age and his loss of weight, he looked like an actor, with his tawny hair still not completely white, his dark green eyes, his fierce nose.

"That is one pebble," David said. He reached out a hand to Alice, who turned slightly toward him, her blue eyes crinkling into her warm smile. "I have been unwise in love — except at the end. All those wives — one more than King David — all my children — and so few left."

He shook his head. "Enough of looking back. It's been an interesting script if nothing else, and I've had the joy of ending my career as King Lear, with my daughter as Goneril —" Now his hand reached toward Emma's, and she took it. "A young Goneril. How old are you?"

With all his children, Emma thought, no wonder he can't keep track of our ages. "Not that young."

"You're a fine actress."

"It's all I know how to do." Her voice was level.

"We're good, the two of us," he said with satisfaction. "Very good. Perhaps that's another pebble."

"Lots of pebbles." Emma squeezed his hand lightly.

"But I never had a chance to play King David. Nik never finished the play."

Niklaas Green. Emma's husband — that was. "No." Emma looked out the windows to the soft wrinkled grey of water, past a couple of weathered fishing boats, one with large black eyes painted on the prow. Her gaze moved on to the land where a small beach was brooded over by great dark trees rising into the cloudy sky. An eagle sat on a high branch, looking down at them.

"Sorry, Em, but it's the only role I've longed to do that never worked out. King David lived a long life, too, and he had more wives than a man should have, and he made every mistake anyone can make. But he danced with joy before the Lord and he made being human a rich and splendid endeavor."

Norma said, "As you have, David."

"Ah, Norma, you know only the best of me."

Norma shook her head slowly. "Oh, no, David, I have a good idea of the worst of you, too."

David's laugh boomed out, still strong, the famous, joyous laugh that had charmed audiences for decades.

Norma rose, looming large in the small pilothouse. "Goliath is only a monster who mimics death, David. You need not fear him."

David looked up at her. Smiled. "I know, Norma. I am not afraid. I have some work still to do, and I hope I will be given time to do it."

"I'm going now," Norma said. "I will see you again."

In the soft light of afternoon David's fine bones pushed sharply against the skin. "That is hardly likely. You know that."

"I will see you again," the Indian woman repeated. She held up her hand in a gesture that could be either greeting or farewell, gave Alice a quick, fierce hug, then took Emma in her arms. "You are good, you and Alice. Good women." She turned and went down the steps to the main cabin and out onto the dock.

Alice's younger brother, Ben, who ran the Portia, met Norma there and walked with her along the dock toward the island. Alice followed them. Emma stayed in the pilothouse with her father.

"I know very little about Norma's life in her village," he said. "Only that she is a personage of great importance. She knows little of my life as an actor. And yet we are close friends. We cut through what we do to who we are."

Emma knelt by the bunk. "I'm glad." She had met Norma Hightree and her husband, Ellis, many years earlier when she had first come to spend a week with her father on his boat, between the end of school and the beginning of summer camp. Ellis had been even taller than Norma, and heavy. They made a formidable pair. They had taken Emma late at night up the mountain that rose behind their village to a lookout where they showed her the stars, brilliant against a black sky. They had pointed out the star that was her guardian, making her feel incredibly protected. When Ellis died, Emma's father continued his friendship with Norma, and whenever Emma was with him on the Portia she looked forward to seeing the Indian woman.

Emma took Norma seriously when she said that she would see David again. But how? They would be leaving the village in a few minutes, going north. David was dying.

Emma rose and turned down the volume on the two radios constantly broadcasting on both the Coast Guard and the open channels, and to whose static-filled buzz her father was addicted. Alice could let the noise slide off her; she had been communicating from island to boat to mainland by radio for most of her sixty-plus years. Emma could not tune out the repetitive sound. "Bald Eagle, Bald Eagle, Bald Eagle," the radio summoned. "Greenhigh Sound, Greenhigh Sound, channel six eight." On and on it went, constant messages from boat to shore to boat. Occasionally there came a "M'aidez! M'aidez!" or May Day, as it was more commonly thought of, and her father's eyes would brighten. Half a dozen times over the years the Portia had been in the vicinity of the call, and once had even rescued a careless teenager from his overturned sailboat.

The Portia looked more like a fishing boat than like a yacht, and was more welcome in villages like Norma's than a yacht would have been. Over the years David Wheaton had made many friends with the inhabitants of the various islands and coves in the Pacific Northwest waters the Portia plied.

The old man's hand, still strong, but thin, stripped of flesh so that it looked like an eagle's claw, came down over his daughter's.

"Papa, do you need anything?" Papa — the childish pronunciation, Poppa.

"Just to know that you are here."

Emma folded her hands so that the ring finger of her left hand was covered. She knew that her father had noticed the absence of the rings, but for these first few weeks on the Portia he had said nothing, and she was not yet ready to talk about Nik, or why she had taken off his rings.

Ben had noticed, had shyly spoken. "Something wrong between you and Nik?" "Oh, Ben, that's the least of my worries right now, with Papa — he's already so much weaker — my own problems are unimportant."

"Em, if you need me, I'm here for you. You know that."

"Yes, Ben. I know that. Thank you."

But she could not talk about Nik to anyone yet.

Alice returned to the pilothouse with a prepared hypodermic needle. "Time for a shot."

"The pain's not bad."

"Good. Remember, it takes far more medication if you wait till the pain's intolerable. Better to keep on top of it this way, so that you remain alert and your own curmudgeonly self."

Alice was a physician, trained at Johns Hopkins in the States, but her practice until she married David Wheaton had been in northwest Canada, her patients mostly loggers, natives (Alice had known Norma long before David had), or fishermen like Ben, her brother. It was because of Alice and Ben that the old actor could have this summer on the Portia.

Emma saw Ben untying the boat. "I'll go help," she said, and went out to the narrow deck. Ben threw her the line and she secured it. When Ben had the little boat safely in deep waters and Alice was at the wheel, she returned to the main cabin. It was time to start dinner. Methodically she rolled flounder in bread crumbs she had seasoned with onions and herbs. Preparing dinner was familiar, understandable.

On the counter was a basket of eggs and a batch of wild greens Norma had brought them. Under the windows of the port side were a worktable, a wood stove, the undercounter fridge, the stove, a sink, and a cupboard. The galley was part of the main cabin. Under the starboard windows was a long, padded seat where, this summer, Ben put his sleeping bag. In front of the seat was a table that could comfortably seat six, maybe eight. Emma and Alice slept in the forward cabin under the pilothouse, where they could hear the old man when he snored, coughed, occasionally moaned. Alice knew when to get out of her sleeping bag to go to him, and when to leave him alone. Emma was unutterably grateful to her stepmother. Alice was far more to Emma than her father's latest wife, Alice with her shock of curly hair which still glinted with touches of gold despite the predominant grey. Her eyes were bright and young in a face finely wrinkled by wind and weather.

Emma stood by the galley watching as the Portia slid through the water, away from the village. She had taken over the cooking when she joined her father and Alice and Ben on the Portia, having made the long train trip across the continent to Vancouver and then traveling the last leg by seaplane. Her presence freed Ben to take care of the boat, and Alice to concentrate on her husband.

Emma slid the flounder into the oven and turned on the gas. The propane-gas tank lay on the roof of the Portia in front of the crow's nest, with copper tubes that fed the stove. She put in half a dozen potatoes — Ben would want more than one; like Nik, he could eat anything and never gain a pound — and was making salad dressing when her father called.

Alice was steering the boat across a placid stretch of water in Queen Charlotte Sound, looking intently ahead of her for deadheads, those great sunken logs which bob along, only a foot or so showing above the water, seemingly innocuous but potentially dangerous for small craft. Then she turned the boat and nosed into an inlet where Ben had put out crab traps, hoping to get enough for at least a crab cocktail before dinner. The long shafts of afternoon light touched Alice's hair, gilding it almost to its original color.

Emma sat down beside her father. He stroked her hair, slightly dank from the salt air. "You shouldn't have turned down an entire summer season," he rebuked.

"I wanted to be with you."

"I'm selfish enough to want you here. But that's sentimentality, and an actress cannot afford that. You could have had a whole season of Shakespeare — Rosalind, Beatrice, Kate, Portia —"

"Papa." Emma held up her hand to silence him. "I've just had nine months of playing Goneril to your Lear, the greatest Lear ever on Broadway." Was that an exaggeration? Perhaps. But there was no denying that David Wheaton's Lear was electrifying.

The old man smacked his lips, as though tasting something pleasant. "At least I'm the oldest. Eighty-seven and still able to hold my lines. I'm happy we did that TV special of it, and in full color, too. It's been a good run, a splendid run. I'm glad you played Goneril and not Cordelia."

Emma nodded agreement. Cordelia, she thought, was a prig. Goneril's pride and ambition made her willing to turn against her father; she was a far more interesting and challenging role.

"Emma, did I push you onto the stage?" he asked. "When my marriage to your mother broke up — I never should have married her. We were too much in competition. You haven't had a mother."

"Hey, Papa. One, no, you didn't push me onto the stage. Acting's in my blood. Two, I had Bahama"— the beloved grandmother she called Bahama when her baby tongue couldn't manage 'Grandmother.' The name stuck; somehow it suited her grandmother, who was large and rawboned and nurturing and forbearing, lavish with embraces. If baby Emma was held, loved, dandled, kissed, touched, played with, it was by Bahama. Emma had been premature and had survived only because Bahama, recently widowed, had come to take care of the baby, and kept her warm between her ample breasts. Elizabeth, Emma's mother, had shuddered. 'She's so little and scrawny I can't bear to touch her.'

Bahama was to all intents and purposes Emma's mother. Once it seemed that Emma was going to live, Elizabeth and David went back to Hollywood to make their famous movie of The Mill on the Floss, far more successful than their Madame Bovary, the movie they had been making when Emma was conceived, and for whose heroine Emma had been named. Bahama, who had expected to go home to Seattle, stayed on in New York to take care of the tiny creature whose life she had saved.

"I let you do all those glossy magazine ads," David said. "It was not a normal life for a child."

"Papa, stop fretting." Emma had not been a cuddly, golden-haired cutie or beauty. Rather, her hair was a light chestnut in color but so fine that it tended toward limpness. She was thin, too thin, despite milkshakes and eggnogs. But her eyes were an amazing gentian color, totally incongruous in her wistful little face, and her smile, when it could be coaxed out of her, lit up the page.

At eleven she had played the child princess in a Broadway production of Pavane, a play based on Ravel's music, and at twelve had been a charming adolescent Celia in As You Like It. Then she sat out most of the years of high school and college, eight years of delight in study: literature, astronomy, philosophy, history, even some physics. Then she was ready to make the transition to the roles for which she was best suited. Offstage she knew herself plain. She knew that many theater children were not able to make it as they grew older. It had not been easy for Emma. Perhaps it was a blessing that she had none of the qualities that make a starlet. Her first real role after college was Viola in an Off-Broadway production of Twelfth Night. She had read the famous "willow cabin" speech for her father.

'Make me a willow cabin at your gate, and call upon my soul within the house; write loyal cantons of contemned love, and sing them loud even in the dead of night ...'

He had looked at her as though in acute pain. 'Emma, this is Viola's big speech. It is what keeps Viola from being an ingenue role.'

'I think the director wants an ingenue.'

'Bullshit. Viola's not a simpering idiot. Why did he cast you?'

'I don't know. Papa —'

'Do you want me to work with you on it?'

'Yes. Sure.'

Over an hour later he was satisfied. And the director was intelligent enough to recognize that the depth Emma was now giving Viola was far better than the coyness he had looked for before. Emma's father was her best teacher, pushing, shoving, never satisfied until he had taken her further and deeper into a role than she had thought she could go. Of her father's eleven children, she was the one who was closest to him, the one who had lived with him through childhood, and her Goneril and his Lear had been a superb collaboration. Emma's Goneril had been no flat villain, but a complex, distorted woman, as caught up in her own tortured vanity as Lear was in his.

She closed her eyes against the pain of knowing that they would never work together again.

"Tea?" Alice suggested. "Fresh camomile?"

David nodded without enthusiasm.

"I'll make it," Emma said.

"Ah, Em, if only we could have done Nik's David play together —" Even though her father had actually never played David, Emma still thought of the ancient king as one of his roles. Some of his identification of himself and his wives and children with the characters in the King David story was excruciatingly painful to Emma. Some of it she viewed with wry amusement. David Wheaton saw Emma's maternal grandfather as the twentieth-century equivalent of the prophet Samuel, who played such a large role in King David's drama. The Reverend Wesley Bowman, Emma's grandpa, was familiarly known as Wes the Wise, Georgia cracker, popular preacher, visionary. Indeed, he resembled an Old Testament prophet, with his wild greying hair and beard, which looked as though he trimmed them with pruning shears. Half hidden by bushy eyebrows were the amazing gentian eyes Emma had inherited. When his daughter, Emma's mother, went to Hollywood, he was devastated, until he had a vision of a dozen grandchildren. But Elizabeth had only the one child, Emma, and Emma loved Grandpa Bowman almost as much as she loved Bahama.


Excerpted from Certain Women by Madeleine L'Engle. Copyright © 1992 Crosswicks, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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