Posted by: Kerry Gans | April 7, 2011

Camazotz, USA

Some images in books stay with you for a long time. I find that many of the most lasting images have come from books I read as a child—perhaps because children are so impressionable.

One of my favorite authors as a child was Madeline L’Engle, particularly her Murray family series. The other day as I was taking a walk, I saw something that reminded me powerfully of an image in L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

In A Wrinkle In Time, the Murray children land on the planet Camazotz. At first it seems comforting, familiar, until they start to notice that all the houses are identical, all the mother figures could be the same woman, and all the children are playing in coordinated isolation. As the Murrays walk down the street, they notice a single child playing in front of each house. Every child is bouncing a ball—and the eerie part is that each ball is bouncing at exactly the same moment. The children and balls are all moving in perfect unison, as if controlled by a single mind.

I am not the first person* to equate L’Engle’s identical Camazotz houses with the sprawling suburbia of America. The fact that we often refer to subdivisions as “cookie-cutter” homes means that everyone understands the assembly-line mentality that has bled so much of the individuality out of our lives. The mind-numbing sameness of the houses is not, however, the image that struck me the other day.

Basketball nets stood in front of a dozen houses on a single street. As I watched, children came out with their basketballs and started shooting hoops. A single child at each basket. Seven of them, in all. They never even looked at each other, although they could all obviously see each other (since I could see all of them at once). And although they were not in unison, I could hear the sameness of their play—bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish.

No so long ago, all these boys would have been down at the neighborhood basketball court, scrimmaging against each other, learning to play together, fight together, and settle their differences. Or there would have been only one net on the street, and the whole group would have gathered there. Now they played alone.

Of course, that was a single moment on a single day. Perhaps at other times these boys do play together—I cannot say. But as I walked along that façade of a neighborhood, I shivered. In spite of L’Engle’s warning in 1962, we are not that far from Camazotz.

*Hettinga, Donald R. (1993). Presenting Madeleine L’Engle. New York: Twayne Publishers. pp. 27. ISBN 0-8057-8222-2.

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