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An Acceptable Time first edition
Author Madeleine L'Engle
Cover artist (hardback)
Country United States
Language English
Series Time Quintet, Polly O'Keefe
Genre Young adult, Science fiction novel
Publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Publication date
October 1, 1989
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 343 pp
ISBN 0-374-30027-5
OCLC 20191102
[E] 20
LC Class PZ7.L5385 Ac 1989
Preceded by Many Waters 

An Acceptable Time is a 1989 young adult science fiction novel by Madeleine L'Engle, the last of her books to feature Polyhymnia O'Keefe, better known as Poly (The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters) or Polly (A House Like a Lotus, An Acceptable Time). Marketed as part of the author's Time Quintet, An Acceptable Time connects Polly's adventures with those of her parents, Meg Murry and Calvin O'Keefe, which take place a generation earlier. The book's title is taken from Psalm 69:13, "But as for me, my prayer is to You, O Lord, at an acceptable time."

Plot summary

Happy to be away from her large family for a while, Polly O'Keefe is spending the autumn with her maternal grandparents, Dr. Kate Murry and Dr. Alex Murry, getting a better education from them in science than she would have received at home. She is grieving the loss of her beloved friend and mentor, Maximiliana Sebastiane Horne. Soon, however, surprising things start to happen, including the unexpected arrival of Zachary Gray, a charming but troubled college student whom Polly met in Greece and dated in Cyprus the year before (in A House Like a Lotus).

Then, while walking near her grandparents' Connecticut home, Polly meets druids Karralys and Anaral and a warrior named Tav, all of whom lived in the area some three thousand years ago. She soon learns that she is not the first person from her time to meet the Murrys' Pre-Columbian neighbors. Bishop Nason Colubra, the brother of a family friend, Dr. Louise Colubra, has been investigating the hieroglyphs found on rocks in nearby, relics of Karralys' time. In doing so, he has also come into repeated contact with Anaral's tribe, the People of the Wind (a tribe that previously appeared in A Swiftly Tilting Planet). The retired bishop is initially reluctant to discuss this, having been met with his sister's skepticism in previous attempts. However, he feels responsible for exposing Polly to the potential dangers of a tesseract of intersecting periods of time.

The Murrys and the Colubras try to protect Polly from being drawn into the past, but although she tries to obey their restrictions on her movements, she continues to encounter Anaral and the others. Karralys and Tav formerly lived in ancient Britain, but have since crossed the ocean and made their home with the People of the Wind. On Samhain, Polly feels a compulsion to visit the Murrys' indoor swimming pool, the modern location of a site considered sacred by Karralys, Anaral, and their tribe. Polly is suddenly transported to the past, where she learns that Tav wants to offer Polly in blood sacrifice in order to avert a drought. Already the People Across the Lake are conducting raids due to the privations of drought, and Tav wants to protect his adopted people. Karralys sends Polly home.

Zachary, however, is intrigued when he learns that the odd people he has seen are from the ancient past. His heart, previously seen as damaged by rheumatic fever in the Austin family novel The Moon by Night, is now so weak that he does not expect to live much longer. On the slight possibility that the solution to his problem lies with the ancient druids, Zach rashly leads Polly back to the star-watching rock, a place where Polly found herself in the past once before. Polly and Zach are drawn through a time gate and trapped in ancient Connecticut, with neither the Murrys nor Louise Colubra there to help Polly out of a potentially fatal situation. Tav soon changes his mind about whether his goddess wants Polly to be sacrificed. Her primary danger is not from the People of the Wind, but from their neighbors across the lake, where the drought is more severe.

The People Across the Lake conduct another raid, and leave behind two of their injured members as they withdraw. One of them, Klep, is expected to be his tribe's future leader. He develops an attachment to his healer, Anaral, and learns from Polly the concept of love. The other injured man, Brown Earth, persuades Zachary to cross the lake with him during the night. Tynak, the current leader of the People Across the Lake, promises to let the tribe's medicine man heal Zachary's heart if he helps bring Polly to them. Zach agrees. He participates in another raid, with Polly's capture as the goal. Polly tries to convince Zach that the People Across the Lake intend to sacrifice her for her blood, but he refuses to admit this. Polly escapes, but returns for Zachary's sake. Ultimately, Polly's spirit of self-sacrifice and love, accompanied by the timely return of rain on her captors' side of the lake, wins out as a better way to interact with the Divine than an offering of death. The two tribes agree to unite and help each other. Zachary repents his betrayal of Polly, and his heart is physically healed (at least in part) before they return to their own time. When they return Polly decides that she and Zachary shouldn't see each other any more.

Major characters

  • Alexander Murry — an astrophysicist in the employ of the Federal government of the United States in earlier books, he appears to be semi-retired (or at least self-employed) in An Acceptable Time. His theories about the tesseract and "tessering", first seen in A Wrinkle in Time, continue to be his life's work. He suffers from arthritis and sometimes rides a tractor on the family's farm land. He is Polly's grandfather.
  • Katherine Murry — a microbiologist and Nobel laureate, Polly's grandmother works from the lab located at her rural home. Although she has an electron microscope, her work in recent years consists primarily of thought experiments.
  • Polly O'Keefe — The eldest child of Meg Murry and Calvin O'Keefe, Polly was named Polyhymnia by her eccentric godfather, Canon Tallis, but uses the name Polly in later books (and Poly in earlier ones). Polyhymnia is the name of one of the Greek muses. Tall, thin and red-haired like her father, Polly has only recently become attractive to adolescent boys. She speaks a number of languages, and her facility for learning them enables her to learn Ogam well enough to communicate with the ancient tribes.
  • Dr. Louise Colubra — The Murry family doctor and a close friend of the family, she lost her husband many years ago and never remarried. Louise the Larger, a telepathic snake, was named for her. She consulted with Dr. Kate Murry about Charles Wallace's "mitochondritis" in A Wind in the Door, but is generally averse to fantastical explanations for events around her. Sister of retired Bishop Nason Colubra.
  • Bishop Nason Colubra — Louise's brother, a retired bishop and amateur archaeologist, he studies Ogam artifacts and is the first character to encounter the time-traveling druids of the People of the Wind, sometime prior to the start of the novel. He is the third of L'Engle's characters to be based on a real person, in this case David Somerville, the retired archbishop of Vancouver.
  • Zachary Gray — An on-again, off-again student, Zach is interning in a law office at the beginning of An Acceptable Time. His boss there is interested in Ogam writing and Zach learns enough of this language to communicate somewhat with the People of the Wind and the People Across the Lake. Zachary grew up with an abundance of money and freedom but little love or stability, and vacillates between his desires for redemption and self-destruction. As of An Acceptable Time, his desire for self-preservation in the face of serious heart disease overrides all other considerations. Charming, exciting, unpredictable and emotionally needy, Zach brings out the best in Polly, but she cannot save him from himself.
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