Polly O'Keefe and Zachary Gray as depicted on the dust jacket of An Acceptable Time
|First appearance||The Arm of the Starfish (1965)|
|Last appearance||An Acceptable Time (1989)|
|Created by||Madeleine L'Engle|
|Relatives||Dr. Calvin O'Keefe and Meg Murry O'Keefe, parents; three maternal uncles and six siblings: Charles, Xan, Den, Peggy, Johnny, and Rosy|
Polyhymnia (Polly) O'Keefe is the protagonist of the Madeleine L'Engle novels A House Like a Lotus and An Acceptable Time, and a major character in two previous books, The Arm of the Starfish and Dragons in the Waters. The eldest daughter of Meg Murry O'Keefe and Dr. Calvin O'Keefe, she is born shortly after the events of A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
Like her father, Polly has red hair. In The Arm of the Starfish she ruefully describes her figure as "twenty, twenty, twenty." In A House Like a Lotus she critiques her appearance as "too tall, too thin, not rounded enough for nearly seventeen". Intelligent and widely traveled, Polly speaks numerous languages including Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Russian and a little bit of Dutch. Despite her abilities, Polly has not yet settled on a specific career path, but may have found her calling as of the end of An Acceptable Time.
In A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978, ISBN 0-374-37362-0), Meg is pregnant with Polyhymnia, although the name is not given.
In The Arm of the Starfish (1965, ISBN 0-374-30396-7), Poly (as she is called at the time) is a twelve-year-old girl who has been living with her parents and six younger siblings (Charles, Sandy, Dennys, Peggy, Johnny and Rosy) on the fictional island of Gaea off the coast of Portugal. While returning from the United States with her godfather, Canon Tallis, she meets marine biology student Adam Eddington, and is subsequently kidnapped from an airplane restroom while under Adam's supervision. An enemy of Calvin O'Keefe, industrialist Typhon Cutter, arranges for Adam to "rescue" Poly in a bid to gain Adam's trust and cooperation.
In Dragons in the Waters (1976, ISBN 0-374-31868-9), Poly and her brother Charles travel with their father by freighter to Venezuela. As the trip begins, she befriends Simon Renier, an orphan who is accompanying his long-lost cousin and a famous family portrait of Simon Bolivar. Odd interactions between the passengers lead Poly and Charles to believe that a mystery is afoot, which they help to solve as Simon's alleged cousin, an impostor, is murdered and Simon is kidnapped.
In A House Like a Lotus (1984, ISBN 0-374-33385-8), 16-year-old Polly (who has changed the preferred spelling of her name) visits first Greece and later Cyprus as she tries to come to terms with her memories of a drunken sexual advance from her mentor Maximiliana Horne, and Polly's subsequent seduction of a sympathetic friend, Dr. Queron Renier. While in Greece, Polly meets a rich but troubled college student named Zachary Gray. Zach follows her to Cyprus, where Polly is acting as an assistant to delegates at an international conference, including her favorite writer, Virginia Bowen Porcher. Polly's experiences help her to forgive the dying Max for what she did.
In An Acceptable Time (1989, ISBN 0-374-30027-5), 17-year-old Polly visits her grandparents, scientists Alex Murry and Kate Murry, at the house in rural Connecticut in which her mother Meg grew up. While there she is reunited with Zach. Both are transported back in time to an ancient civilization. The People of the Wind consider Polly a goddess and a healer, but their neighbors, the People Across the Lake, want to sacrifice her heart to end a drought. Polly's sacrifice to save Zachary, and the timely return of rain, cause the tribes to change their attitudes, and Polly returns to the modern world.
Poly is named after Polyhymnia, the Greek muse of sacred music. In The Arm of the Starfish, Poly explains that she was named and christened by her godfather, Canon Tallis, and says it is "an awful name to give anybody". Her preferred nickname is spelled Poly in the first two books in which she is featured, but in A House Like a Lotus she writes in her journal that it is better if she spells it with two l's, because the other spelling leads people to pronounce it with a long o as in the word "pole."
Polly O'Keefe shares several characteristics in common with her contemporary, Vicky Austin of the Austin family stories. Each is kidnapped as part of an international plot, only to be rescued by Adam Eddington. Each takes a sea voyage to South America (although Vicky continues on to Antarctica). Both characters experience the death of someone they love (Joshua Archer and Maximiliana Horne for Polly, Grandfather Eaton for Vicky), and both date Zachary Gray, who builds their self-esteem but proves to be unreliable. Like her mother Meg Murry, another major L'Engle heroine, Polly travels well beyond the reach of home and family by science fictional means; like her three uncles on her mother's side, Charles Wallace Murry, Sandy and Dennys Murry, she travels in time to the distant past.
In other ways, however, Polly is unique among the major L'Engle protagonists. She is the only L'Engle heroine (outside of the novels for adults) to have sex, and the only one with an overtly lesbian friend. To some extent this difference is generational: when Vicky Austin and Meg O'Keefe first appeared (in 1960 and 1962, respectively), children's and young adult literature were more constrained in their subject matter than in 1984 when Polly was depicted as having these experiences. Both of the earlier characters' first books were rejected by numerous publishers on the basis of content that now seems tame in comparison: Meet the Austins because it begins with a death, and A Wrinkle in Time because it tackles philosophical questions of good and evil. Nevertheless, all three protagonists's stories share common themes of love, family and morality, and all show the author's resistance to being confined to a certain type of book. L'Engle says in A Circle of Quiet (1972) that prior to her relationship with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publishers wanted her to duplicate each moderate literary success by writing "another book like it: you've done it in pink, dear, now do it in blue. But I'd write something quite different, and there I was, out in the cold again." The differences in A House Like a Lotus compared to previous books echo the presence of sexual themes in L'Engle's adult novels A Severed Wasp (1982), Certain Women (1992) and A Live Coal in the Sea (1996), but do not match any of these specifically.
- L'Engle, Madeleine. A Circle of Quiet, ISBN 0-374-12374-8
- Chase, Carole F. Suncatcher: A Study of Madeleine L'Engle And Her Writing, ISBN 1-880913-31-3.