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.
Polly has blinding sky blue eyes and straight red hair which she cuts as short as possible due to the fact she thinks "'it's an awful color, and the shorter it is, the less of it'". In "The Arm of the Starfish" she ruefully describes her figure as "twenty-twenty-twenty" though Adam Eddington realizes later on that she's "not quite twenty-twenty-twenty any more". In "A House Like a Lotus" she describes her appearance as "too tall, too thin, not rounded enough for nearly seventeen". She isn't exactly jealous of her beautiful younger cousin Kate, whom boys flock to, just wistful.
But her wistfulness is a bit unfounded seeing as she has caught the eye of many boys throughout the books she's in. In "Dragons in the Waters", Geraldo was Polly's first kiss before they both departed the Orion. They more than likely never saw each other again. In "A House Like a Lotus", she recounts making love to someone for the first time: her then-boyfriend Renny. Renny later telling her they must never sleep with each other again (which they don't) was, presumably, him breaking up with her. In the same book, she also catches Zachary Gray's attention. In "An Acceptable Time", Polly and Zachary go back in time to around three thousand years ago. By the time they get back to present day, Polly no longer has any desire to see Zachary again, though she says she will always keep the symbol he gave her. While she was three thousand years ago, a boy by the name of Tav fell in love with her and she with him. But Polly knows that they wouldn't ever get very far in a relationship. They wouldn't have enough time together, he's three thousand years too old for her, and they have such opposite world views.
Max sees Polly as very opinionated, intelligent, a gifted writer, and a snob (in a good way). Polly's own view of herself is very honest: she acts sure of herself, but it's just a front. The only area she's sure of herself in is in her intelligence. She can talk comfortably with adults, but not so much with kids her age.
Polly picks up languages easily: she speaks Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Russian and a little bit of Dutch. She believes she speaks Portuguese best. Polly has not yet settled on a specific career path because, as she tells Max, she hasn't found her focus: "I'm interested in archaeology and anthropology and literature and the theatre."
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.
Polly 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 be shown having sex in a book. 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.