Desert Isle Keeper
The Harry Potter Series
I’m just coming off a very ill-timed Harry Potter bender. My children are getting out of school amid a flurry of end-of-the-year activities, and one of them had a birthday and recital on top of that. I’ve had a million things to do, and all I want to do is read Harry Potter. It was the movie that set me off; I saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and was suddenly seized with an immediate desire to re-read the fourth book. No sooner had I finished that than I picked up the fifth, which I read like a fiend during my daughter’s slumber party (with the approval of several twelve year olds, who all said, “That’s a great book, isn’t it, Mrs. Barnhill?”) After re-experiencing the despair I felt last summer (the crushing realization that the sixth book was not immediately forthcoming), I picked up the third book and read that too. Then, deciding I could always get a life later, I read the first and second books as well. I’d like to read the fifth one again, but unfortunately I think I’d probably better quit before I really go off the deep end and start buying wands and trying to charm household objects.
I came to the Harry Potter books later than some. The first one was out in paperback, and my husband and two of my children had read most of them before I even started. I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for my book club and thought it was tremendous fun. But there were books to review, and other stuff out there. I managed to read Chamber of Secrets before the movie came out, and I enjoyed it, but felt no sense of urgency to read the other two. Then in June of last year I found myself with all my reviews in the can and some extra time to read something for myself. I plumbed the depths of my tbr pile, but nothing jumped out at me. Then I realized that the release date of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was happening right when my family would be on vacation. If I read books three and four, I would be caught up and could entertain my family by reading book five in the car on the way home. Gamely, I started in on Prisoner of Azkaban. Everyone says that’s the best one, and everyone just might be right. This time when I finished the book, I didn’t skip a beat. Without so much as a bathroom break, I picked up Goblet of Fire. Now suddenly I could see what everyone was talking about, and now I was as impatient for the fifth book as a fan who had actually had to wait three years for it.
For awhile, I maintained the fiction that my kids were the rabid fans. When I went into our local Borders and had them call their Rapid City, SD store (where we’d be when the book was released), I told them my kids “just couldn’t wait.” When I told friends that we planned to go to the midnight party after a long day of sight-seeing in the Black Hills, I told them my children “insisted.” But the moment of truth came at about 11:30 on the night of the book’s release. My kids had made hats with stars on them and dipped pretzels in frosting to make wands. They had free Harry Potter glasses and lightning scars on their foreheads. And they were exhausted. My husband suggested that we come back the next day, but I was completely unwilling to leave. He took the kids to the car, where they promptly fell asleep. I stayed, and emerged at about 12:30 holding a book that to me seemed like a present. I did read the first two hundred pages to them on the way home, but I’d already devoured most of it myself the night before. I considered reading aloud an act of supreme sacrifice; I was dying to finish the book on my own. I finished the rest that night, and then, like any junkie, I felt depressed that it was over and my next fix was likely to be years away.
Harry Potter is not just the central figure in a series of children’s books; he is a cultural phenomenon. The books appeal to adults and children, avid readers and people who rarely crack any other book. At the Borders where I attended the party, many people had actually come from other states because no stores near them were having a party or selling the book early. There were teenagers in costume (the girl who won the contest was a fabulous Nearly Headless Nick), mothers with children younger than mine, and older couples with no kids at all. Right after it was released, you saw people reading it everywhere. My husband, who left on a business trip right after we got home, saw countless people reading it in the airport. Unfortunately, he was not one of them; our daughter Abigail was reading our copy, and whenever she put it down, I had it; I was reading it through a second time.
The books, thus far, are as follows:
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
For those who haven’t read them, here’s a brief overview: Harry Potter begins the series as an 11-year-old boy living with his indiferent, abusive aunt and uncle and their spoiled son, Dudley. On his 11th birthday he learns that he is a wizard, and that his parents were wizards as well. He’s invited to attend Hogwarts, England’s premier school of magic. He also discovers that he is already famous in the wizarding world; as a baby, he became the only person ever to survive a death curse by the evil Voldemort. Voldemort’s attempt to kill Harry backfired and reduced him to a state near death. However, as Harry goes to Hogwarts and learns to become a wizard, Voldemort gradually gains power and becomes stronger again. The books are essentially about both Harry’s learning experiences at school, and his ongoing struggle with Lord Voldemort and his followers.
So what is it, exactly, that is so compelling about Harry? Well, for one thing, these books are serious fun. I would have given anything to read them as a child, when I was even more enchanted by the idea of a magical world. I used to devour books about witches (none of them were as good as these) and anything fantastical (I loved Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). But I don’t remember reading anything that was this detailed in its imagination or fascinating in its execution. What child wouldn’t fantasize about attending Hogwarts, where staircases move at whim, candles float in the air, and you get to take classes like Transfiguration and Charms? Who wouldn’t want to shop for a wand in Diagon Alley?
Not only are these books fun; they are clever. It’s obvious that Rowling has fun writing them. Her flair for naming is unparalleled: Albus Dumbledore. Severus Snape. The Mirror of Erised, Diagon Alley, and #12 Grimmauld Place. The inventive use of word play and Latin roots makes almost every name a puzzle. The intricate plot also shows cleverness and foresight. Seemingly throwaway comments or details often ermerage as significant plot points several books later. I always admire that type of deft planning.
But there’s a lot of darkness thrown in with the whimsy, especially as the series wears on. Harry’s parents were killed in front of him, and he has experienced the horrible scene more than once through dreams and encounters with dementors. He spent the first 11 years of his life living with relatives who can’t stand him. He’s battling a dark wizard who is bent on destroying him and every good wizard in the magical world. On top of that he has to deal with unfair teachers and magical government officials who have a vested interest in denying Harry’s word. He’s seen death first hand, and in one case lost someone very close to him.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about why these books are so compelling to me. While I love the imagination and the whole creation of the Potterverse, I think any good series begins and ends with the characters. There are relatively few series of quality that center around a core group of characters and follow them through several years. It’s just not easy to keep the interest going. While fans love to speculate about magic and plotting, it’s the characters that keep people coming back for more. The trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) have grown in complexity as the series has progressed, and other characters (like Neville and Ginny) are equally enchanting. The Hogwarts professors and other adults in the novel are also well-rounded, and we continue to learn more about them.
Nearly everyone seems to like the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best. With its surprise ending and introduction of several key characters, it definitely has broad fan appeal. I love it too; it’s actually my second favorite of the series. But I’d like to make a case for the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as the best to date. When it came out, I head a lot of grumbling about the darker, angrier Harry. It’s definitely the darkest of the books so far. Harry has to face a school full of people who think he’s a joke, a liar, and a hypochondriac. After he is goaded into a fight, he loses his favorite outlet – the sport of quidditch. And just as things are getting more and more dangerous, he’s faced with a professor (and eventually headmaster) who persecutes him and makes his life a living hell. With a life like this, anyone would be angry. In some ways, Harry acts like a typical fifteen-year-old, even though he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other ways he rises to the occasion, defying the erstwhile leadership of the school by teaching his classmates defense against the dark arts and acting with his signature bravery when he rushes to rescue a friend in danger. My favorite parts of this book are when Harry sees his father, whom he has always idolized, in a completely different light. His reactions and thoughts about this make it clear that this book is not just about magic tricks.
If you haven’t read Harry Potter yet, you are in for a treat. The addictive quality of these books is likely to hold you, well, spellbound. I can think of only two problems. The first is that if you have a large family, you may need multiple copies of each book. Everyone in my family who can read has read them, and we often want to read them at the same time. We’ve made trips to the bookstore because two kids wanted to read book three at once, and I confess to waiting impatiently for my seven year old to read himself to sleep so I could snatch the book out of his little hands. The other problem is that these books are so consuming that they can leave you with no desire to read anything else – which is where I am right now. Well, at least we have two more books to look forward to – impatiently.
To legions of Harry Potter fans, July was like a dream come true. A movie (Order of the Phoenix) and the final book (Deathly Hallows) both released within the space of ten days. In my house, excitement was at a fever pitch. I hadn’t planned to go to the midnight release of the movie; I had to work at 7:00 am the next day, and I thought it was really too late for my sons to be up. But I came home from work to find a house that practically sparkled. My girls had cleaned everything – an act that was completely unprecedented. They sat by the door with lipstick lightning scars on their foreheads and post-it notes on their faces that said “Mom will you please…” and “Take us to he Harry Potter midnight showing?” Well, if they thought cleaning the house was a good way to worm into my good graces, they were absolutely right! Of course, we went.
But though we were really excited about the movie, nothing could really compare to our excitement over Deathly Hallows. The entire week preceding the event had a waiting-for-Christmas feel. Speculation and last minute predictions ran fast and furious. Out and about, I saw several people reading other HP books, getting caught up and prepared. My girls made a celebratory (if morbid) cake, with a gleeful Harry standing over the corpse of the defeated Voldemort (“We know you don’t bleed if you’re avada kedavra’d, mom, but it just looked more artistic with blood.”) Once the book was leaked over the Internet, I started avoiding message boards for fear I’d stumble across a spoiler. My oldest daughter did, and was devastated when she discovered the spoilers were genuine. Finally, though, the night of the release arrived.
We’d been to two midnight parties before, but this one was different for a few reasons. First of all, everyone in attendance knew this was it. There’d be no more questions and speculation. No more waiting, and no more delicious anticipation. The crowd was different as well. Though there were certainly people of all ages there – everything from babies in slings wearing little wizard hats to an older woman carrying a frame and dressed as the fat lady – the crowd was dominated by teenagers. Clearly, they regarded these books as symbolic of their childhood, and their enthusiasm and energy were contagious. They participated with passion in the great Snape debate and cheered loudly in the costume contest. My own 15-year-old’s experience was pretty typical; Scarlett went as Tonks, complete with pink hair and a homemade weird sisters shirt. Like many in the crowd, she’d read the first Harry Potter books nearly ten years ago, when she was in elementary school. Certainly nothing in my own childhood can even compare. I don’t think I could even have conceived of the idea of hordes of people, worldwide, waiting at stores at midnight for the release of a book. I certainly feel fortunate that my children were able to have this experience. Years from now, they can hand their own children the Harry Potter books and tell them what it was like to really be there.
When we arrived home, books in hand, Scarlett and I settled down to read. I discovered that sometime in the last year her reading speed and stamina had eclipsed mine – she was done by 8:00 am, having read all night long. Her book was passed into her little sister’s waiting hands. I finished at 1:00 pm (succumbing to sleep for two and a half hours in the middle). As I read, I was acutely conscious of my complete satisfaction; I knew there was nothing on earth I would rather be doing. After I finished, I took a brief break to eat, then read it again. By Sunday, I’d read it twice, and I read it a third time over the next week. I’m also listening to it in the car. As much as I loved the book, I am also dealing with Post Potter Depression – sadness that this really is the end.
My take on Deathly Hallows? I Loved it. I am still trying to decide whether it’s my favorite of the lot – my love for Order of the Phoenix runs deep. But I was deeply satisfied with the book, both on its own and as the denouement to the series. My predictions were both right and wrong. I hit the nail on the head with Snape, guessing correctly that Snape loved Lily and that his actions to protect Harry were motivated by that love. I also thought it was completely obvious that Dumbledore’s trust in Snape was justified, and that he had asked Snape to kill him. (What I thought to be obvious was not clear to everyone; my brother actually won two bets with people who were convinced that Snape was wholly bad). And as right as I was about Snape, I was entirely misguided in my absolute certainty that Hagrid would die, and my near certainty that Harry, Ron, and Hermione would be back at school.
What I love best about Deathly Hallows is that it is full of significant moments. Previous books have their share of them too, but they mostly come at the end of the book, often while Harry is talking to Dumbledore. Here they are dispensed throughout the book like little jewels. Most significant for me:
- Ginny’s birthday kiss with Harry
- Dobby’s death, and Harry digging Dobby’s grave (while making an important decision)
- Harry’s encounter with the doe patronus in the forest, and Ron’s subsequent return and retrieval of Gryffindor’s sword.
- The sadness of Fred’s death
- Snape’s poignant memories
- Harry walking into the forest to face his own death, flanked by his departed loved ones (probably most memorable of all to me)
- Harry’s between life and death conversation with Dumbledore, in which Dumbeldore reveals that he’s known for some time that Harry was a better man
- Neville’s fabulous defeat of Nagini
- Mrs. Weasley finishing off Bellatrix LeStrange
- (Of course) Harry’s ultimate triumph over Voldemort.
Though I know some people dislike the epilogue, which takes place nineteen years after Harry defeats Voldemort, I’m a big fan. It’s a little sappy, but as my husband said, it’s well-earned sappiness. The epilogue shows Harry at peace, enjoying what he longed for all throughout the series – a family. And when he revealed the name of his second son – Albus Severus – there were tears in my eyes. Knowing that Harry had been able to forgive the man who both hated and protected him was, in my mind, a heroic act on par with destroying a horcrux.
Two weeks post-Potter, I’m a little sad, and still a little obsessed. But like so many other fans, so happy that I’ve been along for the ride. As a series and as a cultural experience, Harry Potter is truly unparalleled.