Shot Through the Heart

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling

My long personal nightmare is over. A few weeks ago, after almost a year, my son and I finished our journey through the last of the original Harry Potter novels. I’m not sad to put it behind me.

When the whole Potter phenomena emerged I was clueless. My friends and colleagues who had kids around Harry’s age–Harry is, I believe, 11 at the start of the series–were sucked in. Because Mrs. AHC wound up teaching fourth grade the books soon enough found their way into my house, too.

Still, I resisted. Then I picked up the first book. And I engaged, once again, with fiction, though surprisingly through a genre that had never done much for me. Yes, I had completed the obligatory high school nerd trek through Middle Earth. Even then, though, I recognized it as a work of Catholic allegory. It was never a bridge to Dungeons & Dragons for me.

I had, though, fallen into a fiction-free existence. That itself was odd. There was a time when I’d discover a writer, fall in love and tear through volume after volume. Then I just stopped. I made excuses. I read lots of non-fiction. But the fiction well went dry to the despair of my friends who kept reading.

Whatever dress your Potter comes arrayed in, it’s lot of shelf space, paper and words.

Rowling reawakened my interest in story-telling. For that I’m grateful. But the evolution of the series (and if you’ve read my reflections on these books as Mr. D and I have made our way through the novels you’ve heard this before) highlights everything wrong with the modern publishing business.

I won’t recount all of that here. But the end result is, too often, bloat. When page count helps drive pricing and profitability there’s no incentive to be true to the tenets of good storytelling or respectful of the reader’s time. With the exception of crime fiction writers, many of whom turn out 250 taut pages annually, best-selling authors are allowed to ramble on and on. It’s as though there were a tape loop of cash register bells playing in the editorial offices.

The Deathly Hallows marks the culmination of the Potter saga and, there’s no polite way to say this, it’s a hard slog. At this point, we’re seven years into this neutered, multivolume Britsh-boarding-school bildungsroman and I found my interest flagging. If adolescence is the time during which we start to figure out how to live in the world, I’m not quite sure what our hero, Harry, has learned.

In my faith tradition, hallows are saints.
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs
By Fra Angelico

Harry has always been a hard nut, a British version of the man whose certainty is a function of his circumstance. He can act courageously, and recklessly. He can protect and nurture others. But the loss that defines his childhood is so enormous he’s forever at some remove from almost everyone else. Perhaps that’s why I originally had so much sympathy for him.

That certainty, those virtues and his loss, though, have locked him In adolescent amber. Over the course of a series that must span close to 3,000 pages, Harry’s emotional and moral growth can be measured in picas.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe the answer lies in the structure of this final volume. It does, after all, start out with a sort of wizardly Fast and Furious meets Black Hawk Down broom-borne firefight and end in the final pitched battle of a magical civil war. What if all the mucking about in forests, at lakesides, on hilltops and moors and clifftops is meant to establish tedium? It surely can’t be to ratchet up the tension; it persists far too long.

Whatever the reasons for the length and structure of the novel, the simple secret of the plot (to nick a line from a song) is that Harry Potter will prevail. It’s one thing to kill off surrogate parents, classmates and other magical beings. Killing off one’s hero just isn’t done in popular fiction.

Sometimes, total victory leaves the world forever changed.

Don’t take my word for it.  For the six previous volumes in the series my son hung on every word. He can tell me facts buried in subplots that I seem never to have encountered before. Here, though, the pace was dictated, in large part, by his avoidance. Tying up all those loose ends might have seemed a good idea for the writer, but it was hell on the reader.

There’s no point going into great detail about the plot because how we get to Harry’s triumph (and I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide if the denouement qualifies as our hero’s triumph) is all there is to this volume. There may be no mystery involved, but I can at least avoid ruining the unfolding,

Here’s perhaps the greatest irony of revisiting the books that rekindled my reading of fiction: I’ve run out of words to spend on this subject.

But I’m not going to stop reading.

 

 

 

 

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He’s a Magic Man

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince
J. K. Rowling

While in the middle of reading this volume aloud to the lad and lass, I stumbled across an article by Crispin Sartwell entitled Why They Suck: Harry Potter.”  Though Professor Sartwell and I have disagreed,  I find myself in some alignment with him on this matter.

Growing up alongside these tales of the wizarding world’s St. Saviour, one might not notice Continue reading

Like a Phoenix I Have Risen

Harry Potter and the Oder of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling

I am happy to report that the lad and I survived our read-aloud Battle of Stalingrad. That may not be the kindest characterization of this longest installment in the Harry Potter series, but it accurately conveys the feeling of endless, dark struggle that permeates the book.

It’s probably appropriate that we began reading in the Continue reading

Oh Lord I Go for Penguins

Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Richard and Florence Atwater

Childhood maladies that recur in one’s adult years are no fun. I’d much rather the regimen of corn starch baths and phenobarbitol I recall than the loopy steroid-fueled course of therapy I’ve been on the past week. Believe me, the election was small beer by comparison.

Maybe that’s not so. But what’s definitely true is that I found myself sidelined in my various reading projects, let alone writing about them. Even reading the Potter corpus aloud was hit or miss. Luckily, I was able to finish a book I insisted on reading to the kids in the wake of finishing the monster-volume in the Potter series.

I haven’t the strength to address Harry right now, but penguins offer a proven therapeutic respite.  There once was a time when one of the most soothing balms I could offer my tortured soul was to stand staring as the penguins at the Central Park Zoo swam, dived and cavorted. Watching them, I still find it hard to keep a smile off my face, no matter how blue I may feel.

Maybe that goes back to the joy of this book from my childhood. I  hoped to share that feeling with my own kids, but I did have some concerns. From what I remembered, the book was set more or less around the time of its publication: the late 1930s, so the back end of the Great Depression.

Go ahead, try not to smile. I dare you.

In the early 1970s, when I first encountered this misplaced flock, the Depression was an event that had shaped a couple of generations. We didn’t lack for consumer goods, but they were few and singular: one TV (color only arrived in 1971 or 72), one car, one record player, one AM radio in the kitchen. My grandparents told tales of how radio offered much better entertainment than television, even as my grandfather settled in for an evening of Gomer Pyle and Gunsmoke.

So I, at least, had a reference set. My kids, raised in a world of YouTube, DVRs and on-demand video can’t even comprehend the idea of scheduled television let alone reruns. How were they going to react to a world as alien to them as it was familiar to me?

Turns out, pretty well. I think it must be the birds, although Robert Lawson‘s illustrations, recognizable from our earlier encounter with The Story of Ferdinand, probably helped. Let’s see why.

An entire city, it seems, can have a thing for penguins–at least when the city is Pittsburgh.

Mr. Potter is a somewhat scatter-brained house painter living in Stillwater. What I said to my kids when we read this was that I thought Stillwater was like Springfield, common enough for everyone to relate to but not in any particular state, though I knew there was one in Oklahoma. My friends in the Wiki kingdom, though, claim the town is in Minnesota. I’ve no reason to understand why they believe that, the state is never mentioned in the book. So beware the authority of all online oracles and go look for yourself.

I said scatter-brained and that may be unfair. He might be, in his own daydreaming way, a nascent genius. He’s certainly responsible for the still-popular interior design trick of painting one wall a different color, though in his case it seems more a matter of mistake than intent. He’d much rather be lost in the books of polar exploration he spends his free time immersed in.

When we meet him, Mr.Popper is about to settle in for a long winter with his books. It turns out that house painting is a seasonal business and that each year comes with a built-in 6-month sabbatical. Here’s my proof that a story can transcend time: my 9-year old son, upon hearing Mrs. Popper say that money was tight and they’d just have to eat more beans to make ends meet, almost burst into tears. It probably helped that the Popper children, Bill and Janie, are close to his age.

There were plenty of penguins in my own childhood, of course.

Mr. Popper no sooner settles in for his winter routine than when, in a radio address from the South Pole, Admiral Drake calls him out and tells him to look for a surprise. It soon arrives: an Emperor penguin immediately christened Captain Cook after the explorer.

The bird turns the household upside down. Accommodations–costly accommodations–are made. But the bird also attracts attention. Then his spirit and health seem to flag. Mr. Popper contacts an expert at an aquarium. The response comes in two parts: a statement of not knowing what the problem is and delivery of a female penguin who is also ailing. Now the Poppers have two birds and money is even tighter.

But wait, there’s more, much more! Greta, as they quickly christen the new arrival, perks up, then just as quickly flags. But this isn’t ennui; it’s pregnancy. And Greta–an exceptional bird–lays ten eggs. Soon enough the Popper’s have a dozen penguins, each with its name painted on its back so they can be identified. They also have a frozen and flooded basement where the birds romp and, eventually, pick up a trick or two.

Habits of dress like this led the Blues Brothers to call nuns penguins.

It’s those tricks that save the day. The Popper Penguins become a vaudeville act, signed at a movie-star like salary of $5,000 a week. That’s a lot of money even today; in the depths of economic misery, it must have seemed astronomical.

The money solves many problems, but it creates new ones. The act pays its own expenses. Traveling, feeding and bedding down a dozen squawking birds is neither easy nor cheap. Worse, as temperatures begin to rise the birds begin to fail. What to do?

Enter Admiral Drake, back from the South Pole. He has a proposition for Mr. Popper. So, too, does Mr. Greenbaum, a Hollywood producer who’s approached the vaudeville promoter with a film deal. Mr. Popper must choose: say goodbye to his beloved birds, who will seed the first arctic colony of penguins, or hit the show biz big time. (One glory of kid’s books: you can ignore that both these choices are wildly improbable and prone to failure.)

You should read the book to find out what choice Mr. Popper makes. My kids understood it and, seeing as how this was for them (which is what I always tell myself when it’s really for me), that’s what counts.

When This Battle is Over

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J. K. Rowling

With midsummer fast approaching, and the next Potter volume just about half-read, now seems as good a time as any to see what our favorite wizard has gotten himself up to. I may come to regret that decision. The reading has slowed down and August has five Sundays this year.

None of which matters to Harry and his two best friends. This installment, year four in the series, stands Continue reading

Charlotte Sometimes

Charlotte’s Web
E.B. White

The read-aloud project here at the Stone Cottage has taken a well-deserved break from wizardly things. We have, in fact, most recently found ourselves in the barnyard, spending time with a garrulous group of animals as they encounter life’s biggest challenges.

Like many another kid, I read this book at about the age my son is now. (He’s finishing third grade.) It’s a Continue reading

I Don’t Want to be The Prisoner

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling

In a recent post, I mentioned my lifelong, never-given-enough-attention reading project. Luckily, I usually have more than one project in progress (compensation, I suppose, for never finishing anything) and so it’s time to return to the series that launched a movie franchise and got an entire generation reading: the Harry Potter saga.

Here at the Stone Cottage, I started reading the books aloud to the AHC kiddos about a year ago and it’s become a sort of bedtime ritual. We have our issues (the Continue reading

Secret Words in a Secret Room

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling

It seems like I’ve been on a sabbatical, though it’s really been a turn of good fortune. In what qualifies as a first-class set of first-world problems, I am trying to reconfigure my days and weeks to reflect a new commute. It’s been, literally, decades Continue reading

If I Only Had a Brain

The Great Brain
John D. Fitzgerald

By the time I was thirty, I was certain I’d never raise children. By the time I finally started, my high school classmates were busy prepping their oldest kids for SATs and campus visits. Now, they’re retiring and I’ll be looking at tuition payments well into my eighth decade.

All of which helps color my perspective. That’s most apparent when I draw on memories of my own childhood. I’m well past the age where, finding myself reprising my Continue reading

A Standout, a Whirlwind Wizard

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
J. K. Rowling

Among Harry Potter‘s many acts of wizardry, the most important was that his creator, in setting him loose in the world, ended the fiction drought, at least for me.

That would be the couple of decades or so where I don’t think I read any fiction but mysteries. In the repurposed and reordered words of a literature professor friend (albeit on a separate subject), it was too hard and wasn’t fun anymore.

Then along came Harry, although I was unaware at first. Truth is, I can be pretty oblivious about popular culture and, as a childless 30-something at the time the first novel was published in the US, I was paying even less attention. I probably clued into conversations between parents two or three years later.

That coincided with a lot of life changes including the decision by the then-not-yet-Mrs. AHC to become an elementary schoolteacher. Suddenly, Potter was in the house and I picked up the book in the same cursory way I pick up so many others.

J.K. Rowling Creator of Harry Potter before the image makeover that accompanied her financial success.

I got hooked.

Now that I’m through reminiscing,  we can get to the book, which I just spent reading aloud with my 8-year old son. His sister, approaching age 11, eschews fantasy, yet many nights found her listening in.  I’ll have to accept some blame for her viewpoint; I’m on record as not being favorably inclined toward the genre myself. What’s so different about Harry?

 

When I first read through the series, our kids had yet to be born. Yet I developed this idea that the series presented a great way to teach lessons about reading and language. I can turn anything into hard work if I try, but maybe I’m looking to justify just how much fun these books are. But when young D expressed an interest, I leapt at the opportunity to see if I was right.

Harry Potter Movie poster

Not just a best-selling book, but also a blockbuster movie.

I should say I’m not obsessive enough to have ascertained certain things. Such as whether Rowling had the arc of the series figured out from the beginning. That’s a recurring rumor among the Star Wars crowd, and it would be normal to wonder the same about Potter. I do know that this volume introduces a majority of the characters that will populate the rest of the novels.

At our first encounter with Harry, we already know more about him than he does of himself. That’s because we’ve been treated to a prologue that establishes the frame within which his wizardly life will uncoil. By comparison, all the 11-year old Harry knows is his Diceknsian existence.  An unwanted orphan living with uncaring relatives, Harry’s sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs, dressed in hand-me-downs and final sale remnants.  He functions as a sort of scullery maid/short-order cook. It’s equal parts Cinderella and Oliver Twist.

Then his past intervenes, in the form of a letter, and his world changes. Of course, it’s not that simple. The Dursleys (that’s the family name his mother’s sister, Petunia, took when she married Vernon; they have a son Dudley) at first try to ignore the mail, then run from it. But even a near-Hebridean hideaway can’t ward off the power of the magical world and Harry gets his Get out of Jail Free card in the form of acceptance at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, a sort of enchanted Eton.

Nicolas Flamel, c. 1340–1418
Even real people show up in Potterland.

That’s the good. The bad and the ugly are the same thing, a demonic wizard so terrible none dare utter his name. Except Harry, who, not having been raised among magical types (we’uns, being non-magical, are known as muggles), didn’t get the memo on proper behavior. And no one will question his naming the demon because Voldemort is responsible both for Harry being an orphan and the scar he bears on his forehead from their near-deadly encounter. Harry’s bravery starts with not agreeing to not name his nemesis.

This is a good point to stop for one of those lessons I mentioned. Harry’s story not only fits the good Proppian model, it has all these English overtones. The hero emerging from second class status is right out of the Arthurian legend. There’s that working for Fagin childhood. Hogwarts is itself, a perfectly recognizable British public school.  And then there’s the bad guy’s name. I’m always happy to point out that English is a mash-up of German and French, so how delicious to have a bad guy whose name literally means Flying Death.

Plus, there’s the sorcerer’s stone itself. In this telling, the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is the co-creator of the stone along with Nicolas Flamel. Click on that last link and you’ll quickly find out that a) Flamel really existed and b) is the legendary creator of the philosopher’s stone. As I said, the book is just chock full of things that can help you teach children how to read more actively. (In case you’re wondering, Albus means white and Dumbledore is a bumblee in some English dialect, so there’s your old humming guy, too.)

Even the search for a sorcerer’s stone is rooted in reality. The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

The tale itself is rollicking and sets a pattern that will prevail through the series. The action takes place over the course of a school year, mostly in and around Hogwarts. There is always a new and problematic faculty member. Harry has friends and enemies among both the students and faculty.

I don’t want to give away too much in this plot-driven story, but I will say the climax involves a confrontation between Harry and Voldemort (and that is always going to be the crux of the matter).

There are six more books in the series, though, so I’m not really giving anything away if I say Harry survives the encounter. But it’s an action-packed battle and my son didn’t see the secondary (and necessary) bad guy coming. I’m betting Rowling would be delighted by D’s gasp at the revealed identity.

Details in a book or movie should matter, though I often wonder if they enter conciously. As this book ends, Harry awakens in the infirmary, three days after his battle with pure evil.

With a little prodding I eked out one last lesson: my kids quickly identified the other well-known figure who rose on the third day.