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"I may not know how to fly but I know how to read and that's almost the same thing."-- Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz

"...while finding true love was one of the most splendid things that could happen to you in life, finding a friend was equally splendid." -- Felix J Palma, The Map of the Sky

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling


"To Harry Potter -- the boy who lived!" Strange things are happening in the suburbs of England, all over town, all over the countryside, when Harry Potter is left on the doorstep of his Uncle's house. Harry Potter is lone survivor of a murder plot, left in the care of relatives, to live out his childhood in relative normalcy. On his eleventh birthday, letters start arriving, inviting him to enroll in an unusual school... Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

I have long regarded this story one of the best pieces of children's literature to come out of the 90's, I think my grandkids will be reading it, and I think someday it will be taught in schools.  It has the themes we've been brought up to expect in children's lit: made up words to add an air of silliness, a few funny rhymes, a child from a broken home who wants to do what is right. (See my late night ramblings on OrphanLit Here) Additionally, the story adheres to the rules set down for fantasy novels: language unique to the fantasy world, a clear border between where one world ends and the other begins, rules and restrictions for the possibilities of magic, and of course the age old tradition of a battle between Good and Evil.

The author could have stopped there. Isn't that enough? Isn't it enough to write a story that is simply entertaining? Sure, but then it wouldn't have been as good. JK Rowling also wrote a book that was as thought provoking as entertaining.

The main characters, Harry, Ron, and Hermione form friendship despite their extreme differences. Harry's famous, but he can't remember a time when he knew love. He's also just discovered that he's filthy rich. A lot of people want to be his friend, but he chooses Ron. Ron Weasley, comes from a large family. He feels overlooked, surrounded by hand me downs, in his lower income bracket. Hermione Granger, is raised by dentists! She's not just a bookworm, she's an academic addict, and like Harry, is just discovering what it means to be a student at Hogwarts. You've got three very different kids who are joined by the need to prove themselves worthy of the chance they've been given.

You are also granted the reccurring theme that money and fame isn't everything in life. The counter trio, Harry's schoolmates, Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle are an important mirror. Malfoy, raised by magical parents with money, is little jerk. He doesn't need to prove himself, he feels perfectly entitled to get what he wants and has no problem hurting others for his own amusement or personal gain. Crabbe and Goyle allow themselves to be led, and occasionally used; they seek favor from a dominant personality...that's got little to do with loyalty. They think they've got the world at their fingertips... and they're not better people for it.

"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live..." Then there's Professor Dumbledore, the benevolent headmaster, who watches over the school and it's inhabitants. He's both protector and enabler; he seems to understand that while Harry is a child, he is also a human being filled with need. Rather than shield Harry completely as a parent might, he decides to provide Harry with the tools to survive the hardships ahead.

"Oh, you may not think I'm pretty, but don't judge on what you see..."  Don't be quick to judge anyone, says the Sorting Cap. A sentiment that rings true beginning to end. Professor Snape is perpetually angry, Professor Quirrell timid and kind, Hagrid is enormous and hairy, and a dragon dealer in a pub appears fated. You can't ever know what's inside someone's heart and head, unless you think to ask. Being scary or angry doesn't make a person evil, just as giving a gift doesn't make a saint.

What makes a friend? Ron is willing to lay down his life for Harry. Hermione is willing to throw away what she holds close to her heart. Loyalty and courage are nothing to snub your nose at, but other things count too. "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends..." Neville Longbottom, quiet and forgetful, accident prone and the target of bullying, tries to protect Harry, Ron, and Hermione from themselves. Any idiot can stand up and say, "Let's do this!" But when you tell your friends, "Let's not!" Even if it's for their own good, you risk having them not like you. Neville seems to have learned early in life, what friends think of you is irrelevant if they're all dead.

Needless to say, I've given this 5 stars. If you're looking to have a well thought out,  magical adventure with some really clever characters, and learn about Lord Voldemort the most evil wizard that ever lived, and thwart his attempts to return from the not-quite-grave... This is the book for you, regardless of age.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Orphan in Literature

I've been having trouble focusing, having trouble reading. I took a step back, and decided to relax with some old friends. Which led me to pick up a Harry Potter book and subsequently to a decision and a breakthrough. The decision of course, was if I was reading the series again for the umpteenth time, I really ought to come up with some kick ass reasons as to why the story is so good. The breakthrough, came when thinking about things that make HP standout. One of the things, isn't how it's different, it's how it's alike.

I want to examine (or ramble about) patterns. The most common theme in young adult media is a protagonist from a broken home. It occurs in Harry Potter, but if you're a movie fan, maybe you notice that Disney built its entire franchise upon this idea. Neglected, belittled, abandoned, or orphaned, children from broken homes tend to do really well in mainstream media. Even if an individual observer comes from a loving family, these stories of the lonely child remain appealing. Why is that?

While the character experiences literal loneliness, we the audience see something more primal, like the fear of darkness. We humans are social animals, and as social animals, we fear being alone. No matter our age, social or financial status, all of us have been made to feel alone at some point. All of us have understood, briefly or otherwise, what it means to feel small.

It isn't a pleasant moment, to stand before a villain and realize you don't know what the right thing to do is; that moment insecurity raises its ugly head and stills any response. Maybe your stomach twists, maybe your heart pounds, maybe you want to lash out or just run and hide... But there you stand. Later you'll ask yourself, "What could I have done differently? What could I have said?"  It won't matter to anyone but you, and it doesn't matter in the grand scheme because you can't go back... Or maybe you reacted. Quickly without fail, fearlessly without stutter. Maybe you said or did something, and later were left to second guess whether or not it was right. It stays with you: that moment you stood alone in the face of adversity and were forced to make a choice between passivity and aggression. A feeling of helplessness.

So maybe in this pattern, we see a fear personified. A child, alone and vulnerable, filled with the naivete that comes with youth. They're alone in this; you know it and they know it. Even surrounded by friends, the protagonist carries the weight of the world on his or her shoulders... And in this fearful moment we are given hope and comfort. Because while the child is small, the actions are big, the friends true, the consequences epic and bright. In this pattern we see that no matter how small you feel, no matter how weak the world tells you you are, you do matter. You can stand up, you can speak up, you can make a difference.

The only thing bigger than our fear of vulnerability, is our desire to matter in life. And if a child from meager beginnings can conquer his fears, why can't an adult from better beginnings do the same? Maybe we're all alone in this, but sometimes it's nice to think we're all alone in this together.