I had surgery earlier this week and packed in my hospital bag the 7th book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I had just seen the new Harry Potter movie at the local theater with my 19 year old son, and it took me back to the days when we started reading the series together. Of course, back in 1997, when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released, Cameron was only 8 – still old enough to enjoy a chapter book with Mom, and to reading aloud every other chapter – me, chapter 1, him chapter 2, and so on. So I was feeling very nostalgic, sitting there in the theater, with a kid who now tops 6′ easily and sings baritone, but still is willing to share his nachos. As the theater lights came up, I realized that even though I had read all the books, I had absolutely no idea how the story was going to end. I had some inkling that maybe Snape was not a bad guy, but maybe he was – I’d just seen him kill Dumbledore, after all. I’d read the books for plot and then the plot just vanished out of my brain… Evanesco!
I thought that 3-5 days in the hospital would be a good time to settle back with the fantasy novel (purchased at the Book Table in Oak Park at a discount, thank you very much!) It was slow going at first thanks to the drugs and lack of sleep (they wake you up every hour in the 24 hours after surgery), but a couple of things were notable. First – health care workers, whether physicians, nurses, patient care assistants, food service workers, or cleaning staff – all read Harry Potter. I talked to more people about Harry Potter between Monday and Thursday than you would think possible. Now this may be because most of the people I came into contact with were between the ages of 22 and 35 – meaning they were teenagers and young adults during the period of Harry Potter mania – but they all seemed united in something more than a piece of pop culture. Much better than I did, they remembered the characters and the plot. And when I said I was rereading the book, many people told me they had read the books multiple times and still had them on their bookshelves.
The second notable thing was how compelling the book was. Love, loyalty, and longing were all present. Misunderstandings and human frailties abound. Leave aside the major characters for a moment. Just look at Kreacher the House-Elf, who tells the tale of obeying his master – Regulus Black, Sirius’ brother – even though doing so results in Regulus’ death. When touched by Hermione out of sympathy, Kreacher spurns her empathy, calling her a mudblood, “What would my mistress think?” Harry admonishes Kreacher, who proceeds to punish himself cruelly, as Hermione cries “stop him – oh, don’t you see how sick it is, the way they’ve got to obey?” Why does this resonate so, in this time when politicians persist in division instead of diversity? They’ve played the game so long they can’t even see that it’s not a game anymore.
These are just a few pages out of an 800-page book in a 7-book series, but it’s these pages and others that make you think that J.K. Rowling has real insight into the human condition. Things are not always what they seem, people are generally more complex than you think they are, and there is good and bad in everyone and everything, but it’s the choices you make that matter most. This is pretty compelling stuff for a children’s book.
Of course, by the end I found that my memory had not deceived me, Snape was both a terribly bad guy and a terrifically good one, who gave not just his reputation, but his whole life, to making up as best he could for causing the death of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s parents. Only by receiving Snape’s memories did Harry find that his decision to trust Dumbledore was the right one, and that believing his heart, instead of his eyes, was the right road to take. And ultimately, when he met his enemy with the belief he must die to rid the world of Voldemort, he was doing the right thing.
I’m finding “do the right thing” to be a pretty compelling message to live your life by these days. Be honest. Give freely. Cherish your family and friends. Be happy.