Saturday, August 2, 2003

‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

Book cover: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" by J.K. Rowling
Here’s what I knew when I started this book: that someone close to Harry would die. And that at some point within the book’s 870 pages, Dumbledore would tell him, “Sit down, Harry. I’m going to tell you everything.”

It would’ve been hard to miss the hype leading up to the June 21 release date of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic, 2003). Long before the date was made known, author J.K. Rowling and the fifth book in her best-selling series have been regular topics of discussion in nearly all news media. And the maddeningly few details we were allowed to know ahead of time have been endlessly repeated and speculated upon.

To begin with, we waited for more than two years for Rowling to deliver a manuscript to her publisher. Speculation ran amuck that Rowling was suffering from writer’s block. The details of her personal life – her purchasing a castle, her new marriage and her new baby – were all up for grabs by an inquiring public.

Once the manuscript was delivered, of course, the hype went into overdrive. There were those tantalizing clues that went for more than $45,000 at a Book Aid International benefit auction. There was the book’s $29.99 price tag, the highest to date for a hardcover children’s book. And to top it off, there was the matter of that death that we knew would come.

So after all that hype, is the fifth book worth it? The answer is a definite, resounding, yes! I don’t think I’m engaging in hyperbole when I say this series is possibly the biggest thing to happen to children’s literature in a very long time, if ever.

These books have transcended their primarily juvenile target audience to bring an increasing number of adults into the fold. As for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it is an exciting and fast-paced story. If Book 4 marked a turning point in the seven-book series, then Book 5 builds upon its themes and explores their implications for the wizarding society that forms a backdrop to Harry’s story.

With the news of Lord Voldemort’s return, factions have developed among members of the wizarding community. The Ministry of Magic, which seems as hopelessly mired in bureaucracy as anyone’s worst muggle government nightmare, has taken an official position opposing the warnings of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The ministry installs a particularly loathsome “High Inquisitor” at Hogwarts, who makes sweeping changes in curriculum and staffing.

The “Daily Prophet” (the witches’ and wizards’ mainstream newspaper) launches a non-stop smear campaign against Harry, who is the only living witness to Voldemort’s return.

After all, everyone knows that Voldemort is dead. He has not returned. Case closed, end of story.

On the other side of the conflict is a secret socity, “The Order of the Phoenix,” whose members opposed Voldemort the first time around. Now that Voldemort is back, the society regroups in preparation for the coming battle.

In the midst of this increasing turmoil, Harry and his schoolmates still have to go about the business of growing up. Now one year older, Hary has much more depth in keeping with his physical, emotional and mental development.

Rowling’s grasp of the maturing human psyche is uncanny when portraying her hero. Harry’s increased belief in his own abilities are beginning to chafe against the protective restrictions imposed by adults. The acting-out of these true-to-life growing pains prompted one unsympathetic muggle of a reviewer to dub Rowling’s creation “Harry Snotter.”

And then there’s the matter of that death. Harry will lose someone who is very close to him. And Harry will have to grieve.

It’s only to be expected that death will enter the picture at some point in a person’s life. And as my husband and I read this book – together, as we read many other books – we remarked to each other that Rowling is presenting an accurate depiction of what a person can expect to grapple with upon losing someone they love. In a way, she’s preparing her readers for the inevitable death of loved ones in their own life process. It’s almost as if she’s saying to her readers, “Here’s what you can expect to go through. You’re going to be sad. You’re going to be angry. You’re going to cling to any possibility that the person you love will come back.”

If you strip away all the magic and fantasy from Rowling’s books, what you’re left with is an intimate and knowing portrayal of the growing up process. In each volume of Rowling’s series, Harry ages one year. The themes he (and Rowling’s readers) are exposed to are increasingly complex. As a result, readers of the “Harry Potter” books are, quite literally, growing up with J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard.

To this reader, at least, they couldn’t be in better hands.