Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top 60 Novels of 2000-2009 Countdown, No. 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter helped define the ’aughts for me. I read all seven books aloud, starting in 2001, after Rachel, then 6, and I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on Thanksgiving. That was a great fall for movies after 9/11, with Monsters, Inc., Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings opening in succession, each bringing a strong message of hope and unity in the face of calamity. The Harry Potter books also provide hope – hope that loyalty, faith and doing right will be rewarded, at least in the sense that evil and hate can be overcome. I’m not sure we still appreciate the effect these books have had on our culture. When my wife had a group of Honors College students over for dinner one night, I mentioned the “Smelting stick,” and they all knew what that was. When I flew to Oakland I 2007 for my uncle’s memorial service, I must have seen six or seven 30-something women on the plane or at the airport reading Deathly Hallows. It has become a shared cultural experience – what the Brady Bunch was for Generation X.

I read the Harry Potter book twice each up until the seventh. In each book (they got better as they go along), I was struck by Rowling’s strong sense of suspense, which comes out in her prose. She knows how to modulate the chatter in her books to raise and lower tension, something missing from many other writers’ works. She also has a tremendous ability to create or borrow details with which to populate a fictional world, from house elves to centaurs to impenetrable bureaucracies to a sport with utterly bizarre rules to odious or dull professors, living or dead. More than 100 characters parade across these seven books, so many that the movies have dropped about half of them. Rowling’s  world is so inviting that each of my kids asked, at one point or another, with hope and doubt in their eyes, if Hogwarts were real, and if they were going to get one of those coveted letters with the oh-so-specific addresses. My oldest daughter was taken in immediately by the movie (“I like Hermione – she’s smart!) and kept her interest even into her early teens; she reads a lot of fantasy novels, inspired by her enjoyment of Harry Potter. My youngest daughter listens to the Jim Dale recordings constantly, and even my middle daughter, who doesn’t any other fantasy books, is a Potter fan. Of course, a lot of the Harry Potter story is borrowed, from Narnia, folk tales, novels about English public schools, The Hero With a Thousand Faces and even the Christ story. But Rowling imbues it all with wit and charm, and in Harry, Ron and Hermione she created three unforgettable characters. And as the series aged with her readers, Rowling embraced the darker aspects of her story, until in the final volume we are met with a series of crushing defeats and deaths, particularly in the final battle for Hogwarts.

The seventh book has drawn some criticism –it’s been called Harry Potter and the Extended Camping Trip – but I was completely riveted as I read it to my three daughters right after we had moved to Tuscaloosa. We bought the book while we were on vacation in Orange Beach (during a thunderstorm), and we finished it in about five days. I think the characters had to be thrown out into the green world (Frye!) for their final transformations and trials; Rowling even introduced a final mythos – the deathly hallows – although it had been in the background all along, starting with the first book. The ending was complicated, but Entertainment Weekly did a good job explaining it. And it contained the single greatest line of dialogue in the entire series – uttered by a Mrs. Weasley filled with righteous and maternal anger. The book pulsed with tension, until the inevitable letdown at the end. And I guessed that whole business with Snape from the pensieve in the fifth book. But the greatest gift of Harry Potter – all the books, but particularly the seventh – was that I got to share this story with my children, who I hope will remember me reading it to them and will turn around and read the series in 25 or 30 years to their own children.

No comments: