Rereading a childhood favorite as an adult
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012
Updated: Sunday, September 30, 2012 22:09
Darker themes appear in J.K. Rowling’s first novel since Harry Potter, entitled “The Casual Vacancy” and published last Thursday. I completed the book on Saturday and appraise a mixed review, certainly not measuring up to any of the seven works comprising her famous series. As I finished the final sentence, my thoughts wandered not so much on the story’s main characters or plotlines as on the effect that Rowling had exerted on my life, an effect which continued this past weekend.
I first read “Sorcerer’s Stone” back in 2000 at age eight. Possessing the limited vocabulary of an elementary school student at the time, I believed that “sorcerer” was another of Rowling’s various made-up words like “Quidditch” or “Muggle,” not recognizing its actual usage as a synonym for “wizard.” Good times.
In a bizarre way, this fantastical unrealistic series would provide me a taste of real life, just as, or even before, comparable events hit my actual life.
In the fourth volume, “Goblet of Fire,” (SPOILER ALERT) Cedric Diggory died near the end, murdered by the villainous Peter Pettigrew. Reading this at age eight was shocking, having never read a book – or watched any film or television show – in which a “good guy” died. Nor had I yet experienced a death of anybody I personally knew, such as a family member. You could say Cedric was my first death.
The fifth volume, “Order of the Phoenix,” featured a 15-year-old Harry experiencing his first date and first kiss with a girl. I was age 11, only shortly before I would later desire to myself experience a first date and first kiss with a girl. Not having any older siblings, I suppose I in some ways learned from Harry’s successes and failures as he fumbled his way through adolescent yearnings. In retrospect, my early attempts in this arena would likely have proven more successful if only I – like Harry – had defeated a “Dark Lord” who terrorized the populace. But George W. Bush served out his second term.
With Rowling taking well over a year to complete each subsequent addition – even though the characters aged one year in each – I eventually nearly caught up to Harry and his friends in age. At 15, the final “Deathly Hallows” installment debuted, featuring 17-year-old Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Themes of genocide, justice, and ambiguous morality resonated with my 15-year-old brain, which had only recently begun reading the news every day and thinking critically about philosophical questions regarding life and meaning.
During the subsequent five year “Potter-less” gap, I experienced the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, a fervent enthusiasm and later cynical disappointment with President Barack Obama, legally becoming an adult, graduation from high school and entering college, and moving out of my childhood home for the first time. (Although my parents will quickly point out that, for the time being, I still live there during summers.) As would probably be expected, my book selections largely stopped residing on the shelves of my local library’s “young adult” section and firmly into the “adult” section. I read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gang Leader for a Day” and “Prince of Thieves” and “The Lost Symbol” and the original “New Yorker” short story version of “Brokeback Mountain.”
Then came last Thursday: making my way through the tale of the seemingly-peaceful rural English town of Pagford and its residents, all of whom hide secrets. Everybody puts on a happy face when out and about – but when all eyes are turned, one cuts herself with a knife, another cheats on his wife, another steals and accepts bribes, another abuses hardcore drugs. When the book publisher’s promotional advertisements described it as a “novel for adults,” they were not kidding around.
At 20, I was finally old enough to accept all this sobering and disturbing madness with a mature outlook and a recognition of understanding. Over the previous 12 years since first discovering Rowling’s work, I had evolved from an elementary school student to a fully functional adult capable of making his own decisions. (Unless you ask whoever sets the minimum age for drinking and gambling.) In her small and indirect yet meaningful way, J.K. Rowling had played a miniscule yet indisputable role in advancing me there.