SARAH: Hi, can I get the train to Oxford?
TRAIN OFFICIAL: There are no trains to Oxford.
SARAH: But I have a... ticket?
TRAIN OFFICIAL: There are no trains! There are no train tracks! There are only rivers. We are going to set up a canal system, but it may be days before the canal boats start to run regularly.
SARAH: Can I wait for a boat?
TRAIN OFFICIAL: Go home, I tell you! You shall not pass!
SARAH: I'll just wait over here, then.
Eventually, a train (not a boat) brought me to one station, then another to another, and inch by painful inch we crawled toward Oxford. Freezing, distraught passengers clung to each other on cold platforms and confided the latest news in hushed tones.
SHIVERING WOMAN IN SPIKE HEELS: You have... a kind face. I'm... so cold.
SARAH: Huddle up. We're all in this together.
SPIKE HEELS: Could I have just a bite of your Snickers bar?
SPIKE HEELS: I feel I can trust you. Let me tell you - something. I heard that if we moved to a different platform... we might get a train to Oxford.
SARAH: But the display says-
SPIKE HEELS: There's no time! There's no time! Do you trust me?
SARAH: I do. I will.
SPIKE HEELS: Come with me if you want to travel.
SARAH AND SPIKE HEELS: mad dash to platform and, at last, train
SPIKE HEELS: Told you.
SARAH(panting): I have always relied... on the kindness of... strangers.
SPIKE HEELS: Can I ask you something?
SPIKE HEELS: Are you finishing that Snickers bar?
Let's start with the quibbles I had with the book, so I can end on a high note. Basically, there are three lessons which I don't think J.K. Rowling meant to teach the kids, but it was sort of how the book came off.
1. Kids, Be Sure To Treat Your Slaves Kindly But Firmly!
I always felt bad for Kreacher the house elf, who was pretty much held hostage while people desecrated his home. But he did kind of betray Sirius to his death, and so when Hermione explained that Sirius had been ever so mean to him, I didn't expect Harry to go 'yeah, you know, you're right.' Nor did I expect Kreacher to melt like butter on a warm stove when someone handed him a piece of jewellery. I really like that we got some sympathy for Kreacher, and that he led the elves with a rallying cry for 'brave Regulus.' But that we got to a point where Harry was happily waiting for his dinner as Kreacher happily made him his favourite pie?
Harry should have more of a struggle with what Kreacher did. Kreacher should've had more of a struggle with what seemed to be years of hatred. It didn't ring true for me. The fact it was so easy made it seem as if Kreacher wasn't a thinking being responsible for his own actions in Harry's eyes, and that Kreacher really did exist just to serve, and it didn't really matter to him who he served, as long as he got a pat on the head for it. I don't want to overstate the case - again, I was really glad that Kreacher had his day. But it would've seemed more real if it had been harder.
2. Remember, Kids! Heroes Are the People Who Are Always Right.
Just as I would've preferred it if Harry had held more of a grudge against Kreacher, I would've liked it if our heroes had made more mistakes. The only one of the Trio who messed up badly in the Deathly Hallows was Ron. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ron was also my favourite of the three in this book. Characters don't need to be always right to gain our sympathy: we like learning with them and empathising with them. It's okay for good characters to be wrong.
Hermione, for instance, was never wrong. I was a little creeped out that she messed with her parents' brains to the level she did even if it was to protect them, just like I was a little creeped out by the way she hexed Marietta Edgecombe's face in Order of the Phoenix. I expected there to be repercussions for those things, but no, as long as Our Heroes are doing it, it's right. Similarly we never see Ginny Weasley making a mistake, though she didn't do much in the book except for be the Girl Harry Potter Left Behind Him (With Fabulous Hair).
Even more than their actions, the beliefs of the three Main Characters were really never proven wrong. Nothing ever happened to make them think, oh, I was wrong, the world is different than I thought it was, I've learned something new and everything is different. In a children's book, I think that's a shame. As someone who loves to see Main Characters learning, growing and changing, I think that's a shame.
One of the things that our heroes and heroine thought was that the Slytherins in their year were all a total waste of space. That kind of generalisation of a good quarter of their peers should surely be proved wrong, right?
Oh, dear me. Wrong again.
3. Just So You Know, Kids: The Only Good Slytherin Is A Dead Slytherin.
But Sarag, you may well say. The Slytherins aren't all bad. Snape wasn't evil! Slughorn wasn't evil, Phineas wasn't evil, Regulus wasn't evil, and Harry said it didn't matter to him if his son was in Slytherin.
And to that I say, Well, yes, but. But we learned that Snape might not be as evil as he seemed in Philosopher's Stone, that hardly taught anyone anything new. But Regulus and Phineas have been dead for the entirety of the books, and Slughorn is not only of retirement age but prone to latching onto Gryffindors. Snape, the Good Brave Slytherin, is praised by Dumbledore with high praise: Dumbledore tells him 'You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon...'
Every Slytherin in Harry's year deserted the side of good. I mean, they would've had to stand against their parents, it's totally understandable that they left, but the end result is that we have no Slytherin flag in the Room of Requirement, nobody left at the Slytherin table, and in nineteen years' time a little boy can still frighten his brother by teasing him that he could (Heaven forbid!) be Sorted into Slytherin.
This was totally avoidable. I even have some small suggestions, which would not have significantly changed the book, to show Some Slytherins Doing Something for the Cause of Light.
a) Harry, Ron and Hermione came into the Room of Requirement with Neville, and saw the room bedecked with flags. There were the Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and even the Slytherin flags, all in a row.
"Seriously?" Harry said. "Slytherin are part of the war effort?"
"Harry, Slytherin's essential to the war effort," Neville said earnestly. "The presence of Blaise Zabini is vital to keep up the troops' morale. Oi, Zabini!"
Zabini strode forward, brushing back his raven locks. They fell elegantly to frame his perfect features.
"Just look at him," Neville said. "It's uplifting. You'll start to feel better."
"I will not!" Ron exclaimed.
"I feel better already," Hermione admitted.
Blaise Zabini smiled. It was devastating. "Happy to do my bit for the war effort. Nothing but the best for our brave soldiers."
Ron looked ill. "The Slytherins ruin everything."
Harry cleared his throat. "Actually, I am starting to feel a little better."
b) "Draco Malfoy is the master of the Elder Wand!" Harry said. "And since I vanquished him by nicking it off him last week-"
Voldemort looked annoyed. "Potter, you can't just nick things off people."
Harry frowned. "Because it's wrong?"
"No," Voldemort said patiently. "I'm a Dark Lord, you think I care? Because it's nasty and common. Muggles could nick stuff off us, and where would we be if a Muggle was suddenly master of the Elder Wand? Draco Malfoy is still master of the Elder Wand, then. Obviously. Duh."
"Crap," said Harry, in heartfelt tones.
"Draco, please surrender the mastery of the Elder Wand to me," continued the Dark Lord.
"I totally and absolutely surrender," Draco Malfoy said promptly. " - to Potter, that is. Oh, come on. He saves my life, you kill my teacher and make me torture people. Evil minionhood is no good for my nerves. This is not actually a hard decision."
"You dare defy me, boy!" Voldemort roared. "Stand and fight!"
"Ahahahaha," said Draco. "I find no shame in screaming and running away. Watch me duck and weave among the corpses. Watch me flee. I'm like the wind!"
Voldemort gave a cry of rage. Harry coughed and at the sound Voldemort turned and found the Chosen One tapping the Elder Wand against his arm.
"Now," Harry said. "Where were we?"
c) "Unless we surrender Potter, we must stand and fight," said McGonagall. "Anyone of age who chooses to stand and fight can - yes, Miss Parkinson? Do you want to leave?"
"No," said Pansy Parkinson. "I want to fight. The Dark Lord gave my boyfriend manorexia and consumption at the same time last year. I was just thinking, could we slow the Dark Lord down by Polyjuicing all the Hufflepuffs into Harry Potter?"
McGonagall looked faintly puzzled and totally disapproving. "No we cannot!"
Pansy looked disappointed, but then she bowed her head to confer with the other remaining Slytherins, and her piercing voice could be heard saying: "Okay, here's the plan! When the first wave of Death Eaters hits the wall, we use the Hufflepuffs as bait-"
"The Slytherins ruin everything," said Ernie Macmillan.
The Sorting Hat said that the Houses had to unite or fall, and that Gryffindor and Slytherin used to be friends. Well, the Houses didn't unite. The Slytherin who got the most screen time, Draco Malfoy - well, God bless him, he's my favourite and always will be, and I was glad he lived, that he seemed enormously disinclined to hurt anyone, and that he saved his friend Goyle's life - but he was about as much good to the side of light as a chocolate hammer.
His friends Crabbe and Goyle got an even shorter end of the narrative stick. From schoolboys who liked to crack their knuckles menacingly and were loyal enough to Draco to dress up as little girls, they became sadists who liked torture and betrayed Draco as soon as his father fell out of favour. (Never mind that his father was in prison in the last book, of course.) Rowling is a better writer than that, and she's shown it a million times. This was an easy way out.
By having Harry and co.'s judgement of their Slytherin peers hold good (it's okay for the good guys to be wrong!), Rowling basically said that the mean kids at school are less redeemable than say, Grindelwald the Villain of Nuremgard (which is to say, uh, Hitler).
In the end Harry and Phineas say that Slytherin played their part, but they just didn't: we're being told one thing and shown another. Rowling had a lot of stuff to wrap up, and it's OK that she fell down somewhere. But I hope like hell that little Al Potter does end up in Slytherin, because as the story stands: every year at Hogwarts, a quarter of eleven year old kids are branded as kind of worthless. And that's not okay.
Now, onto the good things, which were many. This book had a whole lot to wrap up, and I thought Rowling did most of it really well. She knows Chekhov's Third Rule all right - tiny things from the first book can pop up and turn out to be important at any point, which is always pretty in a narrative way. You get rewarded for a close reading: if you always thought the way Dumbledore could switch off Muggle streetlamps was kind of cool, you get your reward.
And aside from the Slytherins, most of the characters were treated like real humans with real issues aside from the Hero - like Lupin, who was mostly busy having a crisis, or Dumbledore who did not (incredible though it is for kids to believe) start life as an Old Sage. I like Dumbledore much more in this book, where he had a troubled backstory and an evil, blond (Yet Strangely Attractive) friend and was the manipulative jerk I always thought he was but never thought the books would admit he was. (You see? It's okay for the good guys to be wrong!)
Speaking of backstory, which in this book was very thick on the ground, I liked most of it. I love the extra illumination more knowledge of the past can provide, and I really liked the fact that Snape and Lily Potter used to be best friends. I've always had a soft spot for Lily, I'm not sure why, and Snape's lonely, eternal and eternally frustrated yearning struck a chord for me that Rowling's more successful romances usually don't. I liked that she was friends with a Slytherin, I liked that he loved her enough to say 'save the man I hate too' and wanted to protect her son, whom he didn't like, even after she was dead. I liked the fact they were both very proud characters, and had an interesting relationship.
Perhaps my favourite part for a minor character was Dudley Dursley, who offered Harry tea and didn't quite know how to thank him, who was convincingly boyish, grateful and considered Harry a part of his family. Close on that was poor Petunia Dursley, the Muggle kid who wrote a letter begging to go to Hogwarts. (Oh, my heart.) Rowling can really depict minor characters excellently. I was also pleased to see that Percy Weasley was brought back to his family, though I felt bad that he had to grovel when, really, in most family fights there is fault on all sides.
Further to 'Rowling does minor characters excellently' is that, those minor characters once created, it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah to then start slaughtering those minor characters wholesale. I was seriously impressed by the way Rowling showed the cost of war. I felt as if someone was sitting in a chair telling me a story and then that someone had whipped out a gun and started spraying bullets every which way. It focuses the mind enormously to know that if you skim, you might miss a death. The deaths were handled well, too - I've never been a huge Dobby fan, but I felt honestly bad when he died, and I've never liked the twins at all, but when Fred died my heart broke for George. Poor, poor George. No ear! No twin! That Rowling, she is cold. I love it.
Harry himself was good: even though the Self-Sacrificing Hero with a Long-Distance Super-Hot Girlfriend is possibly the most well-known archetype of all time, little flashes of real personality showed through. About half-way through the book my friends and I put it down and went for a walk, and I said 'You know what would be just like Harry? If he said the name 'Voldemort' accidentally and brought the Death Eaters down on them with a dull thud.' And then he did, and I was delighted - not by my awesome psychic powers, but by the fact that after seven books I knew this character and I saw why and when he'd fall down. (It's okay for the good guys to be wrong!) I liked it when Harry yelled at Lupin not to abandon his kid. I liked it when Harry saved Draco and Goyle, because even if someone is a tool it's not okay to leave them to die. I really cared when Harry was going to his death. I was really happy that he got his happy ending. I wanted things to be right for him.
My favourite part of the book, however, and my new favourite member of the Trio was - Ron Weasley. I absolutely love that he messed up enough to actually walk out on the quest, and that he was allowed to come back, not grovelling, but like a hero, saving Harry and killing the evil locket with the Sword of Righteousness. Ron's mother wanted a girl, Ron himself was completely lame around women. Ron wasn't a sidekick. Ron was a person. Ron was great.
Ron also chose the girl who he knew well, who he talked to and who fought alongside him, and I loved that Hermione made the move on him rather than him making it on her, especially since generally when girls are romantically aggressive in Rowling's books (Cho, Lavender) they get punished for it. It made perfect sense that Hermione leaped for Ron. I liked their romance a lot. I also forgave Ron for things he did, because I never felt the author was trying to present Ron as always right, and he was much less serious than the other two. For instance, when Draco told the Death Eater he was on his side, that was fine by me. He didn't have a wand, what else was he meant to do? But when Ron punched him for saying it, that was fine too. (It's okay when the good guys are wrong!) I never felt like the author was trying to teach me something through Ron. I felt that Ron was real. I liked Ron's humour a lot as well, and when a character can make me laugh I'm always done for. I closed the book laughing on Ron's 'I'm extremely famous.' I'm thinking about it now, and I'm still smiling.
All quibbles aside, I enjoyed the book a lot. And I loved seeing a long queue of people outside the shop in Oxford, people laughing in witches' hats, talking on chilly cobblestoned streets, stopping and leaning against the old buildings to read. I'm so happy that people got that excited about a book. I'm so happy that people thought of a book as that important.
I first found Harry Potter one summer day when I was seventeen, lying bored on my brother's bed in the sunlight. I popped open The Prisoner of Azkaban and thought to myself 'Whoa, this woman uses a lot of capital letters' and 'That Sirius Black is pretty fine.' I was eighteen on a boat from England back home when my mother said 'Doesn't that Darren Malfoy remind you of Colin Craven?' and I scooped up the four books from my violently protesting siblings and re-read them with the wind in my hair at the prow of the ship. I wouldn't have read dozens of other wonderful, beautiful children's and young adult books, had they not been given a place in the market by Harry Potter's wild success. I'll never stop loving the thought of people in excited lines at midnight, I'll never stop loving Draco Malfoy (Of course, I never got over Colin Craven, either). I'll never stop appreciating that people talked so much about these books and being glad that you guys are here now, listening to me.
In the last analysis of Harry Potter, I could never be anything but grateful.