Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Book Review - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Okay, so if you took my advice last week and read the first book of the Harry Potter series, you are now breathlessly eager to press on and read the next book. In fact, like some young people of my acquaintance, you may have shown up on the doorstep of a Potter-friendly family less than 24 hours after borrowing the first book to request the second. (We will only lend it to you if it's okay with your parents, and if we aren't reading it ourselves.) These books really are that good. J.K. Rowling has virtually singlehandedly created a generation of readers.
The second book does not disappoint. Again we have the memorable characters, fleshed out a little beyond mere archetypes now, undergoing typical pre-teen angst in ways that are just different enough from reality that we can safely laugh at them, but that also advance the incredibly complex story arc of the seven book series. The trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are central, of course. The Dursleys who oppressed Harry in the first book are even more oppressive, and his school nemesis, Draco Malfoy, has a father who makes him seem congenial by comparison. Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Snape are joined by the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Gilderoy Lockhart, an image-obsessed celebrity with a talent for self-promotion... and not much else. We meet Dobby, the excessively self-deprecating house-elf, and are treated to a visit to the enchanting Weasley residence by means of a flying Ford Anglia.
Harry must deal with the distrust and fear of his own fellow students in this book, as an ancient evil lurks the passages of Hogwarts, and Harry is suspected of collusion with the forces of darkness. Students, ghosts, and pet cats are being Petrified, and ultimately only Harry's courage and determination can solve the riddle and confront the source of the evil.
Themes: This book begins to flesh out the theme of class warfare in the wizarding world which will be important to the rest of the series. Many of the aristocratic class of "pureblood" wizards have deep dislike for "muggles" (ordinary non-magic humans) and anyone who has very much to do with them. In America we would probably see this as a jab against racism, but I wonder if Rowling didn't have the evils of Nazism or British colonialism in mind. There are also general themes of loyalty, friendship, and the need for discernment in where one's trust is placed.
Cautions: some dark themes, but not really more so than the first book. However, some of the plot points may be more troubling for young children: the risk of death, a malevolent monster, unjust suspicion of Harry and Hagrid, and possibly creepiest of all, an innocent student being controlled by a sinister magical artifact. Also, as in all these books, obedience to authority is never unquestioning. Harry and his friends break school rules when they feel it is necessary, and they are frequently portrayed as right to do so. Our kids have read this book starting at age 8 with no ill effects. But, if they read this one, they will clamor to read the third book -- which is darker and might be more appropriate for ages 10 and up; and the fourth, which is much darker and should probably be delayed still more. The best advice I can give is to read it before or with your child, and be prepared to discuss issues that come up in your own family. And enjoy it for what it is, a modern fairy tale with a great sense of fun.