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It seems like a strange thing, a children’s book chronicling the rise of a totalitarian regime, but when I reread Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there it was.  The comes out November 19; Stephen Fry claims it’s the “best one yet,” and I wanted to be properly prepared.

I’d read the novel when it came out, of course.  The series became an addiction as soon as I first broke down and purchased the initial four books on a trip to Paris in 2002.  Despite my general distrust of collective wisdom, whatever James Surowiecki might say, the British versions of the Harry Potter series looked too much like gift-wrapped candy on the shelves at Shakespeare and Company to be left behind.  I started reading The Philosopher’s Stone on the sleeper train back to Bologna and found myself unable to stop.  I read all the way through the night, until we reached home.  And then I read them again.

In grad school, that horrible first year, I returned to Hogwarts over and over.  The beautiful school, the friendship between Hermione, Ron and Harry – it was such an escape from my misgivings and homesickness.  But I haven’t needed the books in that way for a while now and I returned with a slightly more critical eye.

Harry, for those of you under a rock since 1998, is “the boy who lived.”  The fiendishly powerful wizard Voldemort attacked Harry as a baby, fearing a prophecy that claimed neither could survive if the other lived.  But Harry lived through Voldemort’s black magic, although his parents did not.  When we meet Harry in the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, he is four “stupid, pointless, irritating beyond belief” days away from being able to practice magic unsupervised – a wizarding law much like a driver’s license, but in Harry’s case coinciding with the expiration of his mother’s protective charm keeping Voldemort at bay.

Our cast of characters assembles to protect our hero: “Ron, long and lanky; Hermione, her bushy hair tied back in a long plait; Fred and George, grinning identically…Mr. Weasley, kind-faced, balding, his spectacles a little awry… Lupin, greyer, more lined…Hagrid, with his wild hair and beard, standing hunchbacked to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling….”

Throughout the later novels, Rowling tends to have an adjective for every noun, and the reintroduction of the familiar characters, on the off chance you haven’t read the other stories, drags on the beginning.  But the pacing of rest of the novel is exquisite; there’s so much to do in these books!  Folks, spoilers follow here.  Look away!  Look away! Harry, Hermione and Ron have a secret quest to destroy the six Horcruxes of Voldemort, enchanted objects each containing a piece of the dark lord’s soul.  On their journey, they each bring a gift from their beloved headmaster, Dumbledore, who perished at the end of The Half-Blood Prince.

The inheritance brings me to the politics, which I hadn’t noticed as much in my first reading.  Voldemort’s supporters, the Death Eaters, have infiltrated the Ministry of Magic.  The government cannot be trusted.  At the beginning of the book distrust seeps into every contact with the magical establishment.  The Minister of Magic twists laws to suit his political purposes, confiscating Dumbledore’s bequest and only begrudging returning the items to Ron, Hermione and Harry.

When the Ministry falls, in a coup d’etat, the parallel between the Magic government and totalitarian regimes becomes more starkly outlined.  “‘Death Eaters have got the full might of the Ministry on their side now,’ said Lupin. ‘They’ve got the power to perform brutal spells without fear of identification or arrest.’”  The Death Eaters’ obsession with purity of bloodlines leads to the examination and imprisonment of those Muggle-born witches and wizards (born from non-Magic parents).

This strand of the story might seem gratuitous, but it is the characters’ response, Harry’s response, that I found so instructive.  The predominant theme of the novel is pardon.  “‘[If] somebody made a mistake,’ Harry went on, ‘and let something slip, I know they didn’t mean to do it…We’ve got to trust each other.’”  There are many, many instances of betrayal, even by Harry’s closest friends: Lupin, Dumbledore, Ron.  The novel shows us that good people may respond to torture in not admirable ways, and still be good people.  Wizards, like Muggles, are complicated; “history often skates over what wizards have done to other magical races.”  At some point, you must simply trust the people you have loved.  And be ready to forgive.

So now we’re all ready to see the movie next Friday, but you really should read it for yourself.  Unlikely though it sounds, the novel is worth the six hundred pages it takes to reach its conclusion.  Friendships like we readers have with Harry are worthy of the time.  “This is the comfort of friends,” reads the epigraph from William Penn, “that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present….”  There’s no better description of a good book, I think.

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