Between GRE prep and thesis work, this week I read Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli of The Leaky Cauldron. Since I first read the series only after The Deathly Hallows came out, I got to experience the whole story uninterrupted, but missed out on all the anticipation of those who followed the books from the beginning. I’ve never gone to a midnight book release party or Harry Potter conference. I’ve never dressed up as a wizard or written fan-fiction. I’ve never gotten in a “shipping” war or agonized over who would live and who would die. As much as I love the books, I’ll always be an outsider to all that (much to my wife’s relief, I’m sure).
So I found Anelli’s insider account of the phenomenon fascinating. She covers everything from the book releases to “Wizard Rock” bands, from leaked spoilers to Rowling’s admission that Dumbledore is gay. It’s engaging and endearing (and sometimes disturbing), and it covers a lot of ground, though it has an annoying habit of jumping around in time with little or no warning. Part of this is simply that Anelli organized the chapters thematically rather than chronologically, which was fine, but even within the chapters there seems little structure and a good deal too much jumping around. Still, I enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it, though mostly it made me wish I had read the books sooner so I could have experienced some of this first hand.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I was especially interested in her chapter on attempts to ban the books, since they have mostly come from conservative Christians. In particular, Anelli interviews Laura Mallory, a young mother from Atlanta who believes God told her–literally–that the books were evil and should not be read, and carried her attempt to ban them all the way the Georgia Supreme court. Anelli, who is Catholic, is admirably patient and understanding of this position, though of course she rejects it entirely, observed that many Christians (along with so many others) have not only found the books acceptable but morally uplifting.
The most moving part of the book came in response to Mallory’s public statements that Harry Potter has contributed to the rise in school shootings. Mallory quoted Darrell Scott, whose daughter was killed at Columbine, to make her point:
Your laws ignore our deepest needs
Your words are empty air
You’ve stripped away our heritage
You’ve outlawed simple prayer
Now gunshots fill our classrooms
And precious children die
You seek for answers everywhere
And ask the question “Why?”
You regulate restrictive laws
Through legislative creed
And yet you fail to understand
That God is what we need!
Anelli passionately denounces Mallory’s attempt to co-opt these heartfelt words, and recounts the story of Lindsey Benge, another survivor from Columbine who wrote to say that she, along with many of her classmates, was only able to work through her grief and rediscover joy because of Rowling’s series. She discovered in its strong themes of loss and love the courage to face her own past and truly mourn for the first time.
Anelli’s book is not all serious, however, and is occasionally quite funny, especially when describing just how fanatically some take the series, as when she and Emerson Spartz (from MuggleNet) got to interview Rowling and “Fandom” quickly decided that they must be a couple and started writing fanfiction about them. Almost immediately, that attention turned nasty when it was learned that the interview included a swipe at that those who thought Harry and Hermione were destined to get together. Emerson called them “delusional,” a comment that Rowling attempted to qualify but did not really deny, and some fans of that particular (relation)ship took such umbrage they actually sent him death threats, something Anelli and Emerson find quite laughable.
As you can see, this is hardly an objective history (despite the claim to offer “The True Story”). Several reviewers on Amazon note that this might be more accurately titled Melissa, A History, as the vast majority of the book is told from her perspective, reflects her experiences, chronicles her webpage, her interviews with Rowling, her reactions to the books, and so on. Yet while this occasionally gets overbearing, for the most part I thought it gave the story a more personal and human touch. It may be biased, but it was more fun to read than a strict history would have been.
This is good, because the book has quite a few weaknesses otherwise. I’ve mentioned that it frequently jumps around in time, but it also quite often repeats information already given in earlier chapters and occasionally lacks polish (I spotted several sentence fragments and run-ons, and a number of typos). It also seems unsure of its audience. It sometimes explains the most mundane details that no one who has read the books would not know (like the fact that Honeydukes and Flourish and Blotts are stores from the books), but elsewhere does not hesitate to refer to the ultimate fates of major characters (sometimes directly, other times indirectly as a kind of in-joke). Given that she devotes an entire chapter to her quest not to have the books spoiled, you’d think Anelli might have worked harder not to spoil them for her own readers.
Still, if you have read the series and are looking for an insider’s perspective on the phenomena that surrounded it, I’d heartily recommend this book.