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COLUMN: What happens when real life gets Harry

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

There are many things I regret about my childhood. I once competed in something called the “Math Olympics,” and I was tremendously fond of the scrunchie. More than once, I put Pringles in my mouth and pretended I was a duck. There was one particularly unfortunate eight-month stretch during which I obsessed over the band Creed. Much to the chagrin of my mom, my sister and anyone in a car next to us, I would not get out of our blue Explorer until every lyric of “One Last Breath” had finished bellowing out of her car stereo. I owned a Creed T-shirt.

Lest I lose every potential reader right here, I will  just say there are some things I’d rather forget.

But there are also some things I could never. This notably denser category includes the ice cream truck, Pokémon Yellow for the GameBoy Color, the one time I saw Journey at the rodeo and a great deal of young adult science fiction. And, then, of course, there is Harry Potter — clever, always my age and, until he made a poor decision later in life, always available. There was a distinctly awesome period (roughly ages 10 to 14) during which Harry Potter was easily the most important man in my life. And no matter how many frantic Facebook updates I get leading up to the release of the newest movie, the realization that Harry was just as important to everyone else is consistently startling.

If Harry were real today, we would not actually be friends. He’d be disappointed that I’ve grown so angsty, that I don’t have a British accent, that I actually might need magic to open a jar. I’d be heartbroken that he’s not single, disappointed that he doesn’t have a college degree and constantly annoyed by his hokey life lessons. “Yes, Harry, I am aware that home is a feeling, not a place. Could you just pass the coffee? Without transforming it this time, please.” I am 100 percent certain, based on absolutely zero information, that he would listen to top 40 radio. I get the feeling we’d be pretty passive-aggressive. But because he is not real outside of paper, we could grow older without growing apart. And that is what Harry and I did.

It also happens to be what Harry and you did and Harry and she did and Harry and he did. Harry did it with all of us. Although I’d never have used the word during the founding years of our relationship, Harry and his life are a perfect example in lasting escapism. When I was in elementary school, all I knew was that  J.K. Rowling’s books had fewer dragons than the books next to hers on the shelves but more of something else. Today, I realize that something else is life. For approximately 10 years, spanning from third grade until the summer before I went to college, I lived both Harry’s life and my own.

There are three things about his life I am reminded of when trying to explain why he was (and is) one of the greatest literary figures of our time — and more specifically, our childhoods. The first is dichotomy. Though the Harry Potter novels frequently skimped on the gray area, they never failed to include the bad directly alongside the good. No one in my elementary school was ever paralyzed by a basilisk, but our parents did get divorced. When that happened, I didn’t have to face a dark wizard, but I did have to go to court. You can call it gullibility, you can call it youth, and you can even call it magic, but  in almost all of Harry’s feats there is something real to be brought away and applied to our own less impressive ones.

Although I run the risk of appearing just as hokey as I accused Harry of being earlier, Rowling’s books are also ageless. There will forever be a subtly vicious debate over the merits of the Harry Potter series versus the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but few other novels offer the same enduring sagacity that infuses the orphan’s life without also inducing your gag reflex. Harry did not even have the privilege of parents, and  Voldemort’s (I still fight the urge to whisper, even as I type) life was no cakewalk either. Today, the series is more of a time capsule for me than anything else — a yearbook of people I never actually met. If I reread all of the books today, I would be reminded of the way my math teacher reflected Snape, how my first boyfriend was uncannily reminiscent of Neville Longbottom. What’s missing, and much more difficult to count, are the lessons.

The third aspect, of course, is magic. If The Lovin’ Spoonful had asked me if I believed in it as a child, there was a solid year or two during which my answer would have been, “Duh.” But much like the fact that everyone who watches “The Matrix” cannot actually bend spoons with their mind, this idea faded into relative obscurity without actually going away. Let me explain: The literal belief that if I say “Alohomora” and move a wooden stick a certain way a lock will open is gone, but in its place is the general idea that I can solve my own problems. There is also the idea that Alohomora would make a relatively cool band name.

The year “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” came out, I wrote a letter to J.K. Rowling in which I asked her how to be a good writer and whether magic had anything to do with her abilities. True to form, I also included a pitifully misinformed joke to the effect that my owl was sick so the U.S. Postal Service would have to do in its stead.

I still have her response. She told me that I should write about whatever I like and that magic is not necessary. It does, however, help, she wrote. Magic alone is not the reason why her character has made such an impact, why Hollywood Theater will be so crowded this Thursday that I will need a spell to breathe, why I am still writing about Harry more than 10 years later. It does, however, help.

Kelsey Whipple is the editor of Vox. She would be a prisoner in Azkaban for the rest of her life if it meant Harry would study abroad at MU for a semester.


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Comments

Kirsten Williams November 18, 2010 | 9:36 a.m.

Great Story Kelsey!

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