Sunday, November 25, 2012

On children's stories and house elves

I know. It's been a long time since I posted a new entry to this blog, hasn't it? Don't worry, though: it's not because I've abandoned Harry Potter. Not in the least. In fact, I'm currently luxuriating in the wonder that is The Goblet of Fire, enjoying every word of it.

But more on that below. The really exciting news is that I am about to release my own book for young people. Yes indeed! No, I'm not going to claim it's on the same level as J.K.'s books, don't worry. But I am very proud of the writing and of the work my sister has done to design and layout the book, as well as provide original illustrations for it.

The book is the first in a series of three planned volumes of short stories entitled Abigail Massey at McAdam Station. They will be self-published through an online printer ( and available for sale through any outlet we can find, mostly in my home province of New Brunswick in Canada.

The books are a fund raiser to support the restoration and preservation of the beautiful and historic Railway Station and Hotel in McAdam, New Brunswick. This tiny village of 1,300 people is working hard to restore this national architectural treasure, even though the cost of restoration has been pegged as high as $10-million. As the press release I've drafted for the release of the book says, "How does a village of 1,300 raise more than $10-million to preserve a historic building for the benefit of 30-million Canadians? It gets creative."

The stories are set in 1941, when the McAdam Railway Station was the gateway to the East Coast for Canada's war effort. They feature a group of teenage girls, led by Abigail Massey herself, who live and work at the Station, I've tried for a Nancy-Drew-like feel to the writing so they're very innocent but also, I hope, quite exciting. Several of the stories involve events or personalities drawn from the history of the Station, including the Canadian Prime Minister of the time and famed skater Barbara Ann Scott.

If you want more information, please visit the project website at

OK, enough with the advertisement. On with the Potter discussion. Let's talk a minute about Hermione's efforts to emancipate the House Elves: S.P.E.W.

I'm interested in this project for a number of reasons, most importantly because it raises the discussion of slavery and self-determination. Are the House Elves enslaved, as Hermione seems to suggest? Is it appropriate for her to attempt to force them into a more "emancipated" state?

Is the decision to remain enslaved an acceptable decision?

What is J.K. trying to say with this whole subplot?

The way I'm reading it, the House Elves are in fact enslaved (they cannot decide of their own volition to leave their masters) and, as a result, they can be treated quite brutally. But, even when they are given the choice (as Dobby and Winky are), they appear to wish to choose to remain in their enslaved position rather than be free.

Should not that decision be respected? Is Hermione not wrong to try to convince them to be unhappy with their lot?

It's an interesting question.

On one side, we could argue that, even though the House Elves themselves appear to argue in favour of their own continued enslavement, to claim that they like it, they wish it, it's in their natures to be enslaved, their decision is in fact coerced both by their own history (they have never known what it is like to be free and therefore fear it; their parents and grandparents always served a master so it appears to be the natural, appropriate state for them) and their legitimate fear (as proven by Dobby's own experience when he attempted to find paying employment) that they will be rejected by society if they don't continue their enslavement.

On the other side, we could find numerous examples in our own society where individuals (or even groups of individuals) subsume their own personal needs and personal fulfillment (at least as most of society would define those terms) to the needs of another person, group or cause in an almost slave-like manner. Does the fact that one receives wages and some time off really make that much of a difference for a person in a low paying job who absolutely has to keep the job to feed herself and her family? Is that kind of a situation that far from slavery?

Does that person really have a choice? Can she really, honestly choose to quit her job, if the town or city where she lives has high unemployment and no open positions?

I know... deep deep subjects. My problem is, I'm not sure I agree with Hermione in this case. I think she completely misreads the situation and projects her own "stuff" (the social and cultural beliefs that she's learned from her middle class Muggle parents) onto a race of beings she doesn't seem to wish to take the time to understand. Or even listen to.

In attempting to fight for their right to self-determination, Hermione herself makes the massive error of thinking she has the right to speak for the House Elves, to determine what is best for them without taking into consideration their opinions on the issues.

In fighting for their rights, she seems to me to be trampling them herself.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Relishing a return to Rowling's humour

I've spent the past three weeks or so working my way through Stephenie Meyer's final three books in the twilight series: new moon, eclipse and breaking dawn. And, through a book sale at work, I managed to pick up all four of Meyer's novels in their French translations, which should help with my continuing effort to learn to read and speak that language.

Hooray for me.

This morning, however, I finally got the chance to get back to Harry Potter. More specifically, I picked up on The Goblet of Fire where I had left it off to start up with Bella, Edward and the twilight gang. I was delighted to find myself laughing out loud almost as soon as I began to read J.K.'s prose: the first scene I read was the one at the camp-site before the Quidditch World Cup, when Hermione, Ron and Harry return to their tent to find Mr. Weasley struggling to light a fire the Muggle way: with matches.

I just loved this line: "'Oops!' he said, as he managed to light a match, and promptly dropped it in surprise." I can just picture it happening: the scratch of the match, the flare of the flame, the surprise on Mr. Weasley's face and then his wrist flicking the burning match away from himself.

And that's yet another aspect of the Harry Potter novels that I think sets them apart from so much of the other Young Adult fiction out there: Rowling's sense of humour.

I found the twilight novels to be almost completely without humour, rolling along in a single consistently somber mood. I'm not sure The Hunger Games trilogy was any better.

But Rowling manages to find ways to brighten the tone of even her most challenging, frightening or intense scenes, often with a single turn of phrase or surprising observation. Her writing is quite Shakespearean in that way.

I shall keep an eye out for more examples that just this one as I continue to read and try to point out my favourites in future blogs.

Meanwhile, my friend Miranda chose to go out for Hallowe'en this year as Bellatrix Lestrange, putting together a convincingly evil costume and just the right sneer on her face. I'm told she encountered only on "Harry Potter" on her walk through the neighbourhood; fortunately, no duel ensued and both parties walked away unscathed.