Tag Archives: j.k. rowling

Mortal peril and bluebirds

Julie Walters as the magnificent Molly Weasley. "Harry watched with terror and elation as Molly Weasley's wand slashed and twirled, and Bellatrix Lestrange's smile faltered, and became a snarl. Jets of light flew from both wands, the floor around the witches' feet became hot and cracked; both women were fighting to kill."

Sadly, we finished Harry last week. Seven books in seven months, devoured the year N was seven. I have to say I didn’t expect to like the books as much as I did. They are wonderfully rich stories, but I think I loved them even more for the way they brought the three of us together, so excited to see what would happen next, and talking over each other to squeeze our predictions in. The term “reading ahead” became a common accusation in our house — “Mom! I saw Dad reading ahead!” — so much so that it extended into other areas of our life. One day N’s dad phoned to say he would be home late, and N said, “Okay, Dad, we’ll eat ahead.”

There was plenty of sobbing over this final book. For me, the most intense part came towards the end of the story, when Hermione, Luna, and Ginny, all teenage girls, were battling the evil Bellatrix Lestrange. She was much more powerful than they were, and had very nearly cursed Ginny to death when Mrs. Weasley, the frumpy, doting, fretting mother figure throughout all of the Harry books, ordered the girls “OUT OF MY WAY!” and flew at Bellatrix, her witch’s power infused with maternal love. I could hardly get the words out I was crying so hard. Later N’s dad suggested, “I think you relate to Mrs. Weasley a little more than you realized!” And yes, I have to admit, I do.

Like me, Mrs. Weasley is the one who rushes everyone to readiness for their various activities, and gives annoying reminders of what needs to be done when and what will happen if it isn’t accomplished. She bustles around the ramshackle Burrow doing the chores and keeping her eye on a magical clock that was “completely useless if you wanted to know the time, but otherwise very informative. It had nine golden hands, and each of them was engraved with one of the Weasley family’s names. There were no numerals around the face, but descriptions of where each family member might be. ‘Home,’ ‘school,’ and ‘work’ were there, but there was also ‘traveling,’ ‘lost,’ ‘hospital,’ ‘prison,’ and, in the position where the number twelve would be on a normal clock, ‘mortal peril.'” Later in the series, with the return of the Dark Lord, all nine hands point to “mortal peril,” and Mrs. Weasley has taken to carrying the clock around the house with her, so she can keep her eye on it (and her family) at all times.

I remember when N was a baby how anxious I felt when the three of us were separated. As long as we were all three together, it seemed that everything would be all right, but as soon as one of us was removed from that scenario (N’s dad off at work, or the two of us on a date, with N’s grandma babysitting), the anxiety would return in a flood. Luckily, that passed, but I well recall the feeling that we were somehow protected simply by being together.

N’s dad was away this weekend, and I had no worries whatsoever. N crawled in with me two nights in a row, and we watched movies and read books together, side by side. She’s working her way through a little gem I discovered, Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling, translated from the ancient runes by Hermione Granger. It’s beyond N’s reading level, but I love the fact that she wants to work her way through it alone, and to read while I’m reading. It didn’t really work out that way, of course, because she interrupted me every few minutes to ask about a word, and then glanced over when I’d put my book aside and asked “Mom, why aren’t you reading?”

A publicity still from The Wizard of Oz, 1939

Our movie this weekend was The Wizard of Oz, which we hadn’t seen for some time, and on this viewing N was quite curious about Dorothy — or rather Judy Garland. Who plays Dorothy, she wanted to know, and how old was she then and how old would she be now, and was she rich, as rich as J.K. Rowling?

I told her what I knew: that Judy Garland had become famous for her singing and acting at a very young age, after the phenomenal success of The Wizard of Oz, and that sometimes fame muddles up your life in the worst ways possible. And then — curious myself —  we looked her up to find out more.

Frances Ethel Gumm, flanked by her older sisters, in 1933

She was born Frances Ethel Gumm, and her parents were vaudevillians who ran a movie theatre. She and her sisters — The Gumm Sisters! — performed at the theatre from an early age, accompanied by their mom on piano, but it was Frances/Judy who went on to fame and fortune. She was just 16 when she was cast as Dorothy, belting out “Over the Rainbow” (which, like Supercali, N can pick out on the piano) and surely unaware how the song would follow her through her life from then on. In later years she wrote, “‘Over the Rainbow’ has become part of my life. It’s so symbolic of everybody’s dreams and wishes that I’m sure that’s why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I’ve sung it thousands of times and it’s still the song that’s closest to my heart.”

It’s no surprise. From the sounds of it, Judy Garland was certainly no happy little bluebird. And she didn’t have Molly Weasley for a mother. They were estranged for years, and Judy once told Ladies’ Home Journal that her mother was “no good for anything except to create chaos and fear.” Even without her mother, Garland’s life seemed full of chaos and fear. Of one of her suicide attempts, she said, “All I could see ahead was more confusion.”

As I pondered all of this and the hefty price of fame, N sat pondering too. I wondered what she was thinking about so intently, and if there was a weighty question coming my way, perhaps about life and death, mortal peril, maybe, or sadness. But after a while she looked up at me with the sparkle of an idea showing in her eye and she asked, “Mom, can anyone change their name? I mean … can I?”


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“This lovely world, these precious days”

It sometimes seems that N saves her most serious questions for the moment I’m pulling the door closed at bed time. A little while back she asked, “Mom?”


“Why do we close our eyes when we die?”

“Well — we don’t, necessarily. Sometimes people die with their eyes open, and someone closes them, just with their hand, brushing it over the eyelids.”

“But why close them? Can the eyes still see?”

“No.” I hesitated. I wasn’t really sure what to say. The obvious answer seemed to be that it was a gesture of respect for the person who’d died. But it didn’t really seem true to me, so instead I said, “I guess it’s more for the living person, who needs to feel that the person who’s died is at peace.”

These kinds of questions pop up periodically, and often leave my mind whirling long after N has fallen asleep. Funnily, she sometimes sleeps with her eyes open just the tiniest sliver, and has done so since she was a baby. I used to love to watch her as she slept, and see how the irises took on a sort of glazed appearance, as if they were still working, but seeing something inside rather than out.

I’m sure the questions come, in part, because of our ongoing adventures with the Harry Potter series. Harry’s beloved godfather Sirius Black died in the fifth book, falling through the Veil with a “look of mingled fear and surprise,” as Bellatrix LeStrange’s triumphant screams rang in Harry’s ears. And now, part way through the sixth, The Half-Blood Prince, we are all waiting for the moment Albus Dumbledore dies, a spoiler that caused us all to gasp aloud when N’s friend uttered it several books back. Death is such a constant part of this series that it’s no surprise it comes up when the light goes out. J.K. Rowling herself has said, “My books are largely about death. … I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”

And yet — I remember a time a few years back, when N was three or four, and her grandma’s good friend died. For a year or so after, N would ask about what happened to him. One day as I retold the story for the umpteenth time, I finished with, “It was very sad, but….”

And she said, “No, Mom. It isn’t sad. It’s okay, because people always want to die right when they’re going to.”

It was one of those moments when you aren’t sure if a child has said something incredibly profound or if you, as an adult, have read more into it. In any case, it’s always stayed with me. It felt a bit like a gift.

When discussing these weighty subjects, it can be tricky to know what kids are ready for and what feels like too much. For all her apparent wisdom, N was too tender for Charlotte’s Web when we read it together some years ago. She seemed to be loving the story, but when it became obvious that Charlotte the spider was winding down, getting ready to leave “this lovely world, these precious days,” the story was too heartbreaking. We finished it, but she didn’t want to read it again — a sure sign, in those days of reading the same things over and over, that something was amiss. But Charlotte’s Web is a beautiful story. Eudora Welty wrote that it was about “friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time.” That must be one of the most eloquent bits of praise I’ve ever come across.

E.B. White had a solid career at The New Yorker long before he began writing children’s literature. He was over 50 when Charlotte’s Web appeared in 1952. Like the Little House books I wrote about last time, Charlotte’s Web was illustrated by Garth Williams, who apparently used his own daughter as a model for Fern Arable, the determined eight-year-old who’s shocked that Wilbur the pig will be killed just because he’s the runt of the litter. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of,” she says.

I think I was in Grade 3 when I read Charlotte’s Web, and I remember being puzzled by the title, and also trying to figure out, in my child’s way, whose story this was. Was it Fern’s? Was it Wilbur’s? Was it Charlotte’s? In the end, of course, it’s about all of them, and the web of friendship.

As Charlotte tells Wilbur just before she dies, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”


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