Is it possible that I am the last person on Earth to have dove into the Harry Potter series. Undoubtedly this is possible – certainly the life partner has read the books, seen the movies etc. I remember my friends in grad school preparing for the midnight openings and whatnot. I always sort of glossed over it – I am not sure precisely why – they seemed like kids books (or whatever that means), and there is only so much time in the day to consume stuff.
Preamble aside though, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a terrific book. It is terrific in all of the obvious ways that a good piece of fiction should be – the plot is absorbing, the scenes crackle with life, and the protagonists and villains are quirkily drawn. But it is good in harder to see areas – including a writing style which complements the action perfectly. It is hard to imagine a better piece of “children’s fiction”.
What is funny about reading the book now is that it is really a story virtually everybody knows – I have seen bits and pieces of movies (they are pretty much unavoidable if you have good cable), so even I can’t say I came to this in the dark. Can I really spoil this? In any case, as everybody probably knows by now, the first of the Harry Potter books concerns his arrival at, and his eventual first year at Hogwarts, the vaunted school of magic, sorcery and such. But of course, it is not that simple – even in the beginning.
Rowling, in the tradition of the origin story – shows us Harry before Hogwarts, but takes the time to have fun with it. We start with a portrait of the Dursleys, a decidedly un-magical family in London with a properly spoiled brat of a son named Dudley. The details here would have made Roald Dahl weep with joy – as for some reason I was reminded of The Twits as we hear of what classical bourgeois awfulness the family embodied. To them arrives their nephew Harry (and nearby a very interested feline) – but a nephew whose mother (Mrs. Dursley’s sister) is a subject of great consternation. Of course Harry’s mother and father were famous in the land of wizards – as you can imagine, there is some X-Men Mutants on Earth level resentment.
This resentment, and the Dursley’s ensuing cruelty lead to both some sympathy for Harry as well as some comic relief. There is sufficient British wit here to show what buffoons these “muggles” are. Through these scenes we start to notice oddities – how things just seem to happen around Harry, especially when he is upset. He seems to be able to talk to snakes or something and perhaps even transport himself. Of course the folks in the magic side of town know this as well. The scenes where Hogwarts tries to contact Harry are particular funny. When he is finally whisked away, there is a sense of triumph – even if we have barely started his journey.
Throughout the book, Rowling is giving a lot of background – but without really stopping the action. We learn of the various students – Hermoine Granger, Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom. There is a lot to keep track of, and Rowling uses a sort of literary typecasting to help us along. Hermoine is the know it all, Ron is the guy whose older siblings went to school there, Neville could use a hug, Harry is a sort of everyman (at least for now) – all stuff we either knew (or were) in grade school. We meet faculty, rival houses, and even learn about what Quidditch is. Here, Rowling’s world seems boundless – she has imagined this world pretty fully, plundering lore certainly, but in a way that the corners are certainly filled.
Fortunately though, this is not all exposition. A plot slowly starts to form as we start seeing parts of the school where students are forbidden. We see professors and groundskeepers being evasive to the students. As this happens, Harry, Hermoine and Ron start to get suspicious. They go to the library and eventually discover the Sorcerer’s Stone and its ability to provide eternal life. These elements are handled as a good, fast moving thriller. Harry’s discovery and eventually the pursuit of the secret (really a MacGuffin here) are appropriately exciting and page turning – certainly something that any young reader would appreciate I’d think. Even the resolution closes this story nicely while providing ample mystery for the future.
Overall, this was about fifty times better than I was expecting – the second book cannot come soon enough.