alexandra alger


Archive for the tag “Harry Potter”

Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

My daughter Vanessa, doing research on Edith Wharton, discovered that the writer had written most of The House of Mirth before deciding to change the name of her main character. She would not be Juliet Hurst but Lily Bart.

All right—Juliet doesn’t quite have the elegance or delicacy of Lily, and Wharton makes plain her character’s flower-like beauty and fragility. And yet I’m not sure I would’ve found fault with Juliet, had Wharton stuck with it. I might’ve liked the reminder of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.

How important is a name in a novel? (Shakespeare comes to mind again–nope, go away.)  One the one hand, you could argue that a character’s name is just one attribute, like shyness or having toothpick arms. Once we love (or loathe) a character we love (or shiver at) the name, and we can’t imagine that character having any other.

Take Harry Potter. It’s simple, unremarkable. For me, it conjures up a weather-beaten Englishman tending his primroses. It’s Harry the character who’s remarkable, who’s memorable. I’d want to read about his wizarding adventures no matter what his name. J.K. Rowling could have named Harry Ron and vice versa, and I’d be just as happy. Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone–how’s that? Ron’s as easy to say as Harry; Weasley is quirkier than Potter, funnier There’s something about the word “weasel,” with the long “e” followed by the “sel” that ends up as”zel” when you say it aloud–it tickles my funny bone.

At the same time, all right–Potter might be the better name for Rowling’s hero. Harry, despite his talents, is without pretension and down to earth (I thought of a potter as someone potting plants, who literally has his hands in soil). Weasley might better suit the hero’s wisecracking sidekick. Rowling is awfully good at coming up interesting names that reinforce our understanding of her characters, without being obvious about it. (Usually. Notable exception: Malfoy, which roughly means “bad faith” in French. British readers are more likely to recognize this than we Americans are.)

The right name is important. All I’m saying is, the character is even more so.

The Harry Potter All-nighter


The night Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows was released I stayed up ’til 5 am reading feverishly. Like a vampire, my time would be up come morning. I was going to have to hand it over to my son, who waiting eagerly for me to pick him up at sleep-away camp. (It never occurred to me to buy two copies. I’d like to say it’s because of how deeply I believe in sharing, but it has more to do with my Puritan  horror of excess and lack of discipline. What–buy TWO books, just because I can’t for my turn?)

Is there another all-nighter in my future? The New York Times most senior book reviewer, the august Michiko Kakutani, is calling Cursed Child “a compelling, stay-up-all-night read.”

Now I’m not a rabid follower of Michiko or anything. I respect her. She’s not a gusher. She seems more inclined to hate something than love it. For Michiko to say a work is “compelling,” is astonishing enough. If she’d said it was compelling and stopped there, I’d go ahead with my plan to buy the book (script, rather) today.

But she’s saying it’s so incredible, I’m gonna be up all night reading it. And because she’s baldly saying this–could it be the first time Michiko’s ever called a book a stay-up-all-nighter?–I believe it. I feel the truth of it. On the one hand, I’m thrilled, as every Harry Potter fan has to be, that the script is so gripping. But man oh man–do I want to be up all night tonight? I’m nine years older than I was when Deathly Hallows came out. Do I have the stamina? Do I even have the will? (She whines. I know, nine years older and whinier.) I know if I buy it, I won’t have a choice. I’ll be up all night. Unless I ran out and bought it right now. Then I’d have to forgo the writing and research I was going to do this afternoon. I don’t have quite as much Puritan self-discipline as I like to give myself credit for.

I should wait for the weekend. Yes. Buy it Friday. If I stay up all night Friday, I can sleep in Saturday. Perfect.

Do I really have to wait ’til Friday, though?

Yes. I do. It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read. I’m going to finish Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (it’s absorbing enough). I’m not going to the bookstore.

Good. I’ve decided. A good decision. Right.


Favorite Fictional Orphans

I’m creating a character who’s parentless, a modern-day orphan. Her role models aren’t actual, real orphans (I don’t know any of those, a fortunate thing) but the long line of memorable fictional ones.

As a child I always cleaved to the orphans. Not because they’re free of parental constraints–just the opposite! I got heart palpitations at the thought of complete freedom from parents (no doubt because my parents were insanely controlling). That’s why I had to keep reading. I had to make sure these poor orphans were going to be all right.

Who are my favorite orphans? I know I’m forgetting a few, but this is a good start. In no particular order:

James, James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (as if there is any doubt who authored this). I wanted to reach into the book and hug James—and then adopt him. Who could not root for James, whose parents die in a freakish accident and who is forced to live with his horrible (if deliciously horrible) aunts before having the most extraordinary adventure (practically) in all of children’s literature?

Anne, Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. I loved Anne’s hot temper, being a hot-tempered redhead myself (and not recognizing a tired cliche). I loved her soulfulness, and her way with words. Of course, Gilbert kept me reading, too. Lucy Maud was clever to give Anne such an appealing antagonist.

Mary, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet). I didn’t like Mary, or this book, for many years. Mary was such a sourpuss! In that heartless way of children, I refused to give her break for being an orphan and alone in a strange, nearly empty house (these English and the way they ignored children!). But she grew on me, especially when she straightened out her whiny, self-pitying cousin, Colin.

Silvia and Bonnie, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. Bonnie isn’t an orphan at first, but for most of the book her parents are missing and presumed dead, so as far as I was concerned, this was the story of two plucky orphans. What these two have to endure! When Bonnie’s parents go on a long trip, they leave the girls in the hands of a cousin, who turns out to be an imposter, an evil woman who takes over the house and sends the girls to an orphanage. How are the girls to escape—and to where? I read breathlessly.

Bod, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Bod, short for Nobody, is anything but. He’s the kind of boy a girl can’t help liking—the kind of boy who would try to figure out a way to provide a headstone for a witch who was both drowned and burned. He has all kinds of ograveyard skills, like Fading and Dreamwalking, and is clever enough to take down the man who killed his parents. Which reminds me of someone else….

Harry Potter, of course, the most famous orphan of all time (sorry, Oliver Twist and Huck Finn). He’s the only character on this list whose quest is rooted in the brutal murder of his parents. He learns more about his dead parents than most orphans do, and with knowledge comes pain and regret. James and Lily Potter may be the only fictional parents whose loss I actively mourned.

My character will come to mourn hers, but she’ll also find unexpected joy. I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

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