J.K. Rowling,
Harry Potter & the
Order of the Phoenix

(Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2003)

In Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, the account of Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts, the black and white world of the fight between good and evil takes on shades of gray as Harry and his friends turn the corner from childhood.

Harry is 15 now and surges into adolescence with all of its angst, uncertainty and teenage paranoia. Stuck at his aunt and uncle's house for yet another summer, he feels neglected by Ron and Hermione, who seem to be excluding him from some exciting project, as well as Dumbledore. He's also on edge trying to determine where Lord Voldemort is.

If all this isn't bad enough, Harry is forced to use magic to defend himself and his cousin Dudley, which lands him at a hearing to determine whether he should be expelled from Hogwarts. It's safe to say that the Ministry of Magic is unsuccessful -- this is about the fifth year at Hogwarts after all -- but his return to Hogwarts is a disappointment.

Rumors that Harry was lying about Voldemort and the events of the previous book abound; Dumbledore is actively avoiding him; Hagrid is missing; and the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher is the utterly repressive and repulsive Dolores Umbridge. Umbridge, a Ministry of Magic undersecretary, begins a campaign to put Hogwarts under control of the Ministry, and her tactics are eerily familiar. Harry begins having nightmares that seem to be building a connection between him and Voldemort and the action progresses exponentially. In the end, Harry has to accept the ambiguity of real life and a loss of innocence, the first steps to adulthood.

The undertones of the book are much darker. The idea of freedom as the price of security runs throughout the book, from Sirius Black's forced confinement in a hideaway to Professor Umbridge's restrictive measures; certainly this reflects the current mood of "homeland security" rampant today. Some of Harry's illusions are shattered, opening him up to the pain of accepting the truth about people rather than the idealized images he used to have. Harry's a teenager now, and he is in turns angry, arrogant, resentful and rebellious along with uncertain, awkward and bewildered.

As Harry begins the transition from boy to man, he is at once vulnerable and capable. He wants to be protected, but he also wants to be trusted with the responsibility to act on his own. He is frightened out of his wits, but he has the courage and the confidence to act in spite of his fears. He has a teenager's reckless sense of immortality and invincibility yet also understands that the consequences of an action can be deadly.

Weighing in at 870 pages, the story is as engrossing as ever, and Rowling exhibits her usual flair in character development and Dickensian names; Dolores Umbridge is an utterly perfect name for the character. The length of the book is justified considering that Rowling is constrained by planning to cover her story within Harry's seven years at Hogwarts; while it's always possible that some editing would have been appropriate, there is no sense of bloated writing. She gives herself a lot to handle, but it rings true, and she effectively sets the scene for the development and denouement of the story arc over the next two books. Order of the Phoenix is clearly a pivotal book in the series.

That being said, it is clearly more a book for older children and young adults rather than younger readers. A certain degree of experiential maturity is required to appreciate the book, and young readers who are discouraged -- or even bored -- by the book would do well to return to it much later. And yes, there is a death, but I'm not going to say whose it is.

What I admire most about J.K. Rowling is that she did not churn out a fifth book to meet the demands of the public, nor did she succumb to the temptation to let Harry and his friends age but not grow up. Rather, she took her time and successfully wrote the best book she knew how to write, and she remained true to her vision and demonstrated integrity. It doesn't get better than that.

Whether you can appreciate Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix now or need to wait until later, it's definitely worth the time to read. J.K. Rowling has done it again.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 28 June 2003

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