Author: J.K. Rowling
Genre: Fantasy; Children’s Lit; Best Books Ever
Publisher: Bloomsbury (UK); Scholastic (US)
Published: June 26, 1997 (UK); September 1, 1998 (US)
Number of Pages: 422
“Harry—yer a wizard.”
With this one sentence, Harry Potter’s life is changed forever. Leaving his muggle relatives behind, Harry boards a train from Platform 9 ¾ to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—a castle off in the wild countryside—to learn magic. At Hogwarts, Harry finds challenging classes, moving staircases, true friends, and a mystery. What is in the 3rd floor corridor on the right-hand side? Who let a troll in the dungeon? Who is Nicholas Flamel? What does all this have to do with You-Know-Who?
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Bradbury and Evans
Published: Serialized March 1852-September 1853
Number of Pages: 1017
This is one of those novels that is actually several interwoven stories at once. There is the never-ending saga that is the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce—a question of legal inheritance that has ripped a family apart for generations. There is the drama of Lady Dedlock, a woman who is rich, beautiful, and bored out of her mind—but who has a secret that no one must ever learn. There is the tale of Caddy Jellyby, whose mother cares more for Africa than she does for her husband and many children. There is the tragedy of Jo, an orphan crossing sweeper who is perpetually forced to “move on”. At one point, an entire murder mystery gets swallowed up into the great web of stories. The one through-line of the story is Esther Summerson—niece of the late Miss Barbary, ward of John Jarndyce, and friend to just about everyone she meets.
The Ties That Bind
Both stories introduce an orphan who has spent his or her formative years in the home of their mother’s sister. Yet in that time, neither child receives anything like love or comfort from their aunt. These women make it clear that they are raising their sister’s child out of nothing more than obligation. Despite this obvious neglect, both Harry and Esther manage to make it to an age where they can be sent off to school and away from their unfeeling aunt. In both cases, this boarding school changes everything and allows the protagonist to become the specific brand of hero that he or she is destined to be.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry lives with the Dursleys—Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and his cousin Dudley. They hate him. Make him sleep in the cupboard under the stairs when there’s a perfectly suitable fourth bedroom level of hatred. Leave him behind with the crazy cat lady down the street when they do fun things level of hatred. Give him a coat hanger for his birthday level of hatred. All this hatred actually stems from fear—fear of magic, fear of the force that killed Harry’s parents, fear of what the neighbors would think if they knew.
Despite his Aunt and Uncle’s best efforts to squash the magic out of him, Harry remains decidedly magical. On his eleventh birthday, Harry is tracked down by Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The pink-umbrella-wielding giant breaks down the door, informs Harry of his magical heritage, and delivers a letter inviting the boy to become a student at Hogwarts. Harry soon boards a train from Platform 9 ¾ to begin his magical education. Along the way, he is introduced to chocolate frogs, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, and Scabbers the rat. More importantly, Harry meets the two people destined to be the greatest friends he will ever have—Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
At Hogwarts, Harry is suddenly no longer hated (for the most part). On the contrary, he just so happens to be famous. Surrounded by mentors and friends who generally want the best for him, Harry is able to flourish in the magical community in a way that was not possible with the Dursleys. It is through the strength of these relationships, as well as his magical education and his mother’s charm, that Harry is able to get through all the obstacles that pile up against him.
Though we only get a short look at Esther’s time at school in Bleak House, she makes it clear that this is the very first time in her life when she experiences acceptance, care, and even admiration from other human beings. Her Aunt was, “a good, good woman” who “went to church three times every Sunday”. It is unclear whether Ms. Barbary was always so pious or if she only became so after Esther’s birth. Regardless, Esther’s aunt taught the young girl, who had been conceived outside of wedlock, to see herself as lower than other people and undeserving of love. Esther is left with a great desire to “do some good to some one and to win some love to [herself] if [she] could.” With the death of her aunt, Esther finally gets the chance at age thirteen.
After her aunt’s funeral, Esther is taken under the guardianship of the eccentric, though good-hearted, John Jarndyce and sent to a first-rate boarding school where she can be trained as a governess. At this school, where Esther is finally free to be seen as herself rather than under the dark shadow of her aunt’s disapproval, she is able to flourish. She learns her lessons quickly and soon begins teaching the younger children. It isn’t long before all newcomers to the school are entrusted to Esther’s care and friendship. In no time at all, Esther has managed to win the love of the entire school. During her six-year stay, Esther learns not only how to “win love,” but also picks up practical skills which she uses throughout the rest of the novel to help various characters—from the Jellyby children to her maid Charlie to Jo the crossing sweep.
Though brought up by a distant and disapproving aunt, both Harry and Esther are, thanks to an unexpected boarding-school education, able to spend their adolescent years surrounded by good friends and skilled mentors. It is their school experiences more than their tumultuous childhoods that enable them to grow into people who help make the world a better, safer, more compassionate place.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale