In Honour of September 1st – Barbecue with Family Friends [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling]
There are some things I’ve had in mind since I started this project of rereading one Harry Potter book a year, and one of them was the comparison of Order of the Phoenix to a barbecue in our back garden.
It’s a comparison that works on several levels.
I always compare books to food, and Harry Potter books and barbecues work very well for me there. Because there’s meat, which in a book is the plot, the adventures. There are pork chops for the main adventure, for the inevitable encounter with Voldemort, and sausages for the smaller adventures and mysteries along the way.
There are potatoes baked in the coals, and potatoes are the world a story is set in, the foundation on which everything else is built. And just as there is a special deliciousness to these potatoes, even though they came out a little charred every time, there is a special deliciousness to the wizarding world, even though it’s not perfect and sometimes not entirely logical.
There are vegetables – corn on the cob, grilled zucchini and eggplant slices, skewers with onions and peppers, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms – and just as I will always want to eat those vegetables (they’d better get me good dentures when I’m old, so I can still eat corn on the cob), I will always want to read about these characters (which is what vegetables are, in my book/food analogies).
There are gigantic bowls of salad, which in a book is humour, of which there is no shortage in the Harry Potter books. And especially in Order of the Phoenix, there is so much that makes me laugh, that makes me think of all those bowls of potato salad, lettuce, tomato salad, cucumber salad…
There wasn’t always dessert at our barbecues (because often we were too full to want any), but sometimes we’d throw a couple of overripe bananas on the grill. Dessert, in book terms, is romance, which Harry is just starting to discover, even if it doesn’t go very well… I suppose I could say this particular banana ended up burned…
So that’s the food side of things… but another level on which the comparison works for me is because of the people who were there for such barbecues. It was never just my family, but also many of those friends who are as good as family, gathering around a table that reminds me very much of the Weasleys, and sitting around the fire pit afterwards, feet stretched towards the flames, watching the sparks and the stars, talking and laughing. There’s a feeling of ease and companionship to these memories, a sense of belonging, that I also associate with the Harry Potter books.
And just like the Harry Potter series came to an end, so did those barbecues, those nights in the garden, those gatherings of family friends. They belong to an era before my parents got divorced, before that house and that garden were sold, before that group of friends – friends of my parents, family to me like Sirius or the Weasleys to Harry – drifted apart.
And lastly, Order of the Phoenix makes me think of a barbecue is because that’s what we had the day the book came out, the day we had our first Harry Potter party. It wasn’t nearly as elaborately planned as the later ones, but it was still fun, still a fond memory.
I actually got my book a little early, because one of those friends-who-are-family worked in a bookshop and managed to smuggle a copy out early and send it along with another friend who came for the party. That friend – called Bone-Hard for the purposes of this blog – still didn’t tell us about it until nearly midnight, and then we had to fight our way through layers of paper and tape… but still, we had the book one hour earlier than most of the world.
I had school on Saturdays, and I have no idea how I managed to pay attention in my classes that day. One of my classmates actually skipped school to go to the bookshop to pick up her copy, which is pretty much the only acceptable reason for skipping school I’ve ever heard.
And then, finally, home to friends and barbecue and silly games, and above all, reading.
And the odd things is, I don’t actually remember reading the book for the first time. I look at this picture of me and … let’s call him Sherlock reading, and I don’t remember it.
I remember rereading, over and over. I remember the physics classroom the following Monday, classmates splashing each other during break, and one of them hiding behind my book, because everyone knew how murderous I would get if it got damaged.
I remember the sports field behind the school, that same Monday, sitting by the gym door, reading and talking about the book, while one classmate was running and picking up apples because of a bet with the maths teacher (a story I love telling, but it has no place here.)
I remember my grandma’s birthday, and the Carpenter Brother and some other kids trying to pry the book from my hands and tearing the spine (it’s a miracle I didn’t drown them in the nearby lake.)
I remember a campsite in Croatia, lying in my hammock between an olive tree and a black locust, reading and thinking a lot…
And I’ve been thinking a lot while I reread it this past week, too.
I’ve been thinking about how I remember reading a lot of negative opinions about Order of the Phoenix, people claiming it was too long, and not enough happened, and complaining about capslock Harry, and about how I never found those things to complain about, but it wasn’t until now that I thought about why.
Because if you’d known me as a teenager… well, I was capslock Ivy. And I didn’t have half as much reason for yelling as Harry did. And I don’t think I quite remember how it felt to feel like I had to yell, I know I did feel like I had to, like it was the only way to be heard, the only way to make people understand how I felt, the only way to get out my rage.
And because I don’t mind slow books when I get to spend them with characters I love. And oh, how I love them. I love so many of them, I love them so fiercely, and Order of the Phoenix has so many of my favourite characters in so many of my favourite scenes.
I’ve been thinking about how I’m much more interested in the adults this time around, not just the kids any more (a shift I also noticed the last time I reread Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), in Petunia, in Molly and Arthur, in Sirius and Remus, in the teachers… Which is very similar to something that happened at those barbecues with family friends… growing up and realizing that I’d much rather sit and talk with the adults (while the younger kids were still bugging me to come play with them.)
I’ve been thinking about how I have to remind myself that for Harry, the events of the book come immediately after Goblet of Fire. There’s always this odd gap in my mind, because of the years spent waiting for Order of the Phoenix – like the first four are one big block, and the last three are another one (connected by parties and barbecues), and between them, my mind creates a big empty space, which just doesn’t exist in the story.
I’m thinking about how much I love to hate Umbridge, and how much I love McGonagall’s conversations with her. “Would you like a cough drop?” McGonagall is high on my list of favourites anyway, and I think I love her the most in this book.
And really, Umbridge is so awful, but she allows many of my favourites to be their awesome selves – Fred and George and their fireworks and the portable swamp, Dumbledore – “I could break out, of course, but what a waste of time”, or just all the teachers’ reactions to Harry’s interview in the Quibbler.
I’m thinking about Neville and his parents, and how much this story resonates with me. Not just because I have a disabled brother, but because I have a dear friend who has a parent with a disability, and who spent most of her life afraid that anyone would find out. Because even though it’s not something she could have inherited, people are going to make assumptions, and (especially when you’re still at school) people are going to tease you about it.
I’m thinking about Snape’s Worst Memory, about James and Sirius, and remembering that hammock in Croatia, looking up at leaves, silver and bright green, and the blue sky – why is that image still so strong in my memory, eleven years later – and thinking about the same thing. About how I wanted to like James and Sirius, and how I could not like bullies (especially not then, when the memories of being bullied myself were still much more recent). I remember writing page upon page in my diary, trying to work out my feelings. I don’t remember the conclusion I got to, then, but I also remember realizing, years later, that one of my classmates was a lot like what I imagined James to be like. Too bright for his own good, always a troublemaker, sometimes casually, thoughtlessly cruel, but also so charming when he wanted to be. And I’d liked that classmate (perhaps just because he was never cruel to me, perhaps because he also liked Harry Potter and so we had something to talk about), and thinking about him, I found myself forgiving James.
I’m thinking about how much I love all those whimsical details of the wizarding world, the entrances to the Ministry and St Mungo’s, firebreathing chickens and memos on paper airplanes, Headless Hats and Portable Swamps, feet-eating shoes and accidentally winged children and satsumas up noses, Charms lessons full of noisy animals, teacups with legs and fanged geraniums…
I’m thinking about Luna, how – even if I’ve never believed quite such weird stuff – I’ve often felt like her, the outsider, the one who dressed weirdly and said weird things, and how next to Hermione, she’s the one I identify with most.
And I’m not thinking about Sirius’ death, because I still can’t handle it. I thought I could, I thought I’d read it often enough that it wouldn’t affect me any more, but then I got to those last chapters, and from the time Harry dreams about Sirius being tortured, I could not stop sniffling and whimpering, chewing on my bookmark and burying my face in the couch.
And even though I’m heartbroken all over again now, I really, really love this book. It’s at the very least my second favourite, right behind Prisoner of Azkaban, and if I think about all the things that make me laugh (“It unscrews the other way,” just to throw a random line in there), they might even be tied.