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April 11-17, 2007

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2007 Spring Lit Issue:
Born to Bird | I Forgot I Wrote a Book | Dan Imhoff | Lit Events | What the Neighbors are Writing | 'Harry Potter' and Marxism | A. M. Homes | Anastasia Goodstein


Here's a Stretch

Rowling, 'Potter,' Mitford and the American Communist Party

By John Rose


J. K. Rowling's seventh and final Harry Potter book is already a bestseller despite not being released until July 21. She is the first writer to earn a billion dollars, but ironically her heroine is a communist from Oakland: Jessica Mitford. Rowling has raved about Peter Sussman's recent book Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford and named several characters in Harry Potter from Mitford's life. Sussman appears at Copperfield's on April 19.

Rowling's books are layered with hidden references and meanings. They are less about sorcery than they are social philosophy, making the American title change of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to Sorcerer's Stone one of Rowling's biggest regrets. The series has been meticulously planned from its inception 17 years ago when Jo was a single mother living on welfare. Her "unforgivable spells"--those for torture, killing and enslavement--reflect Rowling's prior work with Amnesty International. Humanistic ideals shine through as her plots tackle "mudblood" racism and house-elf slavery.

The one house-elf to insist upon being paid is named Dobby after the coworker who introduced Jessica Mitford to the American Communist Party. In fact, Dobby gave Mitford and her husband, labor lawyer Bob Truehaft, their only wedding present at their secret marriage in Guerneville. (Potter-heads will be disappointed to learn that this Dobby's gift was a book and not socks.)

The Harry Potter series has been widely derided by literary critics as poorly written drivel. But an earlier worldwide bestseller was also criticized, despite its important social cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was about a mother who so loved her son, also named Harry, that she sacrificed her own life to save him. In Stowe's case, the son's fate was worse than death: being sold as a slave. Lincoln himself was among those who credited Stowe's book with igniting the movement leading to the Civil War and ending slavery.

Harry Potter has reenergized children's love of reading, and many of Rowling's fans have now grown to voting age. The magic of reading is probably our best protection against the dark arts of corporations that start life under the leadership and humanity of the founders. How will Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows end, with a whimper or a bang? As T. S. Elliot wrote, "we are the hollow men" with our deathly ignorance. Hopefully, Rowling succeeds in her subtle fight for change and drives the lesson home to her public.


Peter Sussman reads from and discusses Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford on Thursday, April 19, at Copperfield's Books. 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 7pm. Free. 707.762.0563


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