2017 in Review: Closing the Book

As another year draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve read, seen and heard this year that have affected me in some way — whether by inspiring me, giving me pause, prompting entirely unsolicited dance moves or in-shower solos, or making me think, laugh, cry or even cringe.

So with that in mind, I’ve come up with a bunch of personal Top Fives of 2017, with a few honourable mentions thrown in. Feel free to comment on them, or to share your own favourites — especially if you’d think I’d like them!

Today, I’m starting with books. I have decided that this category is open to any book written at any time, not just in 2017. I simply had to have read them during the past year. That said, I thought it was appropriate to include their year of publication, so I’ve arranged them chronologically. I’m not going to give away plot details or critique them fully — just know if they’ve made this list, I think they’re tops.

BLUE JAI’S BEST BOOKS OF 2017

  1. 2017 Crossing to SafetyCrossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987).  This book was loaned to me by The Professor, and I’m still not certain whether that simple fact made reading it a more poignant experience — not least because the plot centres on the interactions between two academics and their wives. The writing is beautiful, evocative, and reminiscent without becoming nostalgic, and Stegner’s control of the narrative is masterful.  This book stayed with me for a long time after I’d read it, and made me feel like I’d spent a summer or two in Vermont.
  2. 2017 American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001). What a rollicking good read! Normally I read housebrick sized books on my Kindle, but this one I lugged to and from Fiji and am so glad I did. The story of Shadow and Gaiman’s depiction of the battle between Old Gods and New in America is (literally) fantastic, eccentric and kept this Thrifty Fictionista happily engrossed in my holiday read. I even came back and downoaded Norse Mythology, because I wanted more Gaiman goodness.
  3. 2017 H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014). I’m not sure I’ve read any other book quite like this one — and while the subject matter (the author’s way of dealing with her grief following the death of her father) is not easy, Macdonald’s brutally honest emotional journey aligns more perfectly that I ever expected with a wealth of arcane knowledge of falconry and the life of T H White. I never anticipated I would find such subjects remotely interesting, but this book proved me entirely wrong.
  4. 2017 Our soulsOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015). Oh…this story. Published posthumously, Haruf’s tale begins with an unusual proposition and ends up being an absolute joy to read. It’s bittersweet too, it’s true, but — in my view — ultimately uplifting. Like most purists, I suspect the book is better than the movie version, despite fact the film starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Read the book first. Please. (You know it’s the right thing to do.)
  5. 2017 Life to ComeThe Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (2017). Winning this year’s Miles Franklin award, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed this book: the characters are eminently recognisable, particularly to Sydneysiders, but I did not warm to any of them. That said, there wasn’t a single other book I read all year that had my head wriggling like a tin of worms for so many weeks after I’d put it down. Oh — and the writing is seriously, utterly brilliant.

Honourable mentions go also to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which I agree remains as relevant today as it did when first published; Island Home, Tim Winton’s beautifully written (as always) love letter to the Australian landscape and his passionate call to arms to protect it; and finally, The Dry, by Jane Harper, which is one of the best and most atmospheric thrillers I have read in an age.

Coming soon: Blue Jai’s Best Viewing and Listening of 2017…

Insanity…Uncovered

covered-ombre-linen

Ombre linen covers, anyone? Perhaps not me…

Here in this Great Southern Land — which, over the weekend turned into the Great Scorched Land when the fifteen hottest places ON THE PLANET were all on Australia’s Eastern Seaboard — our children have started a new school year.

Two weeks ago, all our gorgeous little munchkins trouped dutifully off for another year of educational learning and fun at primary and high schools around the country. For the record, it was not much cooler then: last Sunday night was the first time Sydney’s temperature dipped below 20˚C since January 20th. Seriously. That’s 23 days and nights of temperatures above 20˚C and, believe me, it got hideously hot during the day…

I mean, a lot happened in those twenty-three days. America, apparently, got itself a brand new President. Those crazy cats in North Korea tested another missile. Beyoncé took to Instagram sporting a veil to announce she’s having twins (though I should point out she was also wearing mismatched underwear, which as all mothers know is a dead giveaway that you’re already raising children). Over on Twitter, the hashtag #ShePersisted was born. In the Amazon, a butterfly flapped its wings.  (Disclaimer: this last event may not have been deemed newsworthy but I’m reasonably sure it did occur…though I’ll leave it up to you to decide which of the aforementioned events, if any, are connected.)

But anyway, it wasn’t the heat or any of that other stuff that caused me to lose my mind, people.

No, it was far more simple than that:

covered

Yes, yes…I get the general principle. It’s the execution I struggle with.

I TOTALLY LOST MY SANITY COVERING MY CHILDRENS’ SCHOOL BOOKS IN CLEAR PLASTIC ADHESIVE.

Yes, you know what I’m talking about…I can sense you all nodding sagely and feeling my pain, because I suspect that you, too, have experienced it.

Here in Australia clear plastic adhesive is commonly called “Contact”, though I’m no longer sure whether this is because Contact is the brand name used by the major manufacturer of the diabolical stuff, or because contact with your children is likely to be limited by whatever they’re currently calling the government department that deals with emotional abuse after you’ve finished screaming expletives and threatening violence covering all their school books.

I mean, I try. I really do.

Most things about being a mother of primary school aged kids I think I’m reasonably good at. My children generally turn up at school wearing the right uniform and carrying the correct equipment. Including their nutritious lunch and recess and fruit break and water bottle.

Every day.

But covering school books in Contact?

I’m utterly woeful. Completely hopeless. Borderline dreadful.

And, to make matters worse, my darling cherubs spent a considerable amount of their first few days back at school carefully colouring in beautiful cover pages for their school books, which they dutifully glued to the front of their workbooks. Paper cover pages, you understand.  Some of them, in the interests of being environmentally and economically responsible, had paper covers on BOTH sides of the book so it could be used for two subjects. (Those ones are my favourite. No, really they are). At any rate, they were really quite lovely, until…

…well, until I totally bungled covering one of the books and, when trying to remove the plastic adhesive from the cover, ripped one of my kids’ ornately decorated cover page in two.  (This, to be honest, may actually have happened more than once).

I’m so sorry, I whispered.

covered-more-likely

All those nifty Pinterest “how to” videos on book covering? I suspect this tome would be just as helpful…

My younger daughter looked down at the mess I had made, aghast and uncharacteristically silent.

The older one — who has now had her books butchered by her mother for the fourth consecutive year — was a bit more supportive: she sighed (quite philosophically, I thought), shrugged, and said: Well, Mum, you did your best.

Which I did.  Really, I did.

And I promised them that next year, Next Year, would be different. Because next year, I am going to be PREPARED.

Yes, my friends!

Next year, I’m going to study all those lovely Pinterest tutorials that do their utmost to appraise you of the tried and tested tips and tricks for book covering — and look! Oh, will you just look at their darling photographs of the seventeen new and exciting ways you can cover your books: decoupage covers, coloured duct tape covers, ombre linen covers, crocheted covers.

(What the…are these people actually serious?!)

Next year, I am going to source the highest quality clear plastic adhesive money can buy for covering my childrens’ school books, and I am going to unroll said adhesive (probably down the entire length of my house) and weigh it down for a week or three so it does not spontaneously and sadistically re-roll itself during said covering process.

(Because that won’t inconvenience a soul, will it?)

covered-tequila-mug

Ah yes…the tequila cup I ordered for Christmas, in preparation for “Book Covering Season”…

Next year, I am going to make a quiet trip to the family doctor and get a prescription for beta-blockers (and/or whatever else he’s prepared to give me), followed by a stop at the nearest bottle shop for some tequila (or any other clear, water-like substitute, with which to wash those tablets down).

(Ahhh…now this might actually happen…)

In the meantime, I’m going to sit in a dark, quiet corner, hyperventilating into a brown paper bag while I count up to 1,349,265 (or maybe 1,349, 266) and wondering just how Beyoncé would go covering books for her soon to be three children in plastic adhesive…particularly if she’s still wearing mismatched underwear and a veil…

Far From Plain Jane

austen-darcy

Oh Jane Austen…how ardently we admire and love you still…

Fun Fact for you Folks: 16 December 2016 would have been Jane Austen’s 241st birthday if she was alive today. Sadly, she only reached the age of 41, but on the upside I don’t fancy knowing what she would have look like if she had lived those extra 200 years (though I’m thinking it would probably be along the lines of Bilbo Baggins after Frodo took the One Ring away from him and moseyed off towards Mordor…)

Despite her untimely demise, I would venture to assert that it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the best loved writers (in English) the world has known — and will ever know. But rather than praising Austen’s elegant prose, or admiring her artistic longevity, or extolling her virtues as a social commentator, or waxing lyrical over her well-honed and even-better-aimed wit, I thought the occasion of her 241st birthday could be better spent considering something completely different.

What would Jane Austen make of the world of 2016?

austen-pemberley

Has anything really changed? Would any of us turn down the opportunity to live at Pemberley?

What would she have made of selfies, and status updates, and social media? Would she have embraced technology and been right at the cutting edge of social commentary, garnering thousands of Likes with every carefully-worded comment, or would she have been far more circumspect — and perhaps chosen to email an errant niece privately, for example, to warn her that having viewed her Facebook feed that she would be receiving suitably decorous clothing and the Oxford English Dictionary for Christmas?

Would Jane Austen have usurped J K Rowling as the undisputed Queen of the Twittersphere? Would she have taken the view that if you can’t say it in 140 characters you’d be best not to say it at all, or would she have been entirely too polite to tweet?

Would she have taken part in the seemingly endless conversation regarding real estate (which, in the face of sky rocketing property values, has become something of a national pastime here in Australia)? It seems reasonable to suppose that she might — given that Netherfield Park being let at last was such big news in Pride and Prejudice  — or would dear Jane deem such discussion to be too crass in a modern world so obsessed with resale values?

austen-disillisionment

The sad syndrome that besets Austen fans of every Persuasion…ahem…

 

What would Miss Austen make of the many film and television adaptations of her novels, or of their various parodies,or of the ones that even feature zombies? Would she wade into the debate over who made the best Mr Darcy — was it Laurence Olivier? Colin Firth? Matthew MacFadyen? Elliot Cowan?

What would she think of Bridget Jones?

(What, I wonder, would she make of Donald Trump?)

And, speaking of catastrophes, would she care to comment on the so-called “Austen-Induced Disillusionment Cycle” and its effects on fans around the globe?

Would Jane Austen ever Swipe Right? Or would she counsel her fellow singletons to stay away from Tinder, perhaps suggesting — gently, of course — that while Mr Wickham’s profile picture might be ever so attractive, it may not provide the full measure of the man?

austen-collins

I am, and will remain, eternally grateful that Mr Collins never got Instagram…

Would she use a Kindle, or would she remain the sort of person for whom only paper and ink would do? Would she share the iTunes playlist of the music she listened to while she wrote? Would she continue to write longhand, in her elegant handwriting, or would she use a computer — and, if she did, Jane Austen be a Mac User or PC Girl?

Would Jane Austen blog?!

Oh, just imagine that for one glorious moment…

I know I would follow her until the end of time if she did. But in the meantime, to celebrate her 241st birthday, I think I’ll go and re-read Pride and Prejudice for the twenty-seventh time instead.

PS: This one’s for my Dad, who handed me my first Austen...

Ivy, Oak and Ash

olivanders-2

Ollivanders…where the wand, as we know, chooses the wizard.

I’m writing this at my kitchen table, listening to a beautiful Ólafur Arnalds track he recorded with Nils Frahm. The music, with its high-pitched, bell-like tinkling, has an ethereal quality that sounds unmistakably like…Magic.

And then it occurs to me that this piece, relatively obscure as it is, has conjured up the memory of the opening bars of a much more famous musical score: John Williams’ overture to the original Harry Potter film, a movie filled with mystery and wonder, and more Magic than you could poke a stick at — particularly if that stick should be a wand.

Ah, Magic.

It’s such a powerful thing — such a potent, creative force.

Even though I know quite well that the Harry Potter novels and films are works of fiction, I also recognise them as works of wonder. Of a fantasy that I can — and do — quite readily buy into. And, as I’ve said before, I encourage my children to do so as well. I think that the late and ever-so-great Roald Dahl, who definitely knew wonder when he saw it, probably explained why best:

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

 

img_1713

Hogsmeade Village, Hollywood style…please respect the spell limits.

For me there can be as much Magic in a well-crafted sentence as there in a beautifully realised fictional world — complete with its own myths and history. But when The Bloke and I had the chance to take our girls to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood during our recent trip to the US, we both knew this was a opportunity to see some real Magic.

And it was.

We explored Hogwarts Castle, drank butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks, bought sweets at Honeydukes, visited the Owlery, and browsed through the broomsticks at Dervish and Banges.

And then we went to Ollivanders.

Ollivanders, as all self-respecting Harry Potter fans know, have been makers of fine wands since 382BC. Being a Ravenclaw myself, I could spend hours discussing the importance of the Ollivander family in history of European wandmaking or introducing you to the finer points of wandlore but that, one suspects, would be better done at another time. The most important thing to know, for the purposes of this post, is that the wand chooses the wizard.

img_2314

Our Wands, each pointing to the Hogwarts houses we most identify with: Gryffindor, Slytherin and Ravenclaw.

Or the witch, for that matter. Because when we came out of Ollivanders, the wands had well and truly chosen: Ivy for Marvel Girl, Oak for Miss Malaprop, and Ash for me. Not surprisingly, my wand is lying beside me on the kitchen table as a write. It is beautifully balanced, it is perfectly weighted, and it feels like it was made just for me.

And that’s the truly Magic thing, isn’t it?

But there are, as I discovered once again that day in Hogsmeade Village, many kinds of Magic…

After our visit to Ollivanders, Miss Malaprop strode purposefully towards Gladrags Wizardwear, where she proceeded to demonstrate her own considerable powers as she persuaded The Bloke to buy her a full set of Hogwarts robes (Slytherin ones, naturally) complete with house insignia and wand pocket, and some for her sister (Gryffindor, of course) as well. How does she do it? I wondered, as I struggled to calculate the cost of purchasing two sets of robes, plus tax, plus the exchange rate, plus the inevitable excess baggage cost associated with getting two large bundles of heavy black fabric back home…and I knew the answer in an instant: Miss Malaprop was utterly certain that we would let her have them before she even entered the shop, because she knew that deep down, we wanted them too.

olivanders-3

Basic Wand Motions…I think Arresto Momento would be one of the most useful spells I could have in my kitchen.

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than all of us. We all know that there is real Magic to be found in shared experiences, particularly when they involve mutually suspended disbelief.

I know it’s not real.

And my kids know that, too.

(Really!)

But there is much to be said for the transformative joy that is produced when you allow the fictional to enter the everyday.  It’s why my kids have the words Nox  and Lumos on their bedroom lightswitches.  It’s why I’ll tell them I would love one of them to play Quidditch for Australia one day. It’s why Miss Malaprop and Marvel Girl got their Hogwarts robes (or they will on Christmas Day, at any rate).

And it’s also why our wands, which individually and specifically chose us, sit in pride of place in the rooms of our house that we use the most.  Our wands are tangible reminders that our differences make us as strong as our similarities, that our words and actions are powerful and must be wielded well, that there is Magic in us all.

Ivy, Oak and Ash.

Always.

olivanders

Ollivanders: makers of find wands since 382BC.

Dirt Music

 

Dirt Music 3

Dancing spotlit in a bodystocking? Not me…I’ll leave that to the likes of Misty Copeland.

So the other night, after a few “light beers” (which may or may not have been entire bottles of wine), a mate of mine asked me whether I had a Favourite Book.

As in, a Favourite Book OF ALL TIME.

And I said…Yes.

Or perhaps I just whispered it.

I definitely held my breath for a split second before I answered, not sure of how my response would be received, or whether it would be treated with the reverence I reserve for Favourite Books.

Because let’s face it — owning up to having a Favourite Book (of All Time, no less) is to to reveal your self, to expose your self as completely and unapologetically as a dancer in a flesh-coloured bodysuit on a spotlit stage.  Which is fine, completely fine, if you’ve spent the requisite years honing your body and your skills to the point that a body-stocking, or a distinct lack of on-stage hiding places, or (God forbid) an audience no longer fazes you, but…clearly, that’s not me.

I write. I read.

I cook. I most definitely eat. And while my kitchen is well-known as a place where dancing is heartily encouraged, I would sooner eat a body-stocking rather than wear one.

Even so, despite my many misgivings (or maybe because I, too, had consumed several glasses of wine), the other night I actually confessed to loving one book above all others.

Now, any literature lover will tell you that the idea of narrowing down the books you couldn’t bear to part with to a Top Ten is an utterly absurd exercise. If you truly love books, whittling down your list to a Top Fifty is a difficult proposition.

But if you have a Favourite Book, you know what it is. If, unlike me, you’re the sort of person who likes to proclaim your Favourite Book far and wide and to encourage every last being in the known universe to read it, you know what it is. If, like me, you’re a little more circumspect about revealing the identity of your Favourite Book, you know what it is. Even if you have trouble admitting to yourself that one particular volume is your Favourite Book, you still know what it is.

And mine is Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.

Dirt Music

So here it is — my Favourite Book. OF ALL TIME.

(Oh dear Lord! Did I just type that for the world to see?!)

Yep, Dirt Music is my Favourite Book of All Time.

And I have decided that I will own up to it, and expose myself to whatever judgements you may make about me as a result of that admission, because it is my Favourite Book.

I could have dodged the issue entirely, perhaps, and said it was impossible to decide between Dirt Music and any number of other books, such as Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina or The Lord of the Rings or The Great Gatsby or Hamlet, to name just a handful of others.  No authors’ names necessary, of course — they’re all tomes that are regularly cited as being Favourite Books. I could even have wrong-footed my friend by pointing him in the direction of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy or  Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

But I didn’t.

Because, deep down, I know that Dirt Music is my Favourite Book.

I’m not saying that it’s best book in the universe — that’s a whole other discussion. And I’m definitely not going to weigh into the whole debate about the Great Australian Novel, either, and whether that accolade goes to Winton’s Cloudstreet or not.  I’m not even saying that you should rush out, buy Dirt Music, and devour it cover to cover — it may not be your thing at all. (I mean, if you want to, of course — go ahead; it might end up being your Favourite Book too).

Nup. I’m not doing any of that.

But what I am saying is pretty simple, really.

For me, Dirt Music, Winton’s tale of Georgie Jutland losing and finding herself in the wilds and waters of Western Australia is special. In the true blue, Bruce McAvaney sense of the word.

I love — no, I utterly adore — Tim Winton’s prose.  I love the tangible physicality of his descriptions of people and place. I love the accuracy with which he captures his characters’ vernacular. I love the overarching presence of the Australian landscape, particularly of the ocean and the coast. I love the way he describes Georgie’s father as Himself, QC — and I love the sheer volume of information and resonance and impact those two words impart.

Dirt Music 2

My super-power: escaping into books…

Reading is such a great privilige, and literacy such an inordinately important gift. And, as Alain de Botton points out, “Of all the addictions, bibliophilia is the noblest and most dangerous.” Where else, but between the pages of books, can we embark on great quests, fight revolutions, ride dragons, or sail further west than west?

I will, I know, continue to read, and always — always — to write. Like Rudyard Kipling, “I am by nature a dealer in words, and words are the most powerful drug known to humanity.”

And it is beyond comforting to know that I can return time and again to the happy places that lie between the dog-eared volumes that line my shelves, to wend my way along hidden paths towards Rivendell, to walk with Elizabeth from Netherfield back to Longbourn, even to hold my breath as Anna waits for the oncoming train…

But I will always come back, time and again, to Dirt Music, if only to discover, like Luther Fox, just one last time:

She’s real…she’s real…

Bittersweet Symphony

BSS

Still one of the greatest songs ever written…

Winter arrived this week.

We woke one morning — I think it was Thursday — and discovered that Sydney’s seemingly endless summer had disappeared overnight. The world was suddenly a cold and windy place, rain-soaked and grey-stained, where clouds had settled themselves just above the rooftops.

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life…

The change of season often happens suddenly here, though perhaps I have been more aware of it this year because I managed to come down with the dreaded lurgy about ten days ago, when the days were still sunsoaked, and tried (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to keep working and to soldier on. The day winter arrived was the morning I awoke with the dawning realisation that the wretched thing has grabbed me in its claws again — this time, by the throat.

…try to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die…

Well, maybe not die. Not quite.

BSS 2

Well, maybe not a million — but, like I said, being ill makes me slightly prone to exaggeration.

I will admit, albeit reluctantly, that illness does tend to make me slightly prone to exaggeration. I suspect that the main reason for this is that I, like many mothers, feel as though my family requires a great deal of convincing that when I say I feel unwell, I actually mean it. For example, one night last week, when I had finally stopped coughing long enough to fall asleep in the spare room (to which I had banished myself so as not to inflict the lurgy on The Bloke), I was woken at 2am by the light of a torch being shone directly into my eyes by my younger child, who proceeded to announce that she had a sore ankle.

Seriously?! 

Like the creator of aforementioned the dreaded lurgy, Spike Milligan, I sometimes wonder whether my headstone will end up reading I told you I was sick.

Since the cold snap hit, however, I have stopped trying to convert the non-believers in my house and have simply, and quite uncharacteristically, given into being ill. I have wrapped myself in blankets, drunk endless cups of hot tea, and surrounded myself with fresh lemons, a rather alarming variety of pharmaceuticals, a welcome selection of books, and The Verve’s Urban Hymns album.

The Bloke despairs of my love for what he refers to as “whingey Britpop”, but since I am as steadfast as I am eclectic in my musical affections, there are certain things in the life we share that he is forced to roll his eyes and endure. It’s not just that he doesn’t like what he refers to as “that awful music”. The bigger problem, I suspect, is that I have — as some wag once put it — three moods: skip every song on my iPod, let the music play without interruption, or play the same song on repeat for days.

In my defence, I tend to put entire albums on repeat instead of single songs: last week, for example, it was twentyone pilot’s Blurryface — because let’s face it, you need a little dubstep when you’re struggling to put one foot in front of the other. And this week, it was Urban Hymns, which is still think is one of the finest albums ever recorded (even if its moody atmospherics drive my dear and long-suffering husband demented).

…I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now…

BSS 3

It’s amazing how other people respond when you start looking after yourself…

But here’s the thing, the (in my view) really weird thing: regardless of what I’ve been playing on the stereo, since I started treating myself like a person who wasn’t in the best of health, my family started behaving the same way.

To my utter disbelief, Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop bounced out of bed each morning (while I dragged myself, coughing and spluttering, into the shower) and made their own lunches. And packed their snacks. For recess and for fruit break.

Three days in a row.

Who knew they could do that?!

And then this morning, after I had rewarded them for their helpful behaviour by ordering them both a hot lunch from the school canteen, they offered to make me breakfast.

Who are you, I was tempted to ask, and what have you done with my children?

Upon reflection, though, it’s not all that surprising that my kids stepped up when I needed them to. I am forever telling them to ask for what they want, say what they mean, and throw in a please or thank you and they can’t go too far wrong. What I had forgotten, in my desire to impress upon them just how awfully unwell I was feeling, was that I needed to do the same thing. So when I actually started taking care of myself, they started taking care of me too.

Yeah, it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life. And it’s going by faster and faster with every passing year. But today, I heard that symphony in my kids’ asking me if I wanted them to make me some toast, in my GP taking the time to listen to my symptoms sympathetically instead of treating me as yet another flu case, in a wonderful friend’s text offering to drop my girls at school this morning so I could rest.

It’s bittersweet, but it’s beautiful too.

And as well as being grateful, I’m on the mend.

Parental Guidance Recommended

A Let them Be Little

How much should I tell them?

One of the greatest challenges of being a parent is finding the right way to explain things to your children — or maybe not the right way, but the one that is most age appropriate, or the one that they will actually find some way of correctly interpreting and understanding.

I was reminded of this when Miss Malaprop came home from school yesterday and said her teacher had read her class a story about Moses and the Israelites in Egypt. Ever true to her pseudonym, Miss Malaprop didn’t quite manage to say ‘Israelites’, but she had a pretty good go at it — and I must admit I was too distracted by the sheaf of school notices and permission slips that has somehow managed to materialise in my kitchen since school resumed two days ago to discern the exact word she used as a substitute.

Now, being fully aware that my younger daughter is never one to speak to one so lowly as her mother of the knowledge bestowed upon her in the classroom unless she at least seven questions to ask me about various aspects of what she has learned, I braced myself for the inevitable barrage. I presumed — incorrectly, as it turned out — that she probably wanted to know all about the basket into which Moses had been placed among the bullrushes, its capacity, its relative seaworthiness, that sort of thing. Or perhaps she wished to quiz me about exactly what the Egyptian princess who found Moses might have been wearing that day, and whether her ensemble would have included a crown?

Wrong again.

“Mummy, what are slaves?”

This was the question that came from my smallest child’s lips. It came out so sweetly, so innocently, that I was forced to stop, immediately, and turn away from the tottering pile of lunchboxes I had just plonked onto the kitchen bench.

How do you answer a question like that when the person who has asked it is so young that they have only just started school? And how do you explain something as abhorrent and cruel as slavery to that person when you believe it is your solemn and sacred duty to protect them from all that is evil in this world?

A Dobby

Dobby, the House Elf who started it all…

“Slaves,” I ventured, “well, they’re a bit like the house elves in Harry Potter — the ones who have to do everything their masters tell them to, and don’t get paid.”

Miss Malaprop’s greeny-blue eyes lit up with dawning comprehension — somehow, incredibly, I had managed to hit upon a reference she understood straight away.

“Oh, OK then,” she said, nodded her head, and ran off to play.

Now, in my defence, Harry Potter is Miss Malaprop’s current obsession. It is not unusual for me to hear her yell, “Expelliarmus!” in an attempt to disarm her sister during one of their inevitable fights, and when given an alphabet book to complete for homework over the holidays she decided that drawing a picture of Voldemort was an excellent choice to illustrate the letter V.

Moreover, we are currently half-way through reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which details Hermione’s crusade to improve the lot of house elves at Hogwarts by founding the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.), so the concept of slavery — albeit it in a fictionalised, relatively child-friendly context — is not entirely unknown to her.

But should I have said more? Had I just completely trivialised a serious topic? Should I have checked that Miss Malaprop understood that I meant that slaves are individuals who have been denied that most basic and fundamental of all human rights — freedom — and that they are not tiny creatures with large ears and bulging eyes who toil away in the Hogwarts kitchens?

A Cleanup

This wouldn’t work in my house…I’d have to resort to a whole other fandom to get my laundry hampter sorted properly.

If it was a trivial matter we were discussing, I wouldn’t think twice about making an example of Dobby and his kin, or of shamelessly appropriating whatever other popular culture references I need to make my children understand things. Believe me, I’ve even considered putting pictures of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker above the laundry hamper so that my kids learn to correctly differentiate between the Dark Side and the Light Side. (Honestly, the two of them can rhapsodise for hours over the different types of light sabers or various random skirmishes during the Clone Wars, but heaven help them if they can figure out how to separate whites from colours when it comes to doing the washing.)

But that’s just the small stuff.

Anyone who follows this blog with any regularity knows that when I believe it is called for, I am not afraid to put fingers to keys and speak up for what I believe in, regardless of whether it’s to do with Asylum Seekers, Marriage Equality, the Death Penalty or whatever other injustice I perceive in the world. And I think it practially goes without saying that I want my children to be raised with a strong sense of social justice and an awareness of the things that impact other people — not just themselves.

A Jason

The very lovely Jason Isaacs, resplendent in what he called his “Paris Hilton wig”, letting them be little.

I know that in the years ahead there will be many questions, hard questions, that Miss Malaprop and her sister will ask me to answer. And I hope that I have the courage to face those questions with an open heart and an open mind, and to answer them as best I can without diminishing the facts or distorting the truth.

But I don’t think that my girls — my mostly sweet, still innocent girls — are yet ready to open the book on the grisly lessons of the history of humankind, with all its madness, mayhem, murder and misogyny.

So in the meantime, I’m going to keep answering the difficult questions my kids ask by referring them to things that they already know and understand, even if that knowledge and comprehension is partially drawn from reading Harry Potter.

I would imagine that by the time they’re up to reading the Hunger Games, the conversations will be very, very different.

But for now? I’m with Jason Isaacs on this one.

Dobby is in his trailer.

 

If you have enjoyed this post and want more musings from the Daydream Believer delivered straight to your inbox whenever they appear, please click on the follow button at the top right of this page.