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No Goody-Goody

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS;\o7 By J. K. Rowling; (Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic: 342 pp., $17.95)\f7

July 11, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of "A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel."

SURREY, England — In 15 minutes, I will drive my 11-year-old son Gabriel down to Ottakar's bookstore in East Grinstead for the most hotly awaited delivery since the arrival of Prince William 17 years ago. At 3 p.m., a significant majority of the 10 million or so knee-socked and school-blazered boys and girls of Great Britain between the ages of 9 and 12 will descend from their schools upon bookshops, from John O'Groats at the northern tip of Scotland to Penzance at the toe of Cornwall in time for the 3:45 national release of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

While the happy few in England get first dibs on new Harry Potter adventures (his author, J.K. Rowling, is Scottish, after all, and owes first allegiance to her British publisher, Bloomsbury), American readers will have to hang on until September for "The Prisoner of Azkaban." It's an endless wait for 11-year-olds--as I can attest--zillions of whom ran out to American bookstores at the beginning of June at the appearance of the second Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," rocketing it up most national bestseller lists, just ahead of the first, "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone."

Not even A.A. Milne posted these kinds of numbers. T.S. Eliot had to wait until Andrew Lloyd Webber came along to provoke this kind of frenzy. Rowling, an unassuming, divorced mother of a young girl, had never published a book until "The Sorcerer's Stone." But in birthing Harry Potter, she unleashed a character who is already sailing up into the pantheon of children's heroes, next to the airborne Peter Pan and the umbrella-ed Mary Poppins.

The wait between books has been hard on Harry, too. We find him, at the opening of "The Chamber of Secrets," counting the endless days of summer until he can return to begin his second year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. "He missed Hogwarts so much it was like having a constant stomachache. He missed the castle with its secret passageways and ghosts, his lessons (though perhaps not Snape, the potions master), the post arriving by owl, eating banquets in the Great Hall, sleeping in his four-poster bed in the tower dormitory, visiting the gamekeeper, Hagrid, in his cabin in the grounds next to the forbidden forest and, especially, Quidditch, the most popular sport in the wizarding world (six tall goal-posts, four flying balls and fourteen players on broomsticks)."

Hogwarts, like many British boarding schools, is divided into houses that wage fierce combat upon one another--academic and athletic. Although there are four houses, the true battle is between Gryffindor, "where dwell the brave at heart," and Slytherin, known as the hothouse for all the great wizards but also as the sometime incubator for the practitioners of the Dark Arts, including the terrible Lord Voldemort. Upon arrival, with a gang of other First Years, Harry was tapped by the magical Sorting Hat, which examines the natures of its wearer and sends him to his appropriate house. At Gryffindor, Harry soon made friends with Ron Weasley, the youngest of the five red-headed Weasley boys, who imparted all his hand-me-down wisdom to Harry.

Like all schools, Hogwarts is a dangerous place--more dangerous than most when a backfiring magic wand can have you spitting out slugs all afternoon. Yet for Harry, among peers for the first time in his life, there is a normalcy to Hogwarts, thanks to a code of behavior that doles out rewards in proportion to achievement. First Years are not allowed to fly. Students must first learn to transform a toothpick into a needle before they can progress to princes and frogs. Fairness is rewarded, as is a child's ability to know when rules must be broken for a greater good.

With the aid of Hermione Granger, the brains of Gryffindor, the three not only flummox the terrifying teachers and the Quidditch field bullies but break a few rules to battle with the Dark Forces. As "The Sorcerer's Stone" drew to an end, Harry even came face to face, as it were, with the spirit of his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, and survived.

Impatient as his readers have been, imagine the summer for Harry, at home with the Dursleys. Like Cinderella, Harry Potter is an orphan. Instead of a wicked stepmother, Harry is blessed with a loutish Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia who dote on Harry's porky brute of a cousin, Dudley. The Dursleys are Muggles--that is to say, ordinary, magically impaired human beings. They have raised Harry since, as an infant, he was left on their doorstep, following the death of Petunia's sister and her husband--so they told Harry--in a car crash.

The truth is more frightening. Shortly after Harry's birth, Voldemort murdered Harry's father. Seeking to kill his infant son as well, Voldemort struck him with all his powers. Harry's mother, however, intercepted the beam with the strength of her maternal love. While it killed her, Harry survived. The Dark Force left only a lightning-shaped scar on Harry's forehead.

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