Fiction — audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Listening Library, 2001. 9 hours. Library copy.
Twelve-year-old Harry Potter is eager to return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his second year and escape from the home of his dreadful relatives, the Dursleys. Uncle Vernon has locked Harry’s school things — his books, broom, and cauldron — in the cupboard under the stairs despite the fact that Harry has homework and forbid Harry from contacting his friends or, “those people” as the Dursleys call magical people.
Right before the summer vacation can end and Harry can return to Hogwarts, a house elf named Dobby appears in Harry’s bedroom warning of grave danger should Harry return to the Hogwarts. Undaunted by the house elf’s warning, the Boy Who Lived refuses to let the bars Uncle Vernon places over his windows after Dobby’s visit or the closure of Platform 9 and 3/4 to prevent him from returning to school commandeering the Weasleys’ flying car with his best friend, Ron. The two barely make it back to Hogwarts alive thanks to an unfortunate encounter with the Whomping Willow, and both boys, most especially Ron, are disappointed to learn their new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is the infamous Gilderoy Lockhart.
With looks and a trove of memoirs chronicling his adventures fighting the darker aspects of magic, Lockhart has managed to charm the female student body — including Hermione Granger — and most of the males, too. Yet he seems utterly unprepared to teach the students about anything he’s claim to have done and is far more focused on teaching Harry how to harness his “star power” than catching whomever — or whatever — is lurking through the castle petrifying students. And as the number of students attacked continues to rise, the student body grows more and more suspicious that Harry might have something to do with the opening of the Chamber of Secrets.
Although this book is the second in the series, it has always been first in my mind: the first one I enjoyed from start to finish, the first one where I felt kinship with the characters, the first one where Voldemort (or, He Who Must Not Be Named) and dark magic became a serious threat. (Maybe due to my intense ophiophobia?) I have been known to, erroneously, list this book as the first one in the series simply because it is, far and away, better than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
One of the aspects about this particular book that I enjoy is the integration of Hogwart’s history with the current mystery, which affords the reader more background information about a multitude of characters and provides a deeper understanding about the origins of the good versus evil conflict that permeates the series. Why does Hagrid use his umbrella to give Dudley a pig tail in the first book? Why are the teachers so horrified to see “the chamber is open” scrawled on the wall? Why does “Moaning Myrtle” haunt, moan and, occasionally, flood the girls’ bathroom?
Questions are answered at a pace matching that which Harry, as a complete outsider raised in the Muggle world, would experience and learn adding to the suspense and magic of the tale. And Voldemort becomes are far more complex villain than previously presenting allowing the reader to understand how he became the person (if you can still call him a person) he is and why some people are drawn to his message.
This is also the first time in the series when Harry is viewed with suspicion and marginalized by nearly the entire school not just by Draco Malfoy and his minions. Even the teachers seem suspicious of Harry, and he spends quite a bit of his time worried about what they, especially Dumbledore, might think of him. It makes the ending all the more poignant.
To be perfectly honest, though, I think this novel far more than the first in the series because, to be frank, Hermione Granger kicks ass. Hermione is the one who comes up with idea to impersonate Crabb and Goyle in order to determine Malfoy’s innocence or guilt, and she brews the polyjuice potion all on her own after stealing the necessary ingredients from Snape’s private storeroom.
Hermione is the one who cons Lockhart into giving her access to the restricted section of the library and does all the research on what exactly the Chamber of Secrets is. Hermione is the one who saves her classmates when Lockhart’s lesson goes awry, the one who befriends Myrtle, and the one who manages to solve nearly the whole mystery on a single, tiny scrap of paper despite being petrified. And after all of that, she still wants to take her exams and excel at school. What better heroine could a young reader wish for?