Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Listening Library, 2003. 26 hours, 32 minutes. Library copy.
Now that Lord Voldemort has returned, Harry is desperate for any kind of news – Muggle or wizarding — during yet another miserable summer with the Dursleys. His so-called friends keep sending him owls with evasive answers, hints to something really important going on, and promises to tell him everything when they all return to Hogwarts in September. Harry tries to listen to the Muggle news with his aunt and uncle figuring an attack on Muggles would make the news even if Voldemort isn’t identified as the culprit. But Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia are suspicious of their nephew, especially since Harry keeps pulling out his wand every time a car backfires, and banish him from their home when the news is on.
Wandering a back alley of Little Whinging, Harry comes across his obese cousin, Dudley, saying goodbye to his gang of bullies. Harry’s attempt to take Dudley to task for his behavior towards the smaller and younger residents of Little Whinging is quickly forgotten when two Dementors appear and attack Harry and his cousin. Harry is forced to break the ban on the use of underage magic to defend himself and stop the Dementors from kissing his cousin. His self-defensive actions earns him an eviction from his uncle’s house and a notice from the Ministry of Magic informing him that he has been summarily expelled from Hogwarts and the wizarding world.
Dumbledore, Hogwart’s headmaster, manages to interfere with the Ministry of Magic downgrading Harry’s immediate expulsion to a hearing and with his Aunt Petunia with the reminder that she made a promise when she took Harry into her home as an infant. But Little Whinging is, clearly, no longer safe and Harry is quickly packed up and moved to 12 Grimmauld Place in London, the ancestral home of his godfather, Sirius Black, and new headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix where Hermione and Ron have been spending the summer.
Harry is eager to learn about the Order of the Phoenix, but he is still steaming that his friends have kept him in the dark all summer long and anxious about how his hearing before the Ministry will go. His anxiety turns out to be well founded: the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is still refusing to believe that Voldemort has returned, the Daily Prophet is engaged in a smear campaign to undermine everything Harry and Dumbledore say, and Harry’s explusion hearing is moved from a small department within in the Ministry to a full trail before the Wizengamot, wizarding Britain’s high court of law.
Dumbledore arrives to defend Harry before the Wizengamot and, while Fudge and several members of the court are disgruntled to do so, Harry is cleared all of charges and allowed to both keep his wand and return to Hogwarts for his fifth-year. After saying goodbye to his godfather and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Harry arrives at Hogwarts for what will be the hardest year of school yet – only because of he will sit for the O.W.Ls examinations at year’s end but because Delores Umbridge, a member of the Wizengamot who voted against Harry and an obvious spy for the Ministry, has been given the Defense Against the Dark Arts post.
As the Ministry begins to exert control over Hogwarts through a series of decrees, Umbridge refuses to teach her students the application of the theories she insists they learn only through reading a textbook and launches a vicious campaign to punish Harry and his friends for believing that Voldemort has returned. Harry and his friends start a club called “Dumbledore’s Army” to practice defense against the Dark Arts, and Harry refuses to bend before Umbridge despite all her torturous detentions and lifetime bans on qudditch because he saw Voldemort return and continues to see Voldemort attacking people, including Ron’s father.
This book is the one that firmed up my unpopular opinion about the series: Albus Dumbledore is not the demi-god everyone makes him out to be. At the end of the book, he explains why he made the decisions he did and how he has come to regret those actions in the end. I won’t spoil them here, but I ended this book feeling like Dumbledore does not deserve the free pass so many people give him for the events in this novel (and for previous books). He condemned a child to an abusive home in the name of protecting him, condemned a child to losing the closest thing he had to family in the name of protecting his innocence (even after Harry saw Voldemort return), and condemned a child to live (at least) an entire year of his life in the ready access of Voldemort without explaining that to him in the name of protecting himself from Voldemort. Like Harry, I spent much of this book angry at Dumbledore; unlike Harry, I don’t so readily forgive.
Of course, I do loathe the character in this book we are supposed to hate – Delores Umbridge is the epitome of evil. Except, and this is probably one of the most important lessons of the book, she’s not on the same level of evil as Voldemort. Umbridge believes in the superiority of wizards over all others in both the wizarding and Muggle worlds and is quite pleased to exert power through her close relationship with Fudge, but she is not hell-bent on genocide the way Voldemort is and her particular brand of evil introduces shades of gray to the black and white view Harry had of his world in the first four years at Hogwarts.
We also see a similar lesson through Harry’s interactions with Severus Snape, a spy for the Order of the Phoenix and Harry’s dreaded potions teacher. Although Dumbledore continuously vouches for Snape, Harry and several other members of the Order, including Sirius Black, are still suspicious of his intentions and believe him to be evil incarnate. Neither Harry nor Snape are happy that Dumbledore instructs Snape to teach Harry Occlumency in order to protect the latter from Voldemort’s invasion of his mind, but the lessons allow Harry to see Snape’s worst memory – a moment in his own fifth-year when Harry’s father and Sirius mock and magically string Snape upside down and Snape calls Lily Evans (Harry’s mother) a ‘mudblood’ when she comes to his defense.
Instead of fixating on Snape’s offense against his mother, Harry is horrified to learn that his father (and his godfather, for that matter) was as vicious of a bully as Draco Malfoy and Harry’s cousin are. The knowledge unsettles Harry and, again, introduces shades of gray into Harry’s understanding of good versus evil.
And, of course, Harry starts to grow up in other ways – namely, his blossoming relationship with Cho Chang. I don’t remember feeling such disappointment about the handling of this relationship in previous readings of this novel. Maybe knowing the contents of the epilogue of the final book is coloring my perception? The relationship adds a tremendous amount of angst this novel seemingly for naught as several interesting paths for Harry’s development are shunned for a quick resolution to this relationship. Thankfully, we have Fred and George Weasley and Luna Lovegood, to an extent, to provide comedic relief amidst all this angst.
This book throttles back on the fast-paced adventure introduced in the previous books, and a strong story central to this book was sorely missed. I was surprised at how I had forgotten the end of this book yet managed to retain all the important background information, such as why Harry was marked with his lightning bolt scar instead of another boy born at the end of July and Snape’s story, introduced in this one. Maybe because so much of this background information becomes central to the stories of the next two books? Or, maybe because I was disappointed after three years of waiting for this novel that my brain decided to forget?