HETRICK: Harry Potter and the 13-year literary love affair

July 23, 2011

Long-distance parenting doesn’t come with many perks. If you’re on the far side of a divorce decree, your time is limited to two weekends a month (if you’re lucky) and countless hours flying or driving.

For years, until my twins were licensed to drive, my second wife Pam and I did the every-other-weekend routine on Interstate 69. There, we’d meet my former wife and/or her second husband to exchange the boys at Gas City.

The driving was a drag. But in hindsight, it provided four hours of family time—hours often spent talking, listening to books on tape, or reading aloud.

On the road, we shared Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” Native American short stories, Louis L’Amour westerns, Sue Grafton mysteries, Bill Cosby comedy and more.

And on the road in 1998, we launched a love affair that finally came to a close this past weekend.

That 13-year romance was, of course, with a bespectacled boy wizard named Harry Potter, the creation of British author J.K. Rowling.

Pam and I had read newspaper stories about this new book and the sensation it had triggered in the U.K. The stories said young people were reading for a change, that Rowling was ingenious.

So when “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” debuted in the United States in September 1998, we were there on Day One.

Austin and Zach were not disappointed.

Age 10 at the time, they immediately identified with 11-year-old Harry and his pals, Ron and Hermione. As I read the books aloud in the car or at bedtime, Austin and Zach oohed and aahed at gamekeeper Hagrid’s magical creatures, cheered for Gryffindor over Slytherin in a Quidditch match, laughed at Ron’s clever asides, and wondered aloud whether Snape was a hero or villain.

Potteritis proved intense and infectious.

While our sons could read perfectly well, they decided they liked Daddy’s amateur-hour acting. So even into their tweens, they’d insist: “You read it! You read it!”

This persisted through “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and beyond.

In 2000, when “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was published, bookstores conducted midnight-sale parties. “Can we go? Can we go?” the boys begged. And so we went, reading the first few chapters into the wee hours.

In 2003, Rowling taunted Bruce the narrator. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was 870 pages long. When released on June 21, we were in Boston on vacation. Early that morning, we had to detour from our walk along the Freedom Trail to find a bookstore and snatch up our copy.

Later that afternoon, while touring Paul Revere’s house, we passed a teenage boy, crouched in the corner of an upstairs bedroom, absorbed in his Harry Potter book.

For the rest of that trip—past L.L. Bean in Maine, to Penobscott Bay, and back to Logan International—Pam drove the rental car while I knocked down 870 pages of Muggles, Death Eaters, house elves and ghosts.

When the Harry Potter movies premiered, we saw them all. When Pam grew terminally ill from cancer, she worried that she’d never know what happens to Harry Potter.

A few months after Pam’s death in 2005, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” was released. Naturally, Austin, Zach and I were at the downtown Borders at midnight, buying three of the 9 million copies that would be sold within 24 hours. I seriously considered buying a fourth, just for the symbolism.

That was the first one my boys read to themselves. Nothing personal. They just couldn’t wait.

A few years later, with one Harry Potter book left to go, I fell in love again. The big question, of course, was whether Cherí, my fiancé, understood Potter-speak.

Alas, it was meant to be. For in Cherí, we found a woman who, despite being single-without-children, had gotten hooked in 2001 when the first Potter film was released.

Having heard the hype during a business trip, and wanting to read the book before seeing the film, Cherí bought a copy in Manhattan. She read it on the flight home and drove straight to a Bloomington movie theater for the first showing. The local newspaper took her picture waiting in line with a bunch of schoolkids.

A few months after Cherí and I married in 2007, we bought four wee-hours copies and staged a marathon reading of the series finale, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Austin pulled an all-nighter. The rest of us finished within 24 hours.

Which brings us to last weekend, when the final Potter movie opened.

Cherí and I were there at the Imax. Austin watched in Madison, Wis., Zach in Bloomington.

When I texted Austin to ask when he was attending, his reply said this: “Goin’ tonight. Still prefer you reading to the movies.”

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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