Twelve-year-old Erin was a precocious, curious, macabre, and absurdly geeky thing to behold. Long, stringy blonde hair, coke bottle glasses, crooked teeth, and lanky limbs growing into a confused teenager. As awkward as being pubescent was, and as heartbreaking as my twelfth year turned out to be (multiple family deaths), I think that it was my most authentic year. I wasn’t afraid to be completely lost in books, and I wasn’t self-conscious enough to not flirt with boys. I wasn’t ready to throw out all of my Barbies or stop sleeping with my teddy, Raven, but I was no longer terrified of anything to do with sex. My first period coincided with my first Tiger Beat Magazine, and my discovery of Fall Out Boy lead me down the road to 2007 emo kid glory. I had my first two “boyfriends” and some of my first experiences being bullied. I faked my way through playing the clarinet and joined the lacrosse team because the teacher was cute. I auditioned to play Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and instead was cast as a munchkin. I kept a diary of my first crushes, my embarrassment buying sports bras, and my humiliation at having armpit hair. I began to babysit, shaved my legs for the first time, and most importantly, read hundreds of books. It took me until university to reconcile what I began to toy with at 12 years old: how to be a woman without losing the mind of a girl, how to fit in, but to also stand out, and how to be unique without falling into a stereotype.
Since it is the eve of my twenty-second birthday, I am beginning a year-long foray into my bookshelf ten years ago. I am re-reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Louise Rennison (RIP)’s Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (MAYBE we’ll also dig out The Princess Diaries). With grad school looming in the distance, I am excited to revisit my quiet, introspective childhood bedroom (where I will likely sleep for the next two years).
Here is a quick analysis of Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning, book the first of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
My parents brought my copy of TBB back from England. I re-read it about 8 times, and when I was given the book on tape for Christmas, I spent HOURS re-living the story while doing crafts and cleaning my room. The misery of the Baudelaire siblings fueled my angst before I knew what angst was. The VFD mystery turned me into Nancy Drew, and Lemony Snicket not only increased my vocabulary tenfold, but also set the foundation for my sarcasm and black humour.
First of all, I will not discuss author intent in this post, that can be for another day (today we are full-on Barthes). If you are interested in Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, you can google him. He has recently come under fire for some problematic comments, which we can address later on.
Sunny, Klaus, and Violet Baudelaire find themselves homeless orphans in the care of Mr. Poe. Mr Poe then places them in the care of a distant relative, Count Olaf, who is dastardly, unibrowed, abusive, pedophilic, and an actor. He abuses the children, tries to marry 14 year old Violet, threatens them with death, and put the baby in a small cage hanging from a tower. As a 12 year old, these books were not just darkly funny, but seemed to truly be a series of awkward and strange predicaments, rather than a horrifying story of abuse and how the system has failed these children. The narration is still funny, that hasn’t changed, but the overall plot is more sinister.
Soon they were crowding the room—an assortment of strange-looking characters of all shapes and sizes. There was a bald man with a very long nose, dressed in a long black robe. There were two women who had bright white powder all over their faces, making them look like ghosts. Behind the women was a man with very long and skinny arms, at the end of which were two hooks instead of hands. There was a person who was extremely fat, and who looked like neither a man nor a woman. And behind this person, standing in the doorway, were an assortment of people the children could not see but who promised to be just as frightening. (4.21)
Count Olaf’s accomplices are an interesting group that I hadn’t paid much attention to previously. There are white-faced women, a man with hooks for hands, and a large person who looks neither “man nor woman.” These characters come with a host of coding. Obviously the person described as neither man nor woman displays transphobia in the text. The two women with whit faces invoke imagery of Geishas or Elizabethan style. The hook-handed man invokes ability and disability. Altogether, the troupe is a cast of characters similar to sideshow “freaks.” They are dehumanized, nameless, and characterless. They are going to be one of the main things I look out for as I continue reading.
The story begins with a destruction of the nuclear family. The story has no clear setting or time. The orphans’ relationship with Justice Strauss shows an attempt to gain back that family, and throughout the story, books seem distinctly related to reclaiming a family, and the overall happiness and well-being of the siblings. The only time the orphans are close to happiness, is while reading in Justice Strauss’ library. Their fondest memories invoke their parents’ impressive library (more often that the parents themselves), and their aspirations for the future all invoke a library of their own. When we see “bad” characters, there is a clear lacking of books. Count Olaf doesn’t have a single book in his home, as far as we can tell, and though Mr Poe isn’t inherently bad, he is always bringing terrible news, and never with a book accompanying him.
The orphans are skeptical of a few things besides the general entirety of Count Olaf’s life, and those are eyes and the law. We’ll see if these carry over to the second book (hint: I think they do.)