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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 12, 2001

Harry Potter books are a welcome distraction

 •  Enchanted fans line up to view Harry Potter
 •  Movie review: 'Sorcerer's Stone' does not disappoint

By Martha Irvine
Associated Press

Once upon a time, a little music or a Fred Astaire video would've calmed Ruth Sexton as she unwound with her cats and tropical fish after the train ride home from her Washington workday.

Ruth Sexton with a Harry Potter book in hand: She picked up her first one for a little escapism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorism.

Associated Press

Then a plane struck the nearby Pentagon. And an anthrax scare temporarily shut down the office building where she works.

"I found that I could not escape the horror that is going on," the 53-year-old Maryland resident says.

So Sexton did what a number of Americans have done since Sept. 11 — she looked to a young wizard with big round glasses and a knack for escaping evil. And she's been reading the Harry Potter series ever since.

Though its Nov. 16 release was planned well before the attacks, the series' first movie, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," is also providing a welcome distraction.

"In a world of chaos — utter chaos at the moment — to have a movie like 'Harry Potter' pop up is extraordinary," says actor Richard Harris, who plays Harry's bearded mentor, Professor Dumbledore.

Those who have tracked the Harry Potter phenomenon for a while are not surprised that the stories are winning a new group of fans after the attacks.

"Harry's always one to reach out and accept the help of friends and to admit, 'I'm not the smartest and I'm not the fastest, but we'll get through this together.' And that's a really comforting message right now," says Rebecca Sutherland Borah, a pop-culture expert at the University of Cincinnati who has taught classes examining author J.K. Rowling's best-selling series.

Borah, too, knows people who have recently started reading the books. She also has watched online discussion groups dedicated to Harry Potter become places for people to bond and talk about their anguish over the attacks and the war in Afghanistan.

And many who have already read the Potter series are returning to it as literary comfort food.

That includes Pam Huber. She had borrowed all four books from the library and finished them well before Sept. 11. But after a stressful day working in media relations at the University of Dayton on the day of the attacks, she was so drained that she stopped by a bookstore on her way home and bought the entire series.

"The clear-cut difference between evil and the heroism of a young boy — it's just what I needed," says Huber, who went home, put her "sweats on, plopped down in the recliner and decompressed with the first book."

Many say the hunger for good prevailing over evil — namely, Harry outfoxing the villainous Lord Voldemort — is certainly part of the appeal. But Borah says she has cautioned some against reading the fourth Potter book, which is darker than its predecessors.

"It just hits a little too close to home," she says, noting that some characters are killed.

That warning isn't deterring Natalie Quick, a 23-year-old Seattle resident who bought some of the books last month and read two and a half of them in just five days.

She says there's no comparing reality with Harry's life at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. "Sept. 11th makes me think of Sept. 11th," Quick says. "Not Harry Potter."

Escaping the horrors of the real world has often been especially difficult for those closest to the attacks. Harrison Asen, a 9-year-old from Manhattan, has been collecting pennies to contribute to victims' families. He also went with his parents to pay respects at a fire station near their home that lost several firefighters in the World Trade Center collapse.

Mostly, though, his parents have been trying to shield Harrison — who still likes to wear the glasses from his Harry Potter Halloween costume — from as much stress as they can.

His mother, Betsy, says the excitement over the movie is helping them do that.

"I'm sure he's not even aware of some of the feelings he has right now," she says. "So this is good. It's giving us something to look forward to."

Pam Taylor, a Nashville divorce attorney and devoted Harry Potter fan, is also thankful for the movie's timing.

"It's kind of like the Yankees winning in the bottom of the 10th," she says, referring to the Halloween night victory that temporarily put New York ahead in baseball's World Series. "It's nice for everyone to have something to cheer about."

To help get in the spirit, Taylor and several others in her firm have been writing with Harry Potter glitter pens and drinking from Harry Potter mugs. They plan to take a rare afternoon off to see the movie together the day it opens.

But it's not just the heaviness of life after Sept. 11 that they'll be dodging, says Joanna Stanfield, a paralegal who works with Taylor.

"What we do all day is deal with nasty divorces and custody cases," she says. "So we like to escape any time we can."