by Lemony Snicket, 2015
“Why are the snacks so terrible?” “Why are we stopping?” “What’s the rest of the story?” These are the questions that start the final installment of the All the Wrong Questions series and that last one is the one I’m still asking. What’s the rest of the story indeed, Snicket???
We find our hero – none other than Lemony Snicket himself – on a train, ever in pursuit of the villainous Hangfire. We’ve got the whole cast of characters that we’ve come to meet in other three books (read reviews one, two, and three) in this denouement: Moxie Mallahan and her typewriter, Keller Haines and chemist Cleo Knight, librarian Dashiell Qwerty, Snicket’s chaperone S. Theodora Markson, the Officers Mitchum and their son Stew, and everyone else who’s come to help – or hinder – Lemony in his search for Hangfire and the Bombinating Beast. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that certain questions are nicely tied up, while leaving the door open for further exploration as to how Lemony came to be involved with the Baudelaire siblings. (Oh, how he teases us with their story!)
But, the most important question asked here is one of morals. Throughout the story we have always believed that Lemony has acted in search of justice, acting to the right the wrongs that Hangfire has committed for his own advancement. Now we – and Lemony – aren’t so sure, as Lemony finds himself committing some acts that would, in many others’ eyes, be considered equally as treacherous:
Are you, I asked myself. Are you a villain? You are part of a noble organization. You have noble associates on the train, and those are just the ones you know about. Together you will defeat the treachery of the devious man and solve the murder of the noble one. It will be a triumph of libraries over treachery… You’re not a villain. Are you?
I’m reminded of a line in the first book when Lemony feels that he and Theodora are ringing the wrong doorbell: “It felt like the wrong thing to do… We did it anyway. Knowing that something is wrong and doing it anyway happens very often in life, and I doubt I will ever know why.” You can see here that we’ve come full circle. Ultimately, these books are not about the questions on the title pages, but about why we do the things we do. Are we good? Are our intentions noble? Where is the line separating the hero from the villain? Will we know when we have crossed it? Is knowing enough? Snicket, the author, doesn’t answer those questions here, because they are difficult and puzzling, for adults as much as they for kids. I have always admired his ability to incorporate such mature themes into books for young readers and I don’t doubt that many of them will catch on.
The series may feel maddeningly open-ended, but it also feels all the more truthful for it. We don’t always get the answers to our questions and we aren’t always reassured that we’ve made the right choices. I suspect the future will bring us more delicious tales of Snicket and his family and their involvement with VFD and I, for one, cannot wait.