by Lemony Snicket, 1999
On to Book the Second! (Remember, there will be spoilers in these reviews.) We rejoin our intrepid heroes, the Baudelaire siblings, as they’re placed with another relative. This time their guardian is their uncle Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, a leading scientist in the world of herpetology. For the first time since their parents’ death, Baudelaires feel safe in Uncle Monty’s home and each are encouraged to do what they love most – Violet has large sheets of paper on her bedroom walls for inventing, Klaus finds lots of books to read, and Sunny gets her teeth on all manner of objects. It’s not until the mysterious Stephano arrives to fill in for Uncle Monty’s departed assistant that the air of safety is shattered – it’s none other than Count Olaf in one of his disguises, coming again to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune.
I must say that I love the fact that Snicket allows Violet to be the leading hero of the three. In a time where women are still taught that to be less than, Violet is brazenly unashamed of her intelligence and wit. After figuring out how to pick the lock on Stephano’s suitcase, Mr. Poe chides her, saying, “Nice girls shouldn’t know how to do such things,” to which Klaus immediately leaps to her defense with, “My sister is a nice girl, and she knows how to do all sorts of things.” For the two are not mutually exclusive and every day we need to see more stories with girls about whom this is true.
It’s also worth noting that the Series fills a certain void in children’s literature. There are few stories about loss that speak to children who have experienced it. I had a relatively fortunate childhood, so I can’t attest to this personally, but it seems to me that this is something Snicket does very well. After the children find Uncle Monty dead, our narrator offers this thought on loss:
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.
Most children’s stories end happily with everything turning out alright, but the Baudelaires have already experienced one of the worst events imaginable in a child’s life and yet find the strength to go on. Earlier, when Klaus admits that it feels wrong to feel happy with Uncle Monty, Violet assures him that they’ll always miss their parents, “but I think we can miss them without being miserable all the time. After all, they wouldn’t want us to be miserable.” In this way, Snicket gives credence to his young readers’ feelings, validating how loss changes one’s entire worldview and yet allowing for the possibility the happiness can, and should, be found again. It’s a tough lesson for anyone to learn and it’s impressive that it can be found so succinctly here, in the pages of these thirteen books.