by Lemony Snicket, 2000
We’re back with the Baudelaires! At this point in the series, the stories are still pretty formulaic. The siblings are placed with another well-meaning, but short-sighted adult, Count Olaf schemes to kidnap them and steal their fortune, and the intrepid youngsters have to save their own butts. This time they are placed with grammar-loving Aunt Josephine, whose house overlooks Lake Lachrymose and whose husband was bled to death by the Lachrymose Leeches. Owing to these traumatic events, Josephine is fearful of nearly everything and does little to offer the Baudelaires the safe home they deserve.
The biggest lesson in this book is that adults sometimes don’t or can’t protect you like you think they should. Josephine’s fears of electricity and real estate agents are surely funny, but it’s less humorous when she immediately gives the siblings to Count Olaf in order to save herself. They are appropriately aghast at her selfishness and it’s really hard to think of an adult who would sacrifice children so quickly:
Their feelings for Aunt Josephine were all a tumble in their minds…the worst of it was, Aunt Josephine’s fear had made her a bad guardian. A guardian is supposed to stay with children and keep them safe, but Aunt Josephine had run away at the first sign of danger. A guardian is supposed to help children in times of trouble, but Aunt Josephine practically had to be dragged out of the Curdled Cave when they needed her. And a guardian is supposed to protect children from danger, but Aunt Josephine had offered the orphans to Captain Sham in exchange for her own safety.
It is a sad, yet true portrayal of a person and a hard lesson to learn as a child: adults are highly flawed and they can’t always save you.
There is one item about which I’d like to offer some criticism and that is on the subject of Count Olaf’s henchpersons. One in particular is described as looking neither like a man nor a woman and, in numerous instances in this book, is referred to as “it” and called a “creature.” I’ll admit that when I first read this book, I didn’t give this a second glance, but in 2017 it really stands out to me. It seems bizarre that someone’s conformity or nonconformity to gender norms would be the most notable thing about them and it really highlights how far we’ve come in recognizing gender as the social construct, and not biological imperative, it is. I highly doubt that if Snicket were writing these books now that description would make it to the final edit, and, true to my suspicions, indiscernible gender isn’t a major feature of the character in the Netflix series. In fact, when this male presenting character does don feminine garb, it’s not done for laughs, but merely as part of Count Olaf’s plot to capture the Baudelaires. His gender presentation does not make him evil – his actions do.
It was a bit of a shock to see such outdated beliefs peek through what I usually think of as a timeless story, but so it goes. We are all products of the culture in which we are raised and sometimes it’s that culture, and not ourselves, that draws us up. Not to quote Oprah, but I’m gonna quote Oprah – when you know better, you do better. I’m happy to see that in the Netflix series, Snicket did better.