by Lemony Snicket, 2000
I remember from my first reading of these books that they become somewhat formulaic. We have certainly reached that point as there is little to distinguish the plot of The Miserable Mill from those that have come before it. The Baudelaire orphans are again placed in the care of an ignorant adult, Count Olaf dons a disguise in an attempt to capture them, no one believes the orphans when they insist that he has found them, and then eventually Olaf’s evil plan is unveiled and he escapes to scheme another day. This doesn’t mean that the Series is any less fun to read for its reliance on a tried and true formula, but it does render them less new and exciting as the tale winds on.
In this installment, the Baudelaires are given over to a man whose name is so difficult to pronounce, he is content with being called “Sir.” Sir runs the Lucky Smells Lumbermill with the help of his partner Charles and a stringent hand over the care of his workers. You see, Sir doesn’t pay his laborers in money, but in coupons that they can never cash. A free refill of iced tea is all well and good if, in fact, you can afford to buy the first iced tea, but the crux of Sir’s plan is that his employees cannot and his coupons are no more than meaningless bits of paper. Lest the workers think of revolution, they remain in bondage to their jobs through the powers of hypnotism, thanks to the aptly named Dr. Georgina Orwell. Now, there’s something to be found about our society in this system that keeps low-skilled workers tied to low-paid jobs, giving them just enough incentive to keep coming back but not enough money or power to rise up out of the lumbermill ghetto. I don’t think I’m extrapolating too far when I read this as a condemnation of our own treatment of low-skilled laborers and our beliefs that they should just accept what we give them, whether that be one week of maternity leave or a square of gum for lunch, but Snicket isn’t as straightforward in saying this as he is in the societal criticisms found in his previous books. That’s unfortunate, because while it’s a rather astute observation, it can easily be laughed off as a ridiculous plot device instead of as representative of some people’s real lives.
That would be my criticism of this book as a whole, that Snicket isn’t as forthright in his stinging examinations of this well-meaning community that continues to fail these children. In repeating the same plot, we start to lose a little bit of the shock of how ignorant adults can be and it becomes just another episode of how the Baudelaires are humorously wronged. I know there’s more coming in the future, that Snicket hasn’t even mentioned VFD or hinted at how the Baudelaires’ parents and Olaf and himself are all connected, and I can’t wait until I get to relearn how all of that happens. Until then, these middle books remain fun, if inconsequential, reads.