Ordinarily, one would associate the notion of childhood with things like sunshine, or spring beginnings, magical flying unicorns, and the like.
I cannot stress how deeply this irked me as a child.
Which is probably what drew me to the universally beloved and loathed Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket.
The Bad Beginning, the first installment of thirteen, follows the Baudelaire children who are left parentless after a ravaging fire tragically destroys their home. They are placed in the care of one Count Olaf, a tall spindly sinister man, with a tattoo of an eye on his ankle, who is said to be a ‘distant relative’ of the Baudelaires.
If already this plot lines seems fishy to you, please allow me to clarify:
Yes. Yes it is. This guy is shady.
It becomes clear that Olaf, between handing out difficult chores and bouts of physical abuse, is after one thing, and one thing only: the Baudelaire fortune. He will stop at nothing to attain it, even… marriage.
To the adult mind, there will be the automatic assumption of pedophilia or some other twisted underlying theme (which very well may exist). Young readers, however, will likely only interpret a cruel and greedy antagonist, and nothing deeper. Snicket walks a fine but well executed line on this front.
Both as a child, and today, I find his quirky and intelligent voice enchanting. It leaves a reader feeling as though they are privy to some rich, taboo knowledge or that they are helping to uncover some shadowy sage secret. Traits like strength, perseverance, and ingenuity are valued in these children, and interestingly, Snicket presents that old paradox that as we age, we become less reliable. Adults are oblivious, and complacent, and unquestioning, he paints, and to some degree, he is right.
A certain clever humor is present throughout the series that I understood more as an adult than as an eager second grade reader. Snicket plays with irony and word play intelligently, and delightfully. (“The book was long, and difficult to read, and Klaus became more and more tired as the night wore on. Occasionally his eyes would close. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over.”)
While so many on the internet will pry this work apart with their key boards and overzealously extol their own beloved opinions, the plain and simple fact is that this is a brilliant piece of dark, melodramatic tragedy. Yes, people die and children cry, and a shady character’s motives could be questioned. But there is something tantalizing to me about Snicket’s less than delicate use of darkness, and spine-tingliness. It touched my own bleaker world view, and exemplifies the murky mysticism that surrounds nearly everything in childhood, since (contrary to our beliefs) life does not get better when you grow up. It just gets deeper.