Self-Sustaining

“But where will we go?” Klaus asked.

“Burb,” Sunny said, which meant “Anywhere, as long as it’s out of town.”

“Who will take care of us out there?” Klaus said, looking out on the flat horizon.

“Nobody,” Violet said. “We’ll have to take care of ourselves. We’ll have to be self-sustaining.”

“Like the hot air mobile home,” Klaus said, “that could travel and survive all by itself.”

“Like me,” Sunny said, and abruptly stood up. Violet and Klaus gasped in surprise as their baby sister took her first wobbly steps, and then walked closely beside her, ready to catch her if she fell.

But she didn’t fall.

–          The Vile Village, Lemony Snicket

In honor of the new Netflix series that came out this month, I thought I would write my first post for The Uncommonplaces on A Series of Unfortunate Events, some of my favorite books both as a child and as an adult.

My mom never understood what I liked so much about a series that begins with three children being orphaned by a fire, and that only gets more depressing from there. But I think one reason I liked it so much is exactly because it deals with such morbid events. Snicket does not shy away from the reality that life is sometimes just plain awful, despite your best efforts to the contrary. He does not insult children by pretending every story has a happy ending, and that is a refreshing change when it comes to children’s literature. He treats his readers like intelligent people, and makes his readers more intelligent through his books.

Snicket has a delightful way of expanding one’s vocabulary that is neither dry nor condescending, a word which here means “treating perfectly intelligent blog readers as though I were better than them for putting an opinion on the internet, as if that were particularly difficult to do.” Among the many words and phrases I learned from his books as a child are “stiletto,” “red herring,” and “penultimate.” Snicket’s explanations of words and concepts that may be above his audience’s current reading level are sufficient enough to educate them and amusing enough to keep more advanced and even adult readers interested. I am enjoying reading the series again now at least as much as I did when I was a kid.

In fact, one of the things I love most about A Series of Unfortunate Events is something that I only fully began to appreciate on rereading it as an adult: Snicket’s books give children the mental and emotional tools to deal with unpleasant or downright nasty situations in their own lives. They show that adults, even when they have the best intentions, do not always act in a child’s best interest. The very people who should be protecting them sometimes place children in harmful situations, whether intentionally (like the evil Count Olaf) or unwittingly (like the bumbling Mr. Poe).

Bad things happen to good people – even clever, intelligent, and resourceful people like Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. Circumstances beyond their control sometimes force children to grow up more quickly than they should. They must learn to become “self-sustaining.” And while things may not always end well, Snicket shows us that there is no situation so bad that it cannot be faced alongside someone you love.

Especially if that someone happens to possess mechanical skills, a love of reading, or four very sharp teeth.

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