Friday, 23 May 2014

Chapter-by-Chapter: The Bad Beginning, Chapter 2

Second chapter of The Bad Beginning from A Series of Unfortunate Events, as before, this is a reread so there may be spoilers ahead.

What Happens?
The children are (obviously) devastated by the loss of both their parents. With their own home destroyed by the fire they are forced to move in with Mr Poe and his family while he makes arrangements for them. Mr Poe arranges for the Baudelaires to go and live with a distant relative named Count Olaf, who the children have neither met nor heard of before. Prior to meeting Count Olaf, they meet his next door neighbour, Justice Strauss, who invites them over to help with her gardening. They are introduced to Count Olaf who not only lives in a very dirty house, but doesn’t look particularly clean himself either and his sole motive for taking the children in seems to have been to get his hands on their money.

Thoughts as I read:

The illustrations in this book make me want to get out a pencil and start drawing (and I’m not really that good at drawing). This chapter begins with a drawing of the ruined house with a great plume of smoke coming up from it. I mentioned it in my post for Chapter 1 that I love Brett Helquist’s illustrations, I actually picked up Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer purely because he was the illustrator.

It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus, and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.

I how true some of these chapter openings are. Poor kids. They are quite understandably depressed in the days that follow, so depressed that they lose all interest in their hobbies. These are then recapped for us, just in case we forgot what they were during the last ten pages.

Mr Poe takes them back to their own house but they just find that everything has been destroyed, there’s nothing left for them to take away. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about children and grief processing so I have mixed thoughts about this. On the one hand this might have been a good idea to show them what has happened, but on the other hand, surely that’s going to add some hefty emotional scarring to what they’ve experienced already.

Mr Poe’s children are Edgar and Albert. I suppose Edgar and Allan would have been too obvious. I wonder whether the name Albert has some other connection to Edgar Allan Poe… Edgar and Albert aren’t particularly nice children, they’re more concerned with the fact that Violet and Klaus are moping around their room (though I can understand them being slightly worried about being bitten by the baby). One of them also just throws chewed bones on the floor, such a charming child.

It’s revealed that Count Olaf has been selected because the Baudelaires’ parents will requested that the children be raised in the most convenient way possible. This is why you should always be really specific and actually name names in official legal documents, especially when they concern who gets to raise your children in the event of a tragedy. On the other hand, I suppose Mr Poe has a point, Count Olaf lives in the city so the children will be familiar with the place. Presumably that would mean they could continue to go to the same school (though school’s never mentioned) and see their friends (no word of them either) so it would allow for the minimum of disruption for them.

Unfortunately the children have never even heard of Count Olaf and Mr Poe is forced to admit that he’s not entirely clear what his relation to the children is: ‘He is either a third cousin four times removed, or a fourth cousin three times removed.’ And he’s basically been picked because of geographic location over familial relationship. I’m sure there’s a family member that the children actually know who would’ve been willing to take them in.

The children question exactly who Count Olaf is and are informed that he’s an actor. I’ve never considered it before but I’m wondering if he’s genuinely a relation at all right now. I might be proved wrong by something else later in the book or series but I know he just wants to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune, perhaps he’s just found a way to make Poe think he’s a relation. I mean, Mr Poe doesn’t seem to be all that hot on these things, does he?

Anyway, enough of my idle speculation.

The Baudelaire’s are sent off to the bedroom to start packing. We get a brief glimpse of what each of the three is doing; it’s a little bit of repetition that’ll become familiar over the course of the series. In this instance Klaus is folding the ugly shirts he’s been bought, Violet’s looking around the room, and Sunny bites Edgar and and Albert’s shoes as a little memento of their time together. I like Sunny.

The very next day Mr Poe takes them to Count Olaf. He basically rushes them out of the house so he can drop them off on the way to work. No gradual introductions here, this is a dump and run. Really, the Baudelaire parents couldn’t have chosen a better executor of their will, could they?

I love the description of the places that they passed on the way to Count Olaf’s house; Doldrum Drive, Fickle Fountain, and ‘an enormous pile of dirt where the Royal Gardens once stood’, sounds like a pleasant city to live in. There’s obviously a story behind the Royal Gardens thing which as far as I remember never comes up here. The journey also places the plot in a bit of a strange place time-wise, Doldrum Drive has both motorbikes and horse-drawn carriages on it; it’s not clear where in history the story takes place… unless it’s somewhere with an Amish population, hence the horse-drawn carriages.

Based on all the warnings on both the back of the book and on the first pages you can’t possibly believe that when the Baudelaire’s get out of the car outside the ‘prettiest house on the block’, and meet a nice friendly woman named Justice Strauss, that things are going to work out well for the children. And they don’t. Justice Strauss is Count Olaf’s next door neighbour and Olaf’s house is a complete dump compared to hers.

The description of the house is brilliant though. It’s dirty with small, dark windows, it all leans slightly to one side and in the very centre of the door is a big eye – I’m going to be looking out for all these eyes during this reread. I know that they keep on cropping up throughout the series. Clearly nobody thought to do a home visit before dropping the children off here. Sunny’s reaction sums up what everyone feels perfectly: ‘Oh’ means ‘What a terrible place! I don’t want to live there at all!’

Count Olaf just sounds thoroughly unpleasant from the get go. Actually reading the description, even though its kind of caricaturish makes my skin crawl a little bit. He sounds like the sort of guy mothers would warn their children to stay away from, with a ‘wheezy whisper’ (great alliteration), he’s tall and thin, the clothes he’s wearing are stained. He’s also unshaven, with a monobrow, and he has shiny eyes which make him look ‘hungry and angry’. I can’t help but wonder whether Mr Poe had any background checks done on Olaf before selecting him as the children’s guardian.

The inside of the house is no better than the outside of the house. It’s all filthy! He even has a bowl of apple cores on one of the tables just inside the door. Why? Just why? That’s not hygienic! For once Mr Poe does notice, so he’s obviously not been here before. Olaf suggests he could use some of the Baudelaire’s money to do the place up but Mr Poe quickly puts paid to that idea – the Baudelaire money is not to be used until Violet is of age.

Olaf’s obviously taken the children in thinking he can get his hands on their money so is a wee bit peeved to learn that it won’t be as easy as that. Violet actually thinks he is about to hit Mr Poe when he reveals that little tidbit of information but he quickly recovers and dismisses the banker. Despite his brief moment of perception when he noticed the dirty house, Mr Poe remains oblivious to Olaf’s desire to thump him.

And just like that Mr Poe is off, telling the children he ‘will continue to see you occasionally’ and that they can find him at the bank. Klaus points out that they don’t know where that is but Olaf shuts him out. Clearly there’s to be no follow-up visits to check up on how they are settling in. So despite Mr Poe’s house smelling weird and Edgar and Albert not exactly making them feel welcome, the Baudelaires are now wishing that they could’ve stayed there instead.

They then spot that Count Olaf isn’t wearing any socks with his shoes and they can see his bare ankle has an eye tattooed on it. The children wonder how many more eyes there are in the house (by my count we’re up to three, including the one on the front cover of the book), they also have a sense that Count Olaf will always be watching them, presumably just waiting for the moment he can get his hands on their money.

This chapter is significantly longer than the first but it covers quite a big chunk of time and introduces the main antagonist for the series, Count Olaf. It also shows that the kids are well and truly on their own now, as if it hadn’t been made clear enough in the first chapter, Mr Poe isn’t much use. But it also introduces another character, the one ray of light, Justice Strauss, who is friendly and pleasant towards the children; she’s someone who might be able to help them in the future.

This is the last of the set up chapters, everything from this point onwards is actual story. Now we know who everyone is, it’s time to see what other unfortunate things are going to happen to them.

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