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I can't believe that Rowling is trying to play to the American audience more than to British audience. If there is any reference in the first five books to the United States at all, I missed it.

Agreed. I can only think of one reference to American and I believe it involved Quidditch. It is obvious she is not trying to focus more on an American audience, but I still she made what could be references to American slavery. But, because I am not fully aware of British history and culture it is entirely possible that she is refering to British slavery and I, a pompus American, assumed she was talking about my country! :)

Anyway, I think that Rowling wants to resolve the house elf issue, and the rest of her work seems so well planned out that I'm confident she will work it out. I don't think Rowling would have included their story if she didn't have a greater purpose for them. I'm frustrated because I wanted it to be "fixed" now, as in book 5! :)

Hermione is being a bit blind (like you said, she could try talking to the house elfs!) but I don't think that makes her less intelligent, just more human. She has taken up a cause she feel passionate about, which is what a lot of teenagers do.

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