James and the Giant Peach

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Made of Sterner Stuff: On Roald Dahl and ‘Love From Boy’

As a fellow English boarding school veteran, I have always felt a certain kinship with Roald Dahl. His famous autobiography of his childhood, Boy, memorably captures the hierarchical structure of boarding school life, and although Dahl’s experiences were somewhat more brutal than my own (I was never forced to thaw a frozen lavatory seat with my own posterior) there is a definite sense of recognition in reading about his childhood days.

However, upon reading Love from Boy, a newly published collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother, I feel as though I may have to discard any claim to familiarity. As it turns out, there are even more differences between the boarding schools of the 1930s and those of the 2000s than were previously evident to me, and, if I learned anything about myself reading Love From Boy, it is that, had I been unfortunate enough to live in Dahl’s day, I probably would have ended up like “poor little Ford,” a briefly-mentioned fatality of one of the school’s many measles epidemics.

If the measles did not claim me, there would have been no shortage of other possibilities for a premature snuffing-out. Dahl, made of far sterner stuff, and arguably the most effortlessly macho of all 20th-century writers (including the posturing Ernest Hemingway), survived them all: being forced to fight a fire in his boarding house and then spending the night in the “black and charcoaly” building on “brown and nasty” beds; coming under fire when a student accidentally used live ammunition instead of blanks in a field-day training exercise; and experimenting with eating boiled lichen on a school trip to Newfoundland due to a lack of sufficient food.

Dahl detailed all of these horrors in regular letters to his beloved mother, and continued to write to her faithfully up until her death. Donald Sturrock, author of the acclaimed Dahl biography, Storyteller, collects a selection of over 600 of these surviving letters, dating from 1925 to 1965, in this new volume, entitled Love From Boy, after the phrase Dahl affectionately used to sign off his letters from school.

After he left boarding school, Dahl’s adventures continued and became even more outrageous. He moved to Africa, working in Tanzania and Kenya for Shell, where he contracted malaria, fought off a black mamba snake, and invented the game of strip darts. When war broke out in 1939, Dahl trained to become a pilot in Egypt, Iraq, and Greece. He shot down at least five enemy planes during the war before crash landing in the Libyan desert and being sent home to England to convalesce.

Following a chance encounter in a private London club, he was given a curious job offer and moved to Washington D.C. to work for the RAF. His military assignments there, as well as his own blossoming success as a freelance writer, soon launched him to the peak of American high society: he played tennis with Vice President Henry A. Wallace (winning 6-0, 6-0, 6-0), joined President Roosevelt for Thanksgiving dinner, went on a date with Ginger Rogers, attended a party with Charlie Chaplin, and worked on a major motion picture with Walt Disney. What is most extraordinary about this is the fact that it all took place decades before he found his ultimate success as a children’s writer, which would not come until 1961 with the publication of James and the Giant Peach.

These remarkable events (which must surely constitute one of the most interesting biographies of any writer) are all detailed in Dahl’s letters. Although one might feel a sense of unease reading or critically analyzing personal letters that were never meant for publication, Dahl’s may prove an exception since, as Sturrock argues, they were always written “primarily to entertain.” Therefore, although there might be a few personal details, such as inquiries about relatives, all in all the letters are highly accessible for those otherwise unfamiliar with Dahl’s life, and primarily document his extraordinary anecdotes in the ever-humorous style of a born entertainer.

My personal favorite of his many comical descriptions concerns the two elderly patients he shares a hospital room with after recovering from surgery, who fart “quite openly and unashamedly just as though it was like saying good morning.” For those (like myself) who are fond of these kinds of immature observations and jokes, there is plenty more to be found in Love from Boy, including Dahl’s description of a statue of a bison whose penis is painted bright red by vandals — “a very fine sight;” a picture by Dahl of “Hitler fucking himself,” annotated with an instruction to “note the smile of ecstasy on his face;” and a warning against the painting of toilet seats, lest some unfortunate “adhere to it,” followed by a conclusion that this would be “an excellent cure for constipation.” (Another difference between Dahl and myself: I would never dare to record any of these things in a letter to my mother, for fear she would be scandalized to the point of fainting, or worse.)

Although the letters themselves are fascinating and consistently funny, if the book has one flaw it may be that Sturrock tries too hard to force his theme of motherhood. It is clear that Dahl and his mother had a devoted relationship, but none of her letters survive, making the conversation in this collection entirely one-sided. Sturrock’s conclusion that Dahl’s mother “was an essential and invaluable foil” for the development of his writing is something we just have to take his word for. As a noted biographer of Dahl’s, it is likely that Sturrock is privy to more insights into her character than we are, so his conclusions may be valid — they are just not made immediately evident from what we have collected in Love from Boy.

Nonetheless, the book does a valiant job of collecting these letters for the first time and providing sound biographical context for them. For fans of Dahl’s writing there is also an additional layer of enjoyment, as one can seek out potential origins for elements later found in his fictional works. One obvious example is the cat, Mrs. Taubsypuss, whom Dahl and his fellow Shell workers took care of in Dar es Salaam — she later gives her name to the U.S. President’s cat in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Other more subtle details, such as Dahl’s descriptions of flying, may be the catalyst for scenes from his final book, The Minpins, which features miniature people flying on the backs of birds. Likewise, his eventual disillusionment with high society excesses (“Dinner of course was eaten off gold plate, but it tasted just the same”) may contain the seeds for the spoiled and greedy consumer-obsessed characters that populate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Reading Love from Boy, one gets the sense that it was inevitable that Dahl would become a great writer. Not only did he get plenty of practice, composing a huge number of letters, all in a style that served to sharpen his skill as a humorist; but he also lived more in the 10-year period from his leaving school to the end of the war than most of us do in a lifetime. He carried with him a rich memory of innumerable fascinating anecdotes and ideas — enough to fill countless books. Love from Boy provides a wonderful summary of this extraordinary life and an intimate insight into his development as a writer. It will prove a charming read for anyone who has ever enjoyed his work. Plus (did I mention?) it also has lots of rude bits, which is always a nice bonus.

The Way We Used to Walk the Dog

1.
As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.

“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.

“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.

“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”

I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.

Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.

“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”

I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.

“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”

“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.

Anshu was on a roll: “James and the Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits. Do you remember The Twits?”

I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.

From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.

I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.

2.
If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:

Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.

At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”

And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.

3.
If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.

Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”

The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.

As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.

The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.

4.
While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome

Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.

My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.

When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.

I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.

5.
When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.

But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.

I will put my arm around her and start like this:

CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…

Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.

[Image credit: Frank]

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