“An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography… None of these things is important, but each of them made such a tremendous impression on me that I have never been able to get them out of my mind… Some are funny. Some are painful. Some are unpleasant. I suppose that is why I have always remembered them so vividly. All are true.” –Roald Dahl
Who else could be more suited for Nonfiction Monday for our Everything Dahl and Magical bimonthly theme than Roald Dahl himself? I must admit, having this bimonthly theme gave me an excuse to finally pull out Dahl’s Boy: Tales of Childhood from the shelf. I have always wanted to read this book if not for the more serious, “adult” aspects of life that kept getting me sidetracked. When opportunity finally presented itself, my first thought upon grabbing the book was to have it featured for Nonfiction Monday. So “yay” for that. Today’s Nonfiction Monday round-up is hosted by SimplyScience Blog.
In a nutshell, I enjoyed reading Boy: Tales of Childhood. For me, it tops all the books that Roald Dahl has ever written. This piece of work only goes to show just how fabulous a storyteller Roald Dahl is. Reading the whimsical accounts of his childhood is like seeing his wonderful characters pop up in real life. Moreover, it is like reading a collection of short stories crafted from one’s imagination, except that these stories are real—sweet and painful accounts of his childhood.
Tracing the Roots
Quoting the character of Maria from The Sound of Music, “let’s start from the very beginning…” Roald Dahl would not be Roald Dahl had it not been for his parents, Harald Dahl and Sofie Hesselberg. (Matter of fact.) Both had admirable traits and, if not for overanalyzing the book, I would say that Dahl’s short narrative of his parents was a foreshadowing of what he would become later in life.
On the account of Dahl’s father losing his left arm at a young age, I could not help but laugh over the misfortune that had befallen him. Harald Dahl was indeed a victim of circumstance at the time. Thanks to the drunken doctor who rushed to his aid, Harald’s fractured elbow was mistaken for a dislocated shoulder! (Insert: laughing out loud.)
An amputated arm did not stop Harald from working toward a successful life. His job as a shipbroker eventually got him an “imposing country mansion beside the village of Radyr, about eight miles west of Cardiff,” Wales. This was during the time when Roald Dahl was two years old, the only boy of Harald Dahl and Sofie Hesselberg.
While so much can be said about Dahl’s father, this is my favorite:
He harboured a curious theory about how to develop a sense of beauty in the minds of his children. Every time my mother became pregnant, he would wait until the last three months of his pregnancy and then he would announce to her that ‘the glorious walks’ must begin. These glorious walks consisted of him taking her to places of great beauty in the countryside and walking with her for about an hour each day so that she could absorb the splendour of the surroundings. His theory was that if the eye of a pregnant woman was constantly observing the beauty of nature, this beauty would somehow become transmitted to the mind of the unborn baby within her womb and that baby would grow up to be a lover of beautiful things. This was the treatment that all of his children received before they were born. – Papa and Mama, pp. 18-19
Roald Dahl’s mother, Sofie, is as admirable as his father. While not much was said about her prior to Dahl’s growing up years, Sofie had kept the family together after Dahl’s father died. (She did a pretty good job, mind you.)
Here she was, a young Norwegian in a foreign land, suddenly having to face all the very gravest problems and responsibilities. She had five children to look after, three of her own and two by her husband’s first wife, and to make matters worse, she herself was expecting another baby in two months’ time. A less courageous woman would almost certainly have sold the house and packed her bags and headed straight back to Norway with the children… But she refused to take the easy way out. – Kindergarten, p. 21
One of the memorable things about Dahl’s mother was when she went out of her way to pay a ‘visit’ to Dahl’s headmaster Mr. Coombes. Prior to this, she was giving seven-year-old Dahl a bath when she saw “scarlet stripes and deep blue bruising” on her little boy’s buttocks. Even though Mr. Coombes insulted her by saying that she was a foreigner and didn’t know how British schools were run, she bravely told him the she would take Dahl away from Llandaff Cathedral School because she didn’t like their methods. My thought at the time was: super mom to the rescue!
The Growing Pains of Childhood
Roald Dahl’s Boy: Tales of Childhood was divided into three major sections, each relating to his life as a schoolboy. Most of it consisted of tales involving bullying and severe, unnecessary punishment from headmasters and prefects. I remember reading about Dahl’s father saying that English schools are the best. Reading about these horrible accounts made me think otherwise.
As the first stroke landed and the pistol-crack sounded, I was thrown forward so violently that if my fingers hadn’t been touching the carpet, I think I would have fallen flat on my face… At first I only heard the crack and felt absolutely nothing at all, but a fraction of a second later the burning sting that flooded across my buttocks was so terrific that all I could do was gasp. I gave a great gushing gasp that emptied my lungs of every breath of air that was in them. – Llandaff Cathedral School, 1923-5 (age 7-9), p. 49
In spite of the humor embedded in these horrendous tales, I could not help but feel bad for Dahl. Page after page after page of whipping and beating and mocking seemed too much to endure. If anything, Dahl should be admired for ‘coming out alive’ from these nightmarish acts of cruelty and actually succeed later on in life.
The Sweeter Side of Childhood
Don’t be discouraged, dear readers, by the previous references to Dahl’s bad experiences in school. Life wasn’t all that bitter to our wonderful storyteller. In fact, reading his childhood tales would trigger a sense of recognition from the books that he has written. This is mostly because his books were inspired by real-life events.
Strong and/or lovable female characters in Dahl’s books were inspired by his mother and grandmother. Tales of mischief were inspired by his mischievousness as a child. (Look up The Great Mouse Plot on the Internet when you get a chance.) Antagonists in his books are always portrayed as mean grown ups who knew nothing but make life miserable for children – much like what he had gone through in school. Overall, his not-so-jolly childhood memories were the inspiration behind his dark tales for children.
Perhaps one of my favorite chapters in the book was that bit about chocolates. Funny tidbit was that Cadbury was Dahl’s main inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. According to him, when he was trying to come up with a plot for his second children’s book, he remembered those Cadbury boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them that children during his time were lucky to try.
No matter how many revisions I make on this review, nothing I say would suffice to glorify such piece of children’s literature. I had to go back to Roald Dahl’s quote at the beginning of this review. This certainly is not an autobiography. It is a series of montage in a boy’s life that made him the storyteller we all love. It is a humbling thought to know that life wasn’t all too sweet for Roald Dahl, yet he used these experiences to his advantage to make life sweet for children across the globe.