Saturday, January 8, 2011

Review - Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

Short review: Dahl recalls his childhood, from idyllic days on vacation in Norway, to the nasty and regimented horror of English boarding school.

Looking back to youth
The author recalls his days
Of joy and horror

Full review: Late in his life, Roald Dahl decided to write about his own early years. Boy: Tales of Childhood consists of his recollections of the period that ranged from his birth to the time he turned twenty. The title is taken from his many letters home, written while he was at English boarding schools from the age of nine until the end of his schooling, which he would simply sign "love from Boy". As his works of fiction deal with the joys and travails of young children, it should come as no surprise that Dahl's youth contained both in substantial dollops. Dahl maintains that this is not intended as an autobiography, which I suspect Dahl believed required an attention to detail he was not interested in, but instead merely the recollections of an adult looking back upon his younger days and picking out those memories both wonderful and tragic. Most fascinating about this book is the glimpse it gives into the mind of the man who wrote so many books about childhood, and the indications it gives as to where his stories came from.

And tragedy seems to have been a fairly common element to Dahl's life. When Dahl was three, his sister Astrid died of appendicitis at the age of seven, and his grief stricken father died shortly thereafter. (In a tragic coincidence, Dahl’s own daughter Olivia died of measles at the age of seven). Although almost everything written about Dahl's father in Boy concerns events that took place long before Dahl was born, one can feel the love he has for a man who, at the time this book was written, had been dead for sixty-four years. This love shows up in many of Dahl's works, most notably Danny: The Champion of the World, which has always struck me as a love letter from a man to the father he never really knew but desperately wished he had. But the loss of one's parents crops up as a recurring theme in Dahl's work, with orphaned children serving as the central characters in works such as The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches.

This tragedy caused by the uncaring world is compounded in Dahl's memoirs by the viciousness inflicted upon him and other children by adults. Though his family was originally from Norway, Dahl was raised in England, and sent to English schools as a result of his father's belief that English schools were the finest in the world, and his widow's refusal to go against her dead husband's wishes. But in the 1920s, when Dahl entered school, it was commonplace for schoolmasters to beat children who misbehaved. In a particularly disturbing sequence, after Dahl and his friends play a prank upon the somewhat crabby woman who runs a local candy shop, after which she complains to the school headmaster, who proceeds to cane the children. Reading this, it struck me as absurd that people would consider an acceptable response to the alleged misbehavior of children to complain to their school and not to their parents, and that the school administration would consider it appropriate to punish these children for actions taken outside of school. This seems to have been disturbing to Dahl's mother as well, because she complained to the school headmaster, who defended his actions on the grounds that Dahl's mother, being Norwegian and a woman, was simply a silly little woman who didn't understand proper schooling.

In a perfect world, Dahl's mother would have seen the absurdity of this system, and made substantial changes to his education (by spurning the brutal English school system), but she seems to have identified the school as the problem, not the system, and Dahl was sent on to boarding schools first to St. Peter's and then to Repton. Of course, the vicious brutality of the system continued, but as Dahl was away from home, and the school masters used subtle and not-so-subtle ways to keep the truth of the violence away from parents, nothing much changed except the boys became inured to the viciousness heaped upon them. It seems quite damning evidence that of all his years in school, the memories that most stuck with Dahl into his elder years were the memories, not of learning, but of the brutality and pettiness of his instructors. Oddly, Dahl recounts a couple of medical procedures, including the removal of his own tonsils, in which, as was the order of the day, the medical professionals dispensed with the need to use any kind of anesthetic on the grounds that children didn't really feel pain. The cognitive dissonance between the idea that removing tonsils by simply slicing them out of a young man's throat because he won't really feel it, and the idea that the best way to discipline that same child is to beat him bloody with a cane should be readily apparent. In many ways, it seems like English society had conspired to try to make the lives of its children as painful as possible while engaging in a series of contradictory rationalizations to keep abusing their progeny.

Of course, Dahl’s childhood was not all vicious beatings at the hands of his school masters and surgery performed without painkillers by uncaring doctors. His life contained numerous moments of happiness and joy, mostly involving vacations his family took every year to Norway. He writes of the excitement of riding in a car with his much older sister at the wheel, careening about the countryside barely under control – an experience that probably served as an inspirations for elements of his screenplay for Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang. Dahl also reminisces about playing pranks upon his sister’s fiancée, and even some of the good times he had in school including the deliveries of Cadbury chocolates the company sent to test new products (which inspired Dahl to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and his athletic pursuits. But lurking in the background are always characters like Captain Hardcastle and adults like him who serve as the obvious models for so many villains in Dahl’s stories. Dahl also speaks with great affection for his mother, and how she kept every letter he ever wrote her without ever telling him she had done so. This is, as with so many events in the book, touchingly sweet colored with tragedy as he only discovered this level of devotion after his mother had died.

Written in his easy to read style, this book lays out those memories of childhood that stuck with Dahl through his entire life until he was an old man looking back on the whole of his life. Reading through these memories, one understands the wellspring from which sprang the imaginative children, brutish adults who are at turns inexplicable and vicious, and those rare kindly and understanding adults, all of whom populate Dahl’s stories. The book makes clear that although Dahl grew up, he never lost touch with the child he had been full of equal parts wonder and fear, and from this source, he was able to write the classics of children’s literature that were his stock in trade. For anyone who has read and loved Roald Dahl’s books this book is, quite simply, a must read.

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  1. Must be an enjoyable read Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

  2. @rohit: Thanks. I'll probably have a couple reviews of other Roald Dahl books up in the relatively near future.