Some of you will remember our Roald Dahl mission, in which we set out to read all of his kids’ stories in a more-or-less row, including the autobiographies. We loved Boy, which revealed the dramatic highs and lows of Dahl’s childhood — how his nose was mostly sliced off in a motor-car accident with his “ancient half sister” at the wheel; how he placed a dead mouse in the gobstopper jar at a mean, grubby woman’s sweet shop, and was caned by his headmaster as punishment; and how he read the entire works of Charles Dickens on his stints warming the toilet seat for a nasty prefect at school.
We moved on to Going Solo with great enthusiasm. The book covers Dahl’s years in East Africa working for Shell Oil, and his experience as a fighter pilot in World War 2. N was shocked and delighted from the very beginning, and especially enjoyed Dahl’s ship voyage to Dar es Salaam, when he regularly encountered the portly and elderly Major Griffiths and his wife out for a stark-naked, stimulating prance around the decks each morning.
“Here was I, a bundle of youthful self-consciousness, gaping at him through the port-hole and disapproving quite strongly of what he was doing. But I was also envying him. I was actually jealous of his total don’t-give-a-damn attitude, and I wished like mad that I myself had the guts to go out there and do the same thing.”
So it started out well. But then war broke out. Dahl — though “just a chap who works for Shell” — was given a platoon, along with the task of rounding up every German attempting to escape Dar es Salaam, and delivering them to the prison camp. He’s told he should “mow them down” if they put up resistance.
(“What does he mean, ‘mow’?” asked N.)
Soon enough, Dahl and his men are confronting a convoy of German families headed for neutral territory along the coast road. There’s an exchange between Dahl and a man at the head of the convoy, who eventually puts a gun to Dahl’s chest and threatens to shoot him if the group is not allowed to escape.
“What came next happened very suddenly. There was the crack of a single rifle shot fired from the wood and the bald man who was holding me took the bullet right through his face. It was a horrible sight. The Luger dropped on to the road and bald man fell dead beside it.”
The chapter ends with Dahl escorting the rest of the group to its prison camp.
“So they won the war?” N asked as I closed the book, though of course the war had barely begun.
I tried to explain why the Germans had been rounded up, and why the war was happening, and who was on which side, and who was on no side, and so on, but I realized she had very little context for this story, and the necessary violence it contained. She knows a bit about WW2, because she has a one-legged opa and a copy of The Occupied Garden on her bookshelf, and she has asked questions about that war for many years. When she was little she used to often ask, “Will war come to Toronto?” just the way she would ask if hurricanes would come, or earthquakes, or murderers. And even though years have passed since that stage, I think she has only a very vague concept of war, and that she needs more information for this book to be meaningful rather than just shocking.
In a later chapter, which N’s dad J read to her, a man was beheaded with a sword, and together J and I decided to shelve the book for now. We explained how we felt about it and why, and offered up another book, but were unprepared for her passionate response. We were treating her “like a baby,” and she was so old enough for Going Solo, and what about our Dahl mission, she asked, to read all of his books in a more-or-less row?
It was a strange experience, and I’m still not sure we handled it right. It felt odd to be playing the role of censor, and I asked myself many times if this wasn’t a learning opportunity shut down, but I kept coming back to the same decision. I think it’s great when the books we read together pose big questions about the world, because it gives us a chance to stop reading and talk about ideas the book contains. But you don’t want to do be pulled up so often out of a story that you leave the story behind. And there are so many wonderful books to be read and absorbed at this stage, why rush on to the next one before she is ready?