Tag Archives: Going Solo

Dahl interrupted

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.

My opa, who I like to call the lettuce king soldier, and whose story is told in The Occupied Garden

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?


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Human beans: grizzling and horrigust?

roald-dahl-the-bfgAfter finishing off Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, I urged my daughter toward Black Beauty, thinking it was a nice fit, because recently we acquired a dog who, like the horse in Anna Sewell’s novel, has been mistreated. But more about that another time, because N said no to Black Beauty and insisted (once again) on Roald Dahl’s The BFG — in which the little girl Sophie is kidnapped from her bedroom by a giant who lurks around on dark streets and blows dreams into children’s windows.

In all good conscience I couldn’t very well say “Mommy has already mentioned The BFG on her blog several times, so we’ll have to read something else.” And anyway, it’s probably time for a confession about my own fascination with giants. My new novel, still very much underway, has a giant girl as the  main character.

For this reason, we have books around our house that show pictures of real giants — the “boy giant” Robert Wadlow, who soared past eight feet in height, and weighed nearly four hundred pounds; and the enormous Sandy Allen, seven feet, seven inches, and beautiful when Fellini cast her as his giantess in Casanova. The Wadlow book shows a photo of him touching the top of a streetlight in New York City, with a gaggle of little New Yorkers around him, and for days afterwards, whenever we passed a traffic light, my daughter would say, “A giant could reach that high.”

In my research for the novel, I was intrigued to discover the links between storybook giants and actual giants, whose condition is caused by a pituitary tumour that causes excess growth hormone in the body. So the traits we so often see in stories like Jack and the Beanstalk exist in real life too. Fleshy lips and ears; a pronounced forehead and heavy jaw; poor vision; a deep, hoarse voice; a hunched back; a cane (in stories, a club) for support.

I won’t give more away here, except to say that I’m easily persuaded when N wants another read of The BFG, and tucked away in her second-floor bedroom, we imagine him (one of children’s literature’s most endearing characters, in my opinion) stooping way down to peer through the window at us.

Roald Dahl’s giant lives in Giant Country, but he’s an anomaly there too. His fellow giants are twice as tall as he is, and they all dine on human beans, especially delectable little chiddlers, while the BFG, a conscientious but non-judgmental vegetarian, eats only icky snozzcumbers and drinks frobscottle, a beverage whose fizzes go down instead of up and therefore give him gassy whizzpoppers that are one of his few sources of happiness. Until Sophie comes along, that is.  When the bespectacled little orphan is scooped “hipswitch” out of the orphanage by the giant, both their lives change forever.

One of my favourite passages has Sophie discovering, to her horror, that the giants of giant land eat humans. And while the BFG believes it’s wrong to guzzle human beans, he is quick to point out her hypocrisy. Humans eat pigs, he says, although the pigs probably don’t like it very much. And besides that —

“I is not understanding human beans at all…. You is a human bean and you is saying it is grizzling and horrigust for giants to be eating human beans…. But human beans is squishing each other all the time. They is shootling guns and going up in aerioplanes to drop their bombs on each other’s heads every week. Human beans is always killing other human beans…. Giants is not very lovely, but they is not killing each other. Nor is crockadowndillies killing other crockadowndillies. Nor is pussy-cats killing pussy-cats…. Human beans is the only animals that is killing their own kind.”

Which seems an appropriate thought for Remembrance Day.

Roald Dahl was a member of the Royal Air Force in WW2. He stretched to six feet, six inches, and must have been quite a sight crouched into the cockpit of a warplane. He survived a crash in the desert, but was transferred home to England due to his injuries. Eventually he ended up at a desk in Washington, which must have seemed somewhat unadventurous, and yet it was here that his career really took a turn. He was asked to lunch by C.S. Forester, who requested some information about his war experience. If he could jot down some notes, Forester would then take what he’d written and transform it into a piece for The Saturday Evening Post.

As it turned out, the pilot had a way with the pen. When Forester received Dahl’s musings, he sent along a note saying “Did you know you were a writer? — I haven’t changed a word.” And the piece was published as “Shot Down Over Libya”  in the August 1942 edition of The Saturday Evening Post (though it isn’t true that Dahl was shot down — he was already on his way to a great career in fiction).

going soloThe war remained an inspiration. A year later, Disney published his first children’s book, The Gremlins, about a group of mischievous creatures who wreak havoc in the plane-filled skies of World War Two. In keep with Remembrance Day, it fits to mention that his memoir Going Solo gives a detailed account of his wartime experience.

And I can’t close without saying something about Quentin Blake, who illustrated so many of Dahl’s books. You would think, reading The BFG and others, that the words and the pictures came from one mind, they fit that well together. My daughter loves to draw, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her quite as inspired as she was when we first read The BFG. She was torn between her wish for another chapter, and her wish for a break so she could go and sketch out her own version of Blake’s giant and the little Sophie in her nightgown.

mrs armitageBlake was still a boy when Dahl was crash-landing his warplanes, but what a treat to find that his first published drawings appeared in Punch magazine when he was just a teenager — remember this was home for A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard early in their careers. Later on, Blake illustrated for a number of other writers, and like Shepard was an author in his own right. In our house, we adore his story Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. The Daily Telegraph wrote that “Blake is beyond brilliant. He’s anarchic, moral, infinitely subversive, sometimes vicious, socially acute, sparse when he has to be, exuberantly lavish in the detail when he feels like it. He can tell wonderful stories without a single word, but his partnership with Roald Dahl was made in heaven. Or somewhere.”

Well — we concur.

For more about Quentin Blake, click here. Visit Dahl’s whizzpopping website here. Read Elizabeth Renzetti’s Fantastic Mr. Dahl.


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