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Discus & Teacups

Henrietta shares her tea

We took Matilda with us to Ottawa last weekend for a little winter getaway, and it was a good thing she was there, since in the middle of the night, the hotel’s alarm went off, ten horrible long hoots followed by a repeatedly repeated emergency announcement that had N wild with anxiety. The “emergency” was quickly resolved, but getting back to sleep was another matter. So out came Matilda. A page or two of this brilliant little girl outsmarting the gruff and grotesque headmistress Trunchbull was the perfect tranquilizer.

Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Twit, you have to love Miss Trunchbull, even while you detest her. Once a formidable athlete, she has a bull-neck, sausagey fingers, and “massive thighs encased in a pair of extraordinary breeches.” She picks children up by their ears and their pig tails and hurls them at will — out classroom windows, over playground fences — and she gets away with it because she knows enough to “make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.” The parents don’t buy the children’s tales about her, or if they do, and complain about how their kids are treated, the Trunchbull does the same to them. Imagine moms and dads sailing through the air like a discus.

But it’s the Trunchbull’s cruelty that brings out Matilda’s hidden powers — her “first miracle”. She’s so enraged at being falsely accused of slipping a salamander into the Trunchbull’s water glass, that she causes the glass to tip over simply by staring at it. “Little waves of lightning seemed to be flashing out of her eyes. Her eyeballs  were beginning to get hot, as though vast energy was building up somewhere inside them. It was an amazing sensation. She kept her eyes steadily on the glass, and now the power was concentrating itself in one small part of each eye and growing stronger and stronger and it felt as though millions of tiny little invisible arms with hands on them were shooting out of her eyes towards the glass she was staring at. ‘Tip it,’ Matilda whispered. ‘Tip it over!’ ” And so she makes the discovery of her own incredible power. (Oh, how I remember doing this myself! Never actually moving anything, but absolutely convinced that I could. Going dizzy and bug-eyed trying.)

Re power, it seemed fitting, then, that the next day we tromped through the slush to visit the Famous Five and their teacups on Parliament Hill. As we posed with Nellie McClung holding the news that “Women are Persons!” I half-expected N to say, “Well, duh, what else would we be?” because the idea of such an argument was so preposterous to her. So I explained (albeit briefly and simply) about the Persons Case, and how women have had to fight for equal treatment. I could feel N thinking hard about that. Together we stood looking at Henrietta Muir Edwards, holding her tea cup aloft. She had a perfect disc of snowy ice on her head, like an extra little cap or a discus, and when I pointed that out, chuckling, N said very seriously, “I think we should take that off Mom.” So I reached forward and returned Henrietta to her dignified state.

I love N’s sensitivity, and her curiosity too. The way she sees, the questions she asks. We used to call her “our little noticer,” and though the slightly clumsy nickname has fallen away, the noticing has not.

Later that Ottawa day we were in the Byward Market, gobbling Beaver Tails, and a down-and-out man approached us and spoke to N’s dad J, hoping for change. When J returned the greeting, the man said, “Thank you for not making me feel invisible.” And N asked about that too.

“What does he mean, invisible?”

“Well, he feels like no one sees him. Like he’s not even here, because no one notices him.”

“So it’s like he’s a ghost, then,” she decided. “He feels like he’s already died but he hasn’t.”

Like James before entering the magical Giant Peach; like starving Charlie Bucket before finding the Golden Ticket. “Several people went hurrying past him on the sidewalk, their chins sunk deep in the collars of their coats, their feet crunching in the snow … none of them was taking the slightest notice of the small boy crouching in the gutter.”

We bought two more Dahls in Ottawa — The Magic Finger, devoured on the car ride home, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, now nearly done. Thus far, our list looks like this:

The Gremlins
James and the Giant Peach
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Magic Finger
Fantastic Mr Fox
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny, the Champion of the World
The Enormous Crocodile
The Twits
George’s Marvellous Medicine
The BFG
The Witches
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
Matilda
Esio Trot
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Minpins
Revolting Rhymes
Dirty Beasts
Rhyme Stew

On we go!

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“Good thoughts will shine out of your face like sunbeams”

William Kilburn's 1777 watercolour shows the dandelion in all its elegance.

I got a note this morning from a friend, telling me that N has been regaling her daughter AW with stories of Harry Potter. And now AW and her family are reading Harry Potter before the lights go out and again at the breakfast table. And it occurred to me that good books are like dandelion seeds that just keep on floating and finding new homes. Not that good books are common, but that they are enduring. N has been asking about the meaning of the word “classic” lately, and dandelion seeds might make a good analogy. (In my mind, dandelions are a classic flower.)

Since I last posted about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we have carried on with our Roald Dahl mission. We’ve made our way through James and the Giant Peach, then The Twits, and are now halfway through Matilda. I remain a loyal Dahl fan, though The Twits disappointed.  It’s about Mr. Twit, a hairy, cruel, crass ex-monkey trainer with bits of tinned sardine and Stilton cheese in his beard, and his wife Mrs. Twit,  who’s grown ugly over the years because of her ugly thoughts. “If a person has ugly thoughts,” Dahl writes, “it begins to show on the face. … A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” (That part I liked.)

Together, Mr. and Mrs. Twit are “the smelliest, nastiest, ugliest people in the world.” Mrs. Twit walks with a cane, not because she needs supporting but because she likes to hit children and animals with it. Mr. Twit drinks beer at breakfast. They are united by their ugliness — Mr. Twit catches the birds that land on a nearby tree by smearing the branches with glue, and Mrs. Twit cooks the birds into a pie — but they are also ugly to each other. They’re constantly getting each other back for some nasty trick with a trick that is nastier still. Mrs. Twit feeds her husband worms disguised as spaghetti, and so Mr. Twit gradually lengthens Mrs. Twit’s cane to convince her she’s got “the shrinks.”

It is a funny story, though for me (admittedly not for N) it quickly wore thin. I kept asking myself, why isn’t this working? The answer lay more than halfway through the book, when we meet a family of monkeys the Twits keep in a cage outside. The monkeys hate the Twits and long to return to the African jungle, and to escape the people who’ve made their lives so miserable. These monkeys are our Charlie, our James of the Giant Peach, our Harry. They’re the ones we need to attach ourselves to in order to care about the story, and they are absent from the early pages. There isn’t enough time left in the story to really fall for them, though of course we want them to escape, and we are happy when the Roly-Poly Bird and the would-be pie birds help them pull the ultimate prank on the Twits.

Dahl himself wrote that he simply wanted to “do something against beards,” so I suppose I’m taking The Twits far too seriously. But what is so brilliant about Charlie and James and Matilda and the BFG is how quickly and unequivocally we bond with the main characters. Impoverished Charlie trying to share his yearly chocolate bar with his family; James held hostage in the cruel world of Aunts Sponge and Spiker; tiny Matilda forced to put her stupid book away and watch telly with her horribly uncouth family (“Don’t you ever stop reading?”); little Sophie quaking in the dark orphanage, only to be scooped up by a dream-catching giant.

The Twits has none of that. It didn’t diminish N’s enjoyment of the story, but she did ask several times, “Mom, who is more main? Mr. or Mrs.?” Which leads me to believe she was unsure of who was taking us through. I suspect the monkeys were meant to take us through, but arrived too late for the job.

Now Matilda, in more ways than one, is another story. I have a soft spot for Quentin Blake’s depictions of her, since they remind me of my own little N. The similarities stop there: N is smart, funny, and delightful, and Matilda is a genius. By five, she’s read Dickens and Steinbeck, despite the fact that her parents are monstrous and see her as “nothing more than a scab. … Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away.”

I wonder if it’s Matilda’s brilliance that has N asking about classics and reciting her multiplication tables to me. On her top bookshelf, she has a row of books written by me. Last night she pulled down Water Wings, my first novel, and began to read, grinning all the while. It’s not a book for children, and I’m sure she’ll lose interest soon.

“Did it feel weird,” she asked, “the first time  you saw your name on a book?”

“Yes,” I said. “But it feels weirder to see you reading it.”

She picked out lines she liked and read them to me. And they were nice ones, if I do say so myself, which is a compliment to both of us. As I pulled her door closed, she called out, “I like your book, Mom. It’s really good.” And though she only got a page in, it was strangely touching. Touching that she thought it was good, yes, but also that she had every confidence that her opinion mattered.

 

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