Tag Archives: the magic finger

Eye-smiles & deep dark secrets

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been squinting at my dad’s old stamp collection, working away on a strange book project that may go nowhere but is fascinating just the same. These are stamps he collected as a boy in Holland, and I can picture him matching up the images and placing them just so in the postzegelalbum that is now faded and worn soft. One of my favourites is an old 1920s lyre bird stamp from Australia. I don’t know how he got it. Most of the stamps are from the Netherlands, Germany, and France, but there are others from far-flung places like Japan and India, and it’s funny to think that nowadays he sails to such places on the boat that is his home. Those dreams of world travel began long ago, and eventually became reality.

So I was squinting at those stamps when an email came in from Niranjana Iyer, sending news of Royal Mail’s new series of stamps celebrating Roald Dahl’s work. The series features Quentin Blake’s wonderful illustrations: Charlie with his golden ticket, the BFG with Sophie on his palm, a Witch with her wig suspended above her scabby scalp. And I thought, how nice that this would come to me just now, like a special delivery.

We’re nearly done Roald Dahl’s 1975 novel Danny the Champion of the World, but we got off to a difficult start. Danny is four months old when his mother dies, so he’s raised by his father, who owns a filling station, and they live together in a gypsy caravan. Danny adores his father, a marvelous story-teller and an “eye-smiler” (like my own dad). “I’ve learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it,” Danny tells us. “So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you with his mouth but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be phony.”

Danny’s father takes wonderful care of them both and teaches Danny to become an expert mechanic by the age of 7. But late one night, Danny wakes to discover his father is gone, and that “no father is perfect. Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets. Some have quirkier quirks and deeper secrets than others, but all of them, including one’s own parents, have two or three private habits hidden up their sleeves that would probably make you gasp if you knew about them.”

"Pheasants are beautiful birds, aren't they Mom?"

When Danny wakes up alone in the dark, he grows sick with worry. He waits and waits until finally his father returns. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and by way of apology, he lets Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life.” It turns out that Danny’s lovely, gentle, funny, kind father is a poacher. He hasn’t poached since his wife died, but that night, he was driven by an insatiable longing. At first, Danny is horrified by the idea that his father is a thief. And then he finds out that he comes from a long line of “magnificent and splendiferous” poachers. Every decent man in town loves to creep into the wealthy, villainous Mr. Hazell’s woods and steal his overfed pheasants. “Only the very rich can afford to rear pheasants just for the fun of shooting them down when they grow up,” Danny’s father tells him. Before the conversation is done, Danny himself has caught the poaching fever and hangs on his father’s every word about the most ingenious ways to catch pheasants, whose greatest weakness is that they are crazy about raisins:

The 1975 Jonathan Cape release of Danny was illustrated by Jill Bennett

The Horsehair Stopper is a “brilliant method” because it’s completely silent. You stab a plumped-up raisin with a single stiff horsehair so it sticks out on either end. The horsehair makes the raisin stick in the pheasant’s throat, and the feeling of it tickling there, like a crumb, renders the pheasant unable to move. “He becomes absolutely rooted to the spot, and there he stands pumping his silly neck up and down just like a piston, and all you’ve got to do is nip out quickly from the place where you’re hiding and pick him up.” The image of the bird’s neck vibrating gave me the shivers, and I glanced at N, but couldn’t gauge her response, so I continued reading.

Method number two, The Sticky Hat, involves a trail of plump raisins leading to a tiny cone of paper smeared with glue. The last delectable raisins sit inside the cone. “Now, the old pheasant comes pecking along the trail, and when he gets to the hole he pops his head inside to gobble up the raisins and the next thing he knows he’s got a paper hat stuck over his eyes, and he can’t see a thing…. No bird in the world is going to run away once you cover up his eyes.”

At which point N said, very quietly, “Pheasants are beautiful birds, aren’t they Mom?” And then she added, “At least they aren’t killing them with guns. That would be really mean.” But if you’re a good shot, it would also be quick and unexpected. In those early pages, both N and I couldn’t help hoping the girl from The Magic Finger would appear and “see red,” just as she did in that book, when she turned the hunting Gregg family into ducks and the ducks they hunted into hunters.

"'The Magic Finger' is something I have been able to do all my life. I can't tell you just how I do it, because I don't even know myself. But it always happens when I get cross, when I see red..."

“Please don’t shoot!” cried Mr. Gregg.

“Why not?” said one of the ducks. “You are always shooting at us.”

“Oh, but that’s not the same! We are allowed to shoot ducks!”

“Who allows you?” asked the duck.

“We allow each other,” said Mr. Gregg.

“Very nice,” said the duck. “And now we are going to allow each other to shoot you.”

Alas, we are very near the end of Danny and the girl with the magic finger hasn’t arrived. But what has undeniably come, in spite of the cruel tricks and  dead pheasants, is an incredibly touching story about a father and son. This novel isn’t as funny as most of Dahl’s other books — it sometimes has quite a melancholy tone — but it’s rich and moving and complex. The love and admiration Danny feels for his father is there on every page: “I loved the way he moved. He had that long, loping stride all countrymen have who are used to covering great distances on foot. He was wearing an old navy-blue sweater and an even older cap on his head. He turned and waved to me. I waved back. Then he disappeared around a bend in the road.” The chapter closes, and we know, we just know, something bad is about to happen to Danny’s beloved father.

This 1959 edition of The New Yorker carried the seed of Dahl's 1975 novel, Danny the Champion of the World

The more I read of Dahl’s books, the more intrigued I become about the man himself. I’ve mentioned his short stories before, written for adults, and his main focus before switching to children’s literature when his own kids were young. So it was fun to discover that Danny was originally one of these short stories, albeit Danny-less, and first published in The New Yorker in 1959 under the title “The Champion of the World.” How interesting to think that the father-son relationship was not part of the original story, yet forms the very core of the later novel. As a writer, I love it when one project grows into another, or when a story emerges fully formed, but a little bit of it stays inside me, one day becoming a whole new creation. I remember being floored when an agent once tried to dissuade me from writing a story that had come from an earlier story. To me it was fascinating to see how different the story could become by changing the focus. She said, rather bluntly, “People will think you have no imagination.” And I remember quietly deciding that anyone who’d think that mustn’t have much themselves.

I’m sure Dahl must have felt the same way. Bits of his stories pop up in new form again and again. N and I were thrilled to find our favourite Dahl character, the “nice and jumbly” Big Friendly Giant, peering out at us from the pages of Danny, catching dreams and blowing them into children’s bedroom windows. I can just see Dahl, scribbling away on his Danny manuscript, and tucking this magnificent giant into a corner of his mind reserved for stories yet to come.

By the way, since our last post, we’ve also read The Minpins and George’s Marvellous Medicine, so our list is now 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

And now … back to my stamps.

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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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However small, the chance was there

"Twice a day, on his way to and from school, little Charlie Bucket had to walk right past the gates of the factory. And every time he went by, he would begin to walk very, very slowly, and he would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him. Oh, how he loved that smell!"

After my last post, in which I talked about “practice in disappointment,” I had a note from a friend, whose daughters are young women now. She wrote that she, too, used to want to fix every little thing that went wrong in her girls’ lives. “To act on every emotional vent that they had about life, people, you name it. What they have taught me though, was that when I rushed in too quickly to help them up or to try and fix it for them (and I went to insane lengths to fix things looking back), it made them feel that I didn’t believe they could cope, that I didn’t have the confidence in their ability to get through it…. So I think I have finally learned to listen with a wrenching twist in my gut to their heartaches, encourage them, and rejoice with them when they get through a difficult time.”

I told her I would like to fold up that piece of wisdom and keep it in my pocket always.

And then late last night, after N had gone to bed, I found myself hovering over her piano homework, a picture that she was supposed to colour according to the musical notes placed on different parts of the image. C was orange, D was pink. But the pink she’d chosen looked almost exactly like the orange, and I was actually standing there considering going over it with a pinker pink! Because I knew she’d got it right — the cap was pinker than the lousy marker, but her teacher couldn’t know that. And so on, and so on. Of course, I stopped myself, and even laughed at myself for the impulse. But it’s a sign of this very issue — practice in disappointment — and I’m sure it will keep cropping up in different ways in the years to come.

This past week we’ve been reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which brims with disappointment for the first ten chapters. Charlie Bucket lives “in a small wooden house on the edge of a great town.” Stuffed into the place with him are his dad, who works in a toothpaste factory but soon loses his job; his mom; and his two sets of shriveled, skeletal grandparents, George and Georgina and Joe and Josephine, all in their nineties, and so given the only bed in the house. The J’s sleep at one end, and the G’s at the other, while Mr and Mrs Bucket and little Charlie sleep on the floor. They live on boiled potatoes and cabbage, and on Sundays they each get a second helping. “The Buckets, of course, didn’t starve, but every one of them … went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.”

The eyebrows, the hair brush, and the raised pinkie: signs of wealth?

Even before we started Charlie, N was mulling rich and poor. She often asks if Selena Gomez, JK Rowling, or her own school principal are rich. Was Judy Garland? Was Charles Dickens? Sometimes at night she announces that, the next day, she’s not going to eat a speck of food, “Just to feel what it feels like to have nothing in my tummy.” But by morning, when the toast or the cereal or the yoghurt-with-a-swirl-of-honey appears before her, she seems to have forgotten, or at least pushed the curiosity aside for another day.

I can tell she’s impressed by Charlie, who refuses a share of his mother’s portion of food when she offers, and who tries to share his birthday chocolate bar (the only one he gets for the whole year) with the other members of his family. The largest and most fantastic chocolate factory in the world stands within sight of Charlie’s rickety little house, but for a long while its owner, genius Willy Wonka, ceased operations because other chocolate makers were stealing his wonderful ideas. Now, he’s offering a tour of his factory to a select few: the five lucky children who happen upon chocolate bars that contain a golden ticket.

Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka terrified me as a child. I was very confused about whether or not I was supposed to like him. I haven't seen Johnny Depp's performance, but it would fun to compare the two movies.

N has known this story for some time. She saw the 1971 movie when she was little (Dahl despised the film, apparently, and refused to give over rights to the book’s sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), and we’ve been listening to the abridged audio version over Christmas, featuring Dahl himself with his delicious accent. But I often wonder, remembering the way she cursed JK  (“I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head!”), how she would have responded to the book without knowing what’s to come.  I suspect it would have infuriated her to see gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled rotten Veruca Salt, gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde, and TV-addicted Mike Teavee winning golden tickets while poor Charlie shrinks to skin and bone without an ounce of self-pity. In the first 45 pages, a few chocolate bars miraculously come his way, and he can’t help but think that “however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance was there.” I admire Dahl’s restraint here, making us peel open the bars time and again, only to find nothing but chocolate inside.

But, of course, Charlie does find a golden ticket, and he and Grandpa Joe go off to tour the factory with the four rotten children and their parents. There was a sixth rotten child in Dahl’s early drafts — Miranda Piker, who Dahl described as “a horrid little girl who was disgustingly rude to her parents and also thoroughly disobedient,” but apparently her death in the Spotty Powder room was considered too grim for young readers. Dahl loved to go almost too far. The loathsome giants of The BFG actually eat children; and the witches of The Witches actually do snatch children and cause them to disappear forever. And in The Magic Finger, a girl puts a curse on her cruel teacher, which causes her to grow whiskers and a bushy tail. “If any of you are wondering whether Mrs. Winter is quite all right again now,” Dahl writes, “the answer is No. And she never will be.”

More of Dahl’s children’s books to come in the next while, by the way. We have a new goal in mind: we’re going to try to read all of them.

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