I was discussing the life of the author Roald Dahl with my husband the other day, and we both started laughing at the sheer number of extraordinary horrible events that had befallen him as a child and adult.
Don’t laugh! Our four-year-old admonished us. It’s not funny, it’s terrible! Her reaction was accurate, and we were both slightly ashamed by our glee at his tragic life.
But his reaction was the inverse of the usual of children and adults to Dahl’s books, where young and old characters meet routinely unsavory ends. That’s not funny, that’s macabre, adults think, while young readers find Dahl’s inventive ways for dispatching unlikeable characters — turning one into a giant blueberry, for example, or transforming another into a granite umbrella stand — absolutely hilarious.
Dahl, who was born one hundred years ago this week, was just three years old when the bad luck began. His seven-year-old sister died of appendicitis, followed months later by the death of his father. His Norwegian mother sent Dahl from Wales to England to be taught in boarding schools, an experience he found predictably brutal and miserable and which formed the basis of his depiction of education in works like Matilda.
His nose was almost severed from his face when he was in a car accident with his family, saved only by his mother holding it in place until doctors could sew it back on. All went well for a few years, as Dahl finished school, worked for Shell Petroleum, and learned to fly with the Royal Air Force, but tragedy struck again on his first official mission when his plane crashed over the Libyan desert, fracturing his skull and bending his spine. He pulled himself from his burning plane, only to be shot at by his own machine guns, which started firing automatically as a result of the crash.
Things started looking up with his marriage to actress Patricia Neal, but the good times proved short-lasting. Their son was hit by a taxi and thrown forty feet (he survived); their daughter contracted measles and died. His wife suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. By the time Dahl, who had been trying to make his name as an adult fiction writer, began writing stories for children, beginning with James and the Giant Peach, followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his view of the world had been darkly tainted by tragedy. He was also anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and, according to those who knew him, unnecessarily cruel to friends and family.
A life marked by pain and loss is not uncommon among writers of children’s books. Maurice Sendak was forever affected by his experiences during the Holocaust, and J. M. Barrie lost both his brother and three of the five children he raised as his own after their father, who was a close friend, died. Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, lost her beloved son Lionel, and Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows, lost his son Alistair to suicide.
Also like Dahl, many children’s writers led lives unsuitable for a character in one of their own books, unless he or she was the villain. Shel Silverstein hung out with Hugh Hefner and slept around prodigiously; Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, was a grump who feared and disliked children. Margaret Wise Brown, of Goodnight Moon fame, preferred animals to people, and even so, bragged of shooting the rabbits that provided the fur for the covers of her book The Little Fur Family.
What these writers share in common is a refusal to sugar-coat the harsher facts of life just because they are writing for a young audience. What Dahl understood is that the most frightening thing for a child is to be lied to, and to know you’re being lied to, because the horrors of the child’s imagination are always capable of conjuring scenarios far more terrifying than the truth. In his book The Witches, the young narrator trembles in fear at the machinations of the witches, who disguise themselves as proper women and only reveal their true natures in secret. But when the worst happens and they turn the narrator into a mouse, he finds the transformation quite pleasant, discovering he prefers being a rodent to the demands of being a boy.
Living inside a giant peach with insects as your friends; being stolen out of your bedroom by a Big, Friendly Giant; getting sent to boarding school with a horrid headmistress – none of these fates are actually awful in the world of Dahl. Having lived through so many sadder-than-fiction events, he knew that children already understand the truth about how awful life can be.
His job was not to shield them from reality, but show how it could also be a place of hope, and laughter.