Roald Dahl > John Steinbeck (up to a point)

Roald Dahl > John Steinbeck (up to a point) September 14, 2015

roald dahl portrait

Today was Roald Dahl Day. You’ve probably read all the famous books by him — James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches (which is seriously disturbing), The BFG, The Twits. I loved them all when I was a kid, and I’m more or less happy to see my kids enjoying them; but as an adult re-reading them, the constant drumbeat of “challenge authority” is worrisome.

If you read Dahl’s autobiography of his childhood, Boy, it’s obvious why he wrote his children’s books the way he did: the adults in his life were massively cruel and masochistic to him and the thousands of defenseless school boys who were churned through the barbaric British school system. The message of rebellion and retribution he works out in his stories is fine in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when only really wicked people lose, and they’ll all come out in the wash anyway; it’s a little upsetting in Matilda, when the heroine is nakedly contemptuous of her (admittedly contemptible) parents; and it’s even less fine in Danny, the Champion of the World when the immensely appealing hero father can poach game simply because the rich man is deemed unworthy of his riches.

Still, his books are good — great, even. Some of the short stories in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More are stunning. But my current favorite is Going Solo, the second part of his autobiography. I happened to read it at the same time as I was reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. (You’ll have to pardon me: I don’t have either book in front of me at the moment, so I won’t be quoting any passages!)

Steinbeck is, of course, a master novelist and short story writer; but when he’s his own main character, it’s just about unbearable. Oh man, starting on page one, it’s just him licking his own paws adoringly like a narcissistic kitten, purring a little tune of self-admiration into the mirror as he thinks about how tough and gritty and honest and wise he is.  I couldn’t even finish it. So false, so preening, so stilted. Turns out it was all fake, anyway. Well, it sounded fake.

Dahl’s story of his own exploits is just the opposite. He survives and even makes good in the most ridiculous, bizarre misadventures, but he makes it clear that he’s just this guy, you know? As he writes, he’s clearly still angry at the RAF for sending him and his friends out into the sky with almost no training. He’s still a bit embarrassed by his failures. And he writes with stunning immediacy, making you seehearfeeltouchtaste the desert, the sky, the food, the boredom, the fear, the ridiculousness of it all.

To sum up:

Recommended: Going Solo
Disrecommended: Travels with Charley: In Search of My Own Magnificent Ass with Both Hands: Read It If You Can (But You Can’t Because It Sucks)

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

image by Agnes Portraits via Flikr


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  • Leah Joy

    Speaking of the barbaric British school system, I’m reminded that C.S. Lewis claimed that no environment he had ever been in had been as horrible as school–and this from a man who had served in the trenches of WWI.

    • Rachel

      This also probably explained why the British school system has been satirized and protested against in Pink Floyd, Monty Python, and to a degree in JK Rowling.

  • Cordelia

    I’ve read most (but not all) of Dahl’s children’s books, and “Danny” is the only one I really enjoyed. The poaching is morally problematic, of course, but in the story it’s treated exactly like a sport – poachers v. landowners – and I think that outlook is at least historically accurate, if not actually defensible. However, yeah, it’s the Very Cool Dad for whom we really read the story, anyway. Plus the scene in which Danny has to drive the car all by himself. (And when I read the book to the kids, I always skip the school chapters.) “Chocolate Factory” is okay, but I didn’t like any of his others even as a kid.

    Can anybody recommend other Very Cool Dad stories – in which Dad is NOT a crook?

  • Daniel Patrick

    Travels with Charley is one of the greatest travel books ever. How many of us have overpacked for trips? How many have packed classic books that we should have read already and are planning to on this vacation and then don’t read them? I enjoyed his insights very much.