Life Lessons

The last week has brought in some exciting new-in-paperback releases (like this one), one of which is Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. I haven't read beyond the first couple of pages, and I must admit that I'm not sure if I will any time soon -- my current "to read" stack is piled just high enough that I can put off learning any more about the writer I grew up reading voraciously for now.

That lack of expertise fully disclosed, I've heard plenty of things about the man second-hand, rumors which this biography verifies on its jacket copy alone. I've heard that, while spinning his delectable worlds of joy and whimsy, he was also, albeit in good company, a rather vocal racist, extremely anti-semetic, and an unabashed misogynist. I also read, as a child, his autobiography (which is (hardly) for children), revealing the dark and often abusive environment in which he was raised which no doubt hardened him into a person who doesn't think that people are very good.

These can be rather sad realizations to have about the writer who propelled my sense of wonder through my early chapter book reading years when I devoured every Dahl book I could get my hands on at the school library, the old hardcovers with the plastic-encased dust jackets, with the slightly orange pages and their slippery heft. However, these biographical facts are also not particularly surprising when I think about the important things Roald Dahl actually taught me about the world in those years, which are 1. the world, and the people in it, can be horrible. and 2. there is always the possibility, even in the most horrible and banal of lives (categories into which most lives fit for most of their duration) that magical things will happen.

To illustrate this, and because it was fun, I've put together a brief list of:

Things I Learned From Roald Dahl Books
In honor of the recent release of his biography in paperback.

1. How to poach a pheasant from your landlord

"First of all, you dig a little hole in the ground. Then you twist a piece of paper into the shape of a cone and you fit this into the hole, hollow end up, like a cup. Then you smear the inside of the paper cup with glue and drop in a few raisins. At the same time, you lay a trail of raisins along the ground leading up to it. 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. Isn't that a fantastic idea, Danny? My dad called it The Sticky Hat."

-from Danny the Champion of the World

2. Lying works really well and sometimes gets you hitched.

Dahl's characters lie their asses off and are met with brilliant success all the time. But here I'm thinking of the plot of Esio Trot, in which an old man who is in love with his old lady neighbor wins her affections by realizing her heart's desire, which is for her smaller-than-average pet tortoise to grow. He claims to do so with a magic spell, but in fact does so by gradually replacing her tortoise with other larger and larger tortoises from the pet store. She's thrilled. They get married. The original tortoise ends up living on a farm with some other girl. This story has no moral. It ends quite happily.

3. It's okay to make your grandmother disappear if she's really unpleasant.

"By then, Grandma was the size of a matchstick and still shrinking fast. A moment later she was no bigger than a pin...then a pumpkin seed...then...then...

'She's gone! She's disappeared completely!'

'That's what happens to you if you're grumpy and bad-tempered,' said Mr. Kranky. 'Great medicine of yours, George.' "

-From George's Marvelous Medicine

4. Never let your guard down around an adult with power and a sharp object.

or: How to stop someone from snoring

"None of us dared to sit up in bed, but all eyes were on The Matron now, watching to see what she would do next. She always had a pair of scissors hanging by a white tape on her wrist, and with this she began shaving thin slivers of soap into the palm of one hand. Then she went over to where the wretched Tweedie lay and very carefully dropped these little soap flakes into his open mouth. She had a whole handful of them and I thought she was never going to stop."

or: How tonsils are removed without anesthesia (or: what doctors mean when they say they "want to look at your nose")

"The tiny blade flashed in the bright light and disappeared into my mouth, and the hand that held the blade gave four or five very quick little twists and the next moment, out of my mouth came tumbling a whole mass of flesh and blood.

'Those were your adenoids,' I heard the doctor saying."

-Both from (the autobiographical) Boy

5. In the very unlikely event that your parents are kind and wonderful people, expect the worst.

"Then one day, James's mother and father went into London to do some shopping, and there both of them got eaten up by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo."

-from the first paragraph of James and the Giant Peach

6. ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!????

I don't even know what to say about this one, but it seems worth noting that in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More there is a short story called The Swan, in which a bully gets a gun for his birthday and forces a boy named Peter who likes birdwatching use it to shoot a swan in the heart, and then the bully cuts off the swan's wings and ties them to Peter's arms, and Peter, horrified at the atrocity he would commit to save himself and completely bereft, tries to fly out of a tree, and then his mother comes and cuts the wings off of him, THE END.

What do you have to say to that, guy who takes a rainbow and mixes it with love and makes the world taste good?

7. If you're a little girl who reads a lot and your family doesn't understand you, you definitely have magic powers.

I'm still waiting.