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“In real life the witch won…”

This review was written by Hazel Rochman and printed in the January 20, 1985 edition of The New York Times.


“In real life the witch won…”

BOY. By Roald Dahl. Illustrated. 160 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.95. (Ages 10 to 14)

In real life the witch won. Mrs. Pratchett, the mean and filthy sweetshop lady, watched with relish as…

…the headmaster-giant ferociously caned 8-year-old Roald Dahl and his four friends for putting a dead mouse in her candy jar. No wonder so much of Mr. Dahl’s widely popular (and sometimes ghoulish) fiction has children and small creatures inflicting gruesome punishment on disgusting and malignant adults.

These autobiographical stories are as frightening and funny as his fiction. He explains in the introduction that he is not writing a boring history of his life, but about those things – comic, painful, unpleasant – that he has never been able to forget. The stories feel as if they have been told as family folklore, honed down to essential incident and sharp detail. They have the intense drama and simplicity of the fairy tale, and its unequivocal extremes of good and evil.

After a brief sketch of his early years and his Norwegian father’s death when Roald was 4, the division is clear: home, in Britain, was “totally idyllic”; school was misery. There were vacations in Norway, feasts and mischief in his close, large, wealthy and almost entirely female family, led by his indomitable and beloved mother. But from age of 9 to 18 he endured the harsh rigor of select English boys’ boarding schools, where, as in Dickens’s novels of childhood, grotesque adults wielded savage power over the helpless and innocent students.

Mr. Dahl does not patronize himself as a child. What “Boy” saw was the truth. “We hated her and we had good reason for doing so,” he says of Mrs. Pratchett. The matron who ruled the school dormitories was an “ogre.” The horror of the ritualized, sadistic beatings by masters and prefects remains with him: “I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.”

The comedy, too, is close to the macabre, as when his nose hangs by a thread after a farcical automobile accident. He admires Thwaites, the doctor’s son, who knows about “scabs and when they were ready to be picked off,” explains why spit makes candy change color and tells long stories about how licorice is made from rat’s blood (“Two men stir the bubbling caldron with long poles and in the end they have a thick steaming rat-stew”).

Remembering, Mr. Dahl is in quiet control, chatting to his readers, explaining a few historical differences, illustrating each incident with scraps of his weekly letters home, his mediocre report cards, small ink drawings, and family-album photographs with captions in longhand like “me seven months.” The tension between this casual commonsense tone and the lurking demonic terror gives these tales their power.