Roald Dahl Day Blog Tour: “Boy” & More

Like so many children on both sides of the Atlantic, I grew up with Roald Dahl’s classic tales: James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda. I was aware that he had published work for adults, too, but hadn’t experienced any of it until I was asked to join this blog tour in advance of Roald Dahl Day on September 13th.

Last year Penguin brought out an eight-volume paperback set of Dahl’s short stories, grouped thematically. I focused on Innocence: Tales of Youth and Guile, which opens with a reprint of Boy (1984), the closest thing to an autobiography that Dahl wrote. That’s in spite of his prefatory disclaimer:

An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography. … throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten. … Some are funny. Some are painful. … All are true.

Dahl’s father was a one-armed shipbroker who’d moved from Norway to Wales for the coal. His mother, Harald’s second wife, was also from Norway, so Dahl was a full-blooded Norwegian. After his father’s early death he attended Llandaff Cathedral School and then boarding school and public school in England. Sofie Dahl, quietly tough, tended her brood of six children and stepchildren, giving them magical summers on a Norwegian island and keeping her cool during the car accident in which Dahl’s nose was almost severed.

Any time they were separated, Dahl wrote to his mother once a week, without fail. The book includes facsimile excerpts from some of these letters, along with black-and-white family photographs and drawings. This is more of a scrapbook than a straightforward chronological memoir, especially in the way that it moves between playful and disturbing vignettes from Dahl’s school days. It’s particularly delightful to spot incidents that inspired his children’s books, such as a plot to plant a dead mouse in the mean sweet shop lady’s gobstopper jar and the boxes of new-recipe Cadbury’s chocolates that would arrive at Repton School for testing by eager boys.

Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here. But so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Dahl had his adenoids removed without anesthesia, and at school he received and witnessed many a vicious caning. Aware that such scenes are accumulating uncomfortably, he addresses the topic directly:

By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.

When he graduated, instead of going to Oxford or Cambridge, he wanted to see the world and have adventures, so he spent the summer of 1934 exploring Newfoundland and joined the Shell Company at age 18. His first placement was to East Africa for three years; soon afterwards he would become a fighter pilot in the Second World War. In the short years he spent as a London commuter, he realized how easy a 9-to-5 office job is compared to making a living as a writer. (I could sympathize.)

The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. … A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul.

I don’t often like reading books from a child’s perspective (particularly novels with a child narrator) because I find that the voice can ring false. Not so here. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20. I’d highly recommend Boy to fiction and nonfiction readers alike.

My rating:


I also dipped into Trickery: Tales of Deceit and Cunning and particularly liked “The Wish,” in which a boy imagines a carpet is a snakepit and then falls into it, and “Princess Mammalia,” a Princess Bride-style black comedy about a royal who decides to wrest power from her father but gets her mischief turned right back on her. I’ll also pick up Fear, Dahl’s curated set of ghost stories by other authors, during October for the R.I.P. challenge.


My thanks to the publisher for free copies of four volumes of the tales.


11 responses

  1. I share your views on child narrators. Usually to be avoided! I knew about the Cardiff connection having visited the Norweigian Church there but I’d not heard about the chocolate samples. A great story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dahl was very good at reinhabiting his childhood. It’s ages since I read this but I know it made an impression.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also grew up reading his children’s books and I remember very vividly how much the film version of The Witches freaked me out as a kid. He had an amazing imagination, but then his life was quite extraordinary as well. I read both Boy and Going Solo last year and I loved both books. He manages to convey some sad and disturbing stories in a highly entertaining and funny way, whilst the reader still understands the seriousness of what has happened. I will never forget the episode with the lion and the cook’s wife in Going Solo, it might be one of the funniest passages I’ve ever read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know about Going Solo. I’ll try to read that one soon. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds great! I read his Tales of the Unexpected years ago so his stories should be a great choice for RIP!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Boy sounds wonderful. I’ve never even thought to see what he’d written for grown-ups!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I just reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this summer for a reading challenge and it was quite delightful. I hadn’t remembered the edge to the parents’ characterizations and it was good summer reading. I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy his writing for adults, but I suspect that’s just my concern about my TBR suddenly launching ahead as I certainly enjoyed the children’s tales a great deal (then and, apparently, now as well).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From what I remember of the children’s books, the voice here was fairly similar. At Ann Helen’s recommendation (above) I’ve moved directly on to his memoir of the war years, Going Solo.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think I would love this! I read as many of his books to my kids as I could before they lost interest. I was surprised by how many more there were than I remembered! It’s fascinating to read about the lives of authors with such vivid imaginations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I only read three of his kids’ books, or maybe also The BFG? The Witches I only know from the movie. It was so neat to spot the little moments from his own childhood that ended up in the novels.

      Liked by 1 person

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