In preparation for Roald Dahl Day (today, September 13th) I have enjoyed learning about the author’s childhood in his memoir called Boy: Tales of Childhood. It was published in 1984 and this biographical account reflects on Dahl’s heritage, childhood, school days and the beginnings of adulthood. Similar to his other books, he includes black and white drawings and also photographs and sections of the letters which he had written to his mother.
Dahl’s parents were Norwegian. His father had moved to France and then Wales as he built a ship broking business. His father had two children with his first wife who died, returned to Norway and quickly married Dahl’s mother. The couple had 4 more children and it was interesting that he would take his wife on “glorious walks” during the last 6 months of her pregnancy with hopes that the baby would grow up “to be a lover of beautiful things”.
Unfortunately, Dahl’s 7 year old sister died from appendicitis and when his father contracted pneumonia (in the days before antibiotics) he gave the fight and passed away, heartbroken with the loss of his daughter. His mother, pregnant at the time, chose to stay in Wales and send Roald to boarding school as his father had wished his children to have an English education. Dahl considered boarding school a great adventure. He detailed fun times but also described abuse in the form of caning and corporal punishment that was meted out to students.
One amusing recollection when he was 9 years old and still attending day school was the great mouse plot. He had his friends frequented a local candy store. The boys were thrilled by the range of treats and made up stories about how candies were made (for example a friends father had described liquorice bootlaces being made from rat blood) but found the filthy owner to be “a horror”. The boys played a prank of placing a dead mouse in the gobstopper jar which was funny until the punishment received was a caning at school. Later in boarding school, the boys were “taste testers” for Cadbury’s and Dahl ended up with a lifelong love of chocolate, keeping a red plastic box with chocolate for the end of each meal. It was easy to see his love of candy reflected in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story.
Dahl experienced trauma in childhood, having his adenoids and tonsils removed on the kitchen table – without anaesthetic and later after a car accident. His sister was driving a new car after only 2 hours of instruction. Misjudging a bend in the road, the family was thrown from the car with Dahl’s nose being almost completely amputated! It was hanging on by a strip of skin yet was reattached, again on the kitchen table!
After surviving years of boarding school, Dahl declined the offer for college wanting to start working so he could seek out excitement through travel. He ended up working for Shell Oil in Africa before he enlisted in the RAF during WW2. He was shot down in Egypt and seriously injured. The memoir ends at this point and fails to describe his married life as a parent or his years of writing.
It was interesting to note that through Dahl’s years at boarding school, in Newfoundland, working in Africa and through the war, he wrote to his mother weekly. She kept all of his correspondence in the original, stamped envelopes – 32 years of writing which exceeded 600 letters!
In honour of Roald Dahl Day, relax, laugh and enjoy one of his books.