During my last week in London, we were fortunate enough to score tickets to see the new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. It was a wonderful show, although I think a few scenes from it went over the head of the little girl sitting next to me. She was probably seven or eight, and she was terribly excited to be at the show with her mother on a school night. She was also extremely wiggly and kicked me a solid dozen times over the course of two and a half hours, but I didn’t really mind (much). I found myself trying to watch the show through both my eyes and hers. Did she grasp the innuendo? What exactly scared her so much about the blaring lights and ear-piercing music? And what did she make of the idea of a headmistress – a person in charge of children’s fates – being a murderer?
It was a strange way to watch a show, I have to admit. I couldn’t fully enjoy it for myself because I was transported back to how I felt reading Dahl’s work when I was a child. Frankly, most of his books were a bit of mystery to me; I read them over and over again, but I was never sure when I finished if I had understood what was there. He told stories that embraced the uncomfortable shadowy world where children’s fears sit and wait, and about children who were, in most ways, powerless against adult-inflicted cruelty. As an adult, I can appreciate how brave and resourceful those same children were, but when I was young, that wasn’t what stuck with me. I was much more obsessed with the evil, with the rage, with the villains he created.
I think that’s why James and the Giant Peach was never one of my favorites. I read The Witches and Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ad nauseam, but James was never really my cup of tea. Nevertheless, last week I found myself desperate to reread it, so when I got home, I hunted through the books I still have from my childhood and spent an hour in Dahl’s world.
James, it turns out, was Dahl’s first foray into the world of children’s writing. He was already a relatively successful author, but he entered this new territory reluctantly. Publishers met his work with equal reluctance – his stories were dark and creepy, and yet they were aimed at a very young audience – I imagine what saved him was his gift of seeing the world so accurately through children’s eyes. As it turns out, children like creepy and dark. Much of the world seems awful to them, and books that explore the murky and unmentionable give them a kind of hope that they are not the only ones who are questioning the things they don’t understand. As Dahl gained confidence that he had a young audience desperate for the kind of stories he was good at telling, he allowed himself freer rein.
When he was writing James though, there was a definite sweetness that, as a child, failed to catch my attention. In the book, we hardly see the boy’s suffering at all before he’s swept up on an adventure with his charming insect companions. And once he’s on the adventure, the boy can do no wrong. As a child who did quite a lot wrong, I found this galling. As an adult (who still does quite a bit wrong), I find it unlikely. Don’t get me wrong – I love the peach. My favorite part of the whole book is when he crawls inside for the first time. I just want more…suffering.
And yes, I recognize that makes me sound like an awful person who doesn’t think children deserve to go on splendid adventures. It’s not that though. It’s that I think adventures come at a price – often a very high one – and that the person who arrives at the end should be different from the one who began. James…isn’t. He’s introduced to us as a lovely child, and throughout the book, he is unendingly helpful and self-sacrificing and precious. He’s never afraid or angry at all once he enters the peach, and that infuriates me. This book is like seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of Dahl’s talents – it’s not until we dive into his later work when we really see what he can do.
Maybe I read this book too late. I was probably eight or nine when I got around to it, and I think it’s much better suited for a younger reader. I could picture my next door neighbor enjoying it, and he just turned four last month. The frightening parts (which are really not too frightening) would be just intense enough to make him think. Chances are good that if he liked what he heard, the book would live forever in his memory as a special, powerful experience from childhood, which is how, I feel, Dahl’s books should be seen.
I still remember the birthday – was I eight? ten? – when my parents hired a Dahl impersonator to come to my party. I definitely thought he was the real deal, and I remember being spellbound as he read us poems and excerpts from “his” stories. I was also a little afraid of him, of the stranger in my home who could take my fears off the page and bring them to life…
But that’s Dahl in a nutshell, isn’t it? A little scary, and magical, and strange, and a person one’s never quite sure should be invited in.
For more about Roald Dahl, go here.