I’ve been seeing a lot of people on my dash talking about how they don’t understand why Roald Dahl is so beloved, because he’s rather mean-spirited. I really do love Roald Dahl, so here’s my 2 cents on the matter.
[cw: emotional abuse, child abuse, survivor talk, book gushing]
Growing up… I always had this sense that something was wrong with my life.
I was starving all the time,
I had to take a bunch of Weird Medicine, and I fought with my parents every time I was around them for more than two hours. My parents and teachers and the other kids treated me differently than everyone else, and it was in ways that felt bad. The universe felt like a terrible, inscrutable thing that was out to get me. (Probably explains why I have such a yen for the Cthulhu Mythos now.)
I know a lot of kids with traumatic childhoods turn to books like A Wrinkle In Time or Anne of Green Gables, where the families are happy, the problems are solved with love, and the universe is fair. But- while I liked those books- they never gave me that kind of catharsis, because I had a ‘happy’ family. My siblings and my parents (mostly) got along with each other; I was the unhappy troublemaker. I knew- because people kept telling me so- that my family would be happier with me out of the picture.
The books that helped were books that acknowledged that, yeah, the universe was full of Wrongness, and sometimes it couldn’t be fixed easily. Sometimes people- especially adults- really were petty and arbitrary and cruel. There was not something wrong with me for noticing and realizing this, and there was not something wrong with wanting to fix it.
I liked A Series of Unfortunate Events. I liked Dickens. I liked The Thief Lord. I liked Diana Wynne Jones. I liked anything from Ancient Greece I could get my hands on.
I liked Animorphs, and John Bellairs, and Animal Farm, and the ‘darker’ Discworld books.
And, yes, I liked Roald Dahl. Matilda and The BFG and The Witches were my fucking lifeline.
The BFG was about escaping, having the power to dream, not having to be afraid anymore. The Witches- which I now realize was written from a place that’s more than a bit misogynistic- The Witches, to me, was all about staffishness. All the Nice Ladies in my school who acted nice to me because I was the ‘bright r*tard’- yeah, they weren’t actually that nice. It was good to have a book that acknowledged that sickly-sweet concern for the welfare of children often masked something a good bit nastier.
And Matilda- god, that book still breaks my heart and puts it back together; my personal copy is worn to ribbons and I watched the the movie until the VHS tape wore out. My abuser mocked me for loving it so much, because she let me read, she wasn’t nearly as bad as the Wormwoods, god, but…
Matilda was about being a bright kid with petty, arbitrary adults surrounding you- and having the power to fight back. I needed that book like I needed air.
…So yeah, that’s why I like Roald Dahl. He gave me some things I desperately needed at a time when I needed them most.