Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review - Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Short review: Danny has the father Dahl wishes he could have had.

A father and son
Live a happy country life
And have adventures

Full review; Danny the Champion of the World is different from a typical Dahl story in that there is nothing fantastical in the story, and Danny has a caring, loving home life. Although Danny’s mother died when he was an infant, leaving Danny alone with his father William (Danny’s father’s name is hidden about halfway through the book). Danny's father is kind, caring, thoughtful, and playful. They live in a caravan behind the filling station and auto shop owned and run by William. The caravan has no electricity, running water, or heat, relying on gas lamps and a gas burner for such things. Danny’s life is still idyllic in a rustic way. He helps his father work on cars (his father even lets Danny delay entering school for a few years to learn how to be an auto mechanic). His father takes time off to play with him, making kites and hot air balloons, and the two of them generally spend most of their waking hours together.

This happy existence is interrupted (and the adventurous elements of the book are introduced) by two elements. The first is a visit from Victor Hazell, the local wealthy bully (who, in the tradition of Dahl villains, is also quite fat). After Hazell threatens Danny, William declines to serve him, and ejects him from his property triggering a series of inspectors to come and harass Danny's father. The second is the mysterious nighttime disappearance of Danny's father, which Danny learns is because his father has been poaching pheasants in Hazell's Wood.

The rest of the book details the various adventures Danny and his father have illegally hunting pheasants on Victor Hazell's property. William teaches Danny the secret of pheasant poaching (raisins are the key). Danny has to rescue his father from a pit trap in which William breaks his ankle, and the two collaborate to try to poach every single pheasant in Hazell's Wood just before a planned hunting event hosted by the bullying Victor Hazell. Oddly, it turns out that virtually everyone in the small village where Danny and his father live is involved in the poaching business in some way, as they find allies in their quest at every turn.

Danny comes up with the idea of using raisins filled with sleeping powder from his father's prescribed sleeping pills (for use to help him sleep with a broken ankle) to catch the pheasants, leading his father to dub him the "champion of the world" at poaching. In the end, Hazell is humiliated (and his car is ruined) and although the pheasants (mostly) escape, a few stick around for dinner and all ends well as Danny and his father plan more adventures.

Engaging in a little speculation, I note that Dahl's own father died when he was a toddler, and he was sent to a series of boarding schools (at his father's behest, as he thought the English education system was the best in the world despite being Norwegian). Dahl apparently hated the schools, but never told his mother this, because he knew she was thinking of his welfare. Dahl was also horrified by the practice of corporal punishment used in English schools, which is reflected in a scene in Danny in which Danny is unjustly caned by his teacher, arousing his father's ire.

One can feel the ache Dahl had for a childhood with a loving father. Danny's father brings him up in a way almost opposite Dahl's own upbringing: his father is ever present, protective, fun, and caring. If Danny is in trouble, William protects him. If Danny is scared, William comforts him. If Danny is bored, William plays with him. Despite their material poverty, Danny is wealthy in ways that one can only assume Dahl felt that he was deprived. In the end, Danny the Champion of the World is a touching love letter to a father that the author never knew.

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