You learn the most surprising things from obituaries sometimes, and when I read the one about Roald Dahl, the celebrated children's author who died Friday at the age of 74, my mouth dropped open.
Who would believe this man -- whose books describe so scathingly the warts and foibles and inexplicable cruelty of adults -- also had written the screenplay for the cheerful, optimistic, downright uplifting movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?"
The Roald Dahl I knew didn't have Dick Van Dyke in his vocabulary.
I'd always thought of him as that English (Welsh, as it turns out) writer whose first name clearly needed an "n" in the middle to make it pronounceable, but who'd nonetheless managed to write some of the best kids' books ever: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach" and, discovered later by chance, "Matilda."
In "Charlie," there's a waif of a boy, shivering in a barely heated house, subsisting on cabbage soup and boiled potatoes, whose idea of heaven is a single bar of Willy Wonka's chocolate. In "James," there's a waif of a boy, orphaned when his parents are eaten by an escaped rhinoceros from the London Zoo.
And in "Matilda," the downtrodden tyke is a 5-year-old genius, terrorized by stupid parents with bad taste and by an ogre of a headmistress -- former Olympic hammer-thrower Miss Trunchbull, of Crunchem Hall.
Mr. Dahl had a fair bit of the Dickens in him, no question about it. Like his contemporary, American author Maurice Sendak, he clearly didn't believe in "protecting" children from negative images -- of poverty and hunger, unhappiness and cruelty, even death. The fact is, he often rubbed the reader's nose in them, but leavened the horrors with the kind of humor and exaggeration used by children themselves to cope with the powerlessness that comes with being small.
Of what happened to James' parents, Mr. Dahl writes, "Now this, as you can well imagine, was a rather nasty experience for two such gentle parents. But in the long run it was far nastier for James than it was for them. Their troubles were all over in a jiffy. They were dead and gone in thirty-five seconds flat."
Poor James, on the other hand, was sent to live on a high hill with his aunts Sponge and Spiker, "and I am sorry to say that they were both really horrible people. They were selfish and lazy and cruel, and right from the beginning they started beating poor James for almost no reason at all."
No pulled punches there. No Dick Van Dyke daddy to save the day -- just a bit of magic, a half-dozen overgrown insects and James' quick thinking to turn a miserable life into a happy one. No matter how awful the circumstances, Mr. Dahl gave the child the virtues necessary to make sure things came right in the end.
The key to his success, the author told interviewers, was to join the side of the children in the war against adults. Young Roald (how do you pronounce that?) began fighting these battles as a small boy in the punitive rigid world of English public schools, as he tells in the first book of his autobiography.
Along with loving descriptions of candy -- the Bull's-eyes and Old Fashioned Humbugs and Strawberry Bonbons and Acid Drops and Sherbet Suckers and Liquorice Bootlaces that would inspire the goodies in Willy Wonka's factory -- "Boy: Tales of Childhood" contains no less than four descriptions of canings administered in these schools.
Of such incidents he writes, "Some are funny. Some are painful. Some are unpleasant. I suppose that is why I have always remembered them so vividly."
He certainly painted them vividly. And then he got the rare chance for a sort of revenge with his writing.
Matilda uses her mighty brain to scare off Miss Trunchbull and ends up living with her nice teacher, Miss Honey. James escapes in a giant peach that squashes his aunts "as flat and thin and lifeless as a couple of paper dolls."
Charlie, as everyone knows, inherits Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, home of Lickable Wallpaper for Nurseries and Cows That Give Chocolate Milk and Square Candies That Look Round (they've got moving eyes) and Everlasting Gobstoppers.
At the book's end, as Charlie wheels his grandparents' bed into the great glass elevator to take them to the factory, Grandma Josephine asks, "Will there be any thing to eat when we get there? I'm starving! The whole family is starving!"
"Anything to eat?" cried Charlie, laughing. "Oh, you just wait and see!"