Roald Dahl is one of the most successful children’s authors of all time. Many of his works, including James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and The BFG (1982), are considered classic works of juvenile fiction, known and loved by children not only in his native Great Britain and the United States but throughout the world. According to Jeremy Treglown, in the 1980’s more than eleven million of Dahl’s children’s books were sold in paperback in Britain alone, more than the total number of children born there during that decade. Remarkably, Dahl stumbled into this career almost by accident. He established a reputation as a short-story writer in the 1940’s and did not begin the work that made him world-famous until some twenty years later.
Treglown’s “unauthorized” biography provides a refreshing antidote to the mythos Dahl carefully constructed around his own life. Previously published biographical works on Dahl, including Barry Farrell’s Pat and Roald (1969) and Chris Powling’s Roald Dahl (1983), accepted Dahl’s public persona at face value, a persona further reinforced by the autobiographical Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986). Treglown’s biography is written without the cooperation or consent of Dahl’s widow and family, although he did have access to correspondence and interviewed many of Dahl’s closest friends and editors, his former wife Patricia Neal, and eventually two of his daughters, Tessa and Lucy Dahl. Even without being an “authorized” biographer, he clearly had more than enough information to create a vividly accurate portrait of an extremely complex man.
Roald Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales, of Norwegian parents, Harald Dahl and Sofie Hesselberg. Harald, a prosperous businessman, had been a widower with two children at the time he and Sofie wed. Nicknamed “the apple,” Roald, their only son, was indeed the apple of his mother’s eye. When he was four years old, his sister and father died within two months of each other, the beginning of an almost unbelievable string of family tragedies that were to plague him throughout his life. Roald was left to grow up surrounded by a mother and sisters who doted upon him; his mother, in particular, was to remain a strong influence on his life, as his model for what a wife and mother should be.
He left this adoring circle of females to enter the harsh world of the English public school at Repton, an experience that was later remembered, with some distortion and exaggeration, in the autobiographical Boy. In some respects, Dahl never outgrew his days at Repton; British schoolboy notions of humor, sexuality, and bullying permeate his fiction as well as his life.
His unimpressive academic record at Repton left university out of the question, so he went to work for Shell Oil in 1934. Shell sent him to Tanganyika, and when war became inevitable, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Nairobi. Before getting a chance to fly his first mission, Dahl crashed his plane in North Africa, suffering severe injuries to his head, nose, and back that kept him in a hospital bed for two months in Egypt and continued to plague him for the rest of his life. In later years, Dahl did nothing to dispel the impression that he had been shot down during battle rather than crashing while en route to a cricket match. He eventually rejoined his unit and flew missions for five weeks before the aftereffects of his injuries forced him to return home. While there is no doubt that he served bravely and truly was a war hero, he encouraged the inflation of tales of his wartime exploits, adding to the Roald Dahl legend through the years.
The dashing young war hero was sent as assistant air attaché to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., to help add luster to the image of the struggling RAF in the eyes of an increasingly skeptical American public. This propagandizing launched his career as a writer, when the fictionalized story of his own plane crash, “Shot Down over Libya” (1942) was published in The Saturday Evening Post. Another story, “Gremlin Lore,” based on the popular RAF practice of blaming “gremlins” for mechanical glitches, came to the attention of Walt Disney, who published it as a picture book in 1943, an early indication of the direction Dahl’s career would later take.
Dahl developed quite a reputation as a womanizer...
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