Dahl may be better known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach–certainly, he’s better known as a fantasy writer for children1–but I’d like to put in a bid for Danny, The Champion of the World.
This one has no fantasy elements at all. It’s simply the story of a boy raised by his father in rural England, the mother having died when Danny was a baby. The father is a mechanic and runs a one-man garage/one pump gas station; while the garage (and presumably the gas pump) are electrified, they are too poor to afford a proper house and instead make do with an old gypsy wagon, heated by a wood stove. Overall, it’s not a bad life as Danny’s not only well fed but receives all the loving care from his father that any child could want2.
Well, there’s a twist: his father is, like (apparently) so many rural residents of the time, a poacher; while he resisted the temptation for many years, his father succumbed when Danny was nine and snuck off one night onto the property of the local industrial robber baron, Mr. Hazell, to attempt lifting a pheasant or two. They talk it over, and Danny allows as how it’s OK with him if his father does so again, just as long as he tells Danny ahead of time. Things go on in this vein until the father breaks his ankle in a pit trap in Hazell’s woods one night shortly before the Grand Shoot Hazell hosts every year to mark the beginning of hunting season. Upon his return from the hospital, they devise an updated version of the poaching methods used by Danny’s grandfather: instead of soaking raisins in gin and getting the pheasants tiddly, they sew up a bit of sleeping powder in each raisin and scatter them across the ground where the flock of pheasants is fluffing up for their evening roost. The method works temporarily–they bring back 120 of the 200 birds in the flock–but forget that the birds are only sleeping very deeply. The book ends happily for the working class members of the village, who’ve ruined the pompous Hazell’s shoot (and the finish and upholstery of his Rolls), and for most of the pheasants, who wake up and fly away.
It’s as fun to read 36 years after its publication as it was at the time, though I’ll confess to being slightly perplexed by some of the cultural aspects of the book when I read it as a child. I’d hazard a guess that the social stratification in England at the time was much more marked then than now, and certainly more so than in the United States; Danny’s father is dismissive of both the wealthy self-made Mr. Hazell and the hereditary nobles who come to the shoot, whom Mr. Hazell is so desperate to impress3. While it’s true I’d hesitate just a titch about wholeheartedly recommending a book involving theft, as with many of Dahl’s books the villain of the piece, Mr. Hazell, while perhaps technically the victim of theft, gets no more than what most readers will think he deserves; as with Dahl’s other villains, Hazell has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, although he’s less broadly drawn than the other antagonists–he’d never give Spiker and Sponge a challenge. I suspect that my hesitation about this book may be due as much to the difference in game laws between the U.K. and the U.S. as any dubiousness about theft. Certainly, there are many families now in the U.S. for whom hunting and fishing is the primary source of animal protein; during the Depression in England, this could only have been more widespread so it’s no surprise that Danny’s grandfather was a proficient and frequent poacher4. Also, I’m amused at Danny’s astonishment when he discovers that not only his father but the cabbie, the doctor, the vicar and the village bobby are all in the know about poachers–if not actually poachers themselves, more than willing to turn a blind eye if it means the chance of a partridge; the one cab driver in the village takes people home after a particularly productive (or distant) poaching trip5, and the vicar’s wife delivers excess to the appropriate person in the bottom of her baby carriage when she takes her son out for his afternoon promenade.
Now it’s almost a period piece of life in England, but still enjoyable. And Dahl’s got more than a few other books out there, if you like his style, though if it’s description of life there and then, other books might be preferable. Elizabeth Goudge and Miss Read spring to mind, though I’m sure there are others.
1he wrote a number of short stories and a novel or two which are decidedly adult in tone…
2certainly, “parental” love is a thread that runs through Dahl’s kids books, though it’s not always a genetic relative who serves this role–it could be a teacher or a spider/grasshopper combination, but there’s always someone.
3think Gosford Park
4the short story on which the book was set was written in 1959, which makes sense given some of the details about military service in the book; Danny’s father was too young but one of his teachers (possibly in his forties though his age is not specified) made captain during WWII
5I suspect this detail is another indicator of the time in which the book is set; personal vehicles were much less common then, and even today, I’m of the impression that there are fewer cars per capita in the U.K. than in the U.S.