James and the Giant Peach begins in sudden, shocking tragedy, as young James Henry Trotter loses his parents to a rampaging rhinoceros. (Strikingly unusual deaths would remain a characteristic of Roald Dahl’s work, perhaps to assure children that this was very unlikely to happen to them. I’m not sure how successful this was as a literary technique: I still keep a wary eye out when rhinoceroses are around.) Young James is sent to live with two absolutely awful aunts, whose only saving grace is their capacity to speak in hilarious, egotistical rhymes. All seems doomed, until an unexpected bit of magic arrives, allowing James and some new friends to fly off in a—natch!—giant peach.
James and the Giant Peach is deeply rooted in folklore and fairy tale: like many fairy tale protagonists, James is an orphan, dependent largely on his wits. In a scene stolen pretty much straight from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” James gets some magical green seeds—of a sort—and if they don’t exactly turn into a beanstalk, they do have a similar effect on a nearby peach tree. The insects (and spider) the seeds affect turn out to be remarkably like the helpers or companions in so many fairy tales, although Dahl does work to give each insect a distinct personality, shaped by the insect’s name or ecological function. And, as in “Jack in the Beanstalk,” James finds himself encountering monsters in the clouds. And, as in so many good fairy tales, James finds himself travelling to fantastic worlds.
At the same time, James and the Giant Peach is, like many of the best fairy tales, strongly rooted in reality. The story begins in the very real city of London and the shores of England, and ends in a very real location: New York City, and more precisely, the Empire State Building and Central Park. In between, of course, it’s all sheer fantasy: the voyage of a giant peach, carried by seagulls, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, among the Cloud-Men who make hailstorms and snow and rainbows. (I am tempted to protest this rather exaggerated account of the flying abilities of seagulls, but then again this is a book with giant talking insects.)
Oh, and in this reading, I just happened to notice that the peach just happens to happens to destroy a chocolate factory as it trundles on its path, spilling out rivers of melted chocolate, to the delight of nearby children—a hint of the next book, perhaps?
Unlike in typical quest stories, James has no particular reason to be in the sky at all—it’s all been just a series of peculiar incidents after peculiar incident. He has no real goal, other than to enjoy himself and stay alive—although, as he slowly becomes the leader of his little insect group, he does have the goal of keeping them alive as well. And, later, writing silly rhymes to introduce them properly to the New York City Police and Fire Departments so that his insect friends aren’t killed on sight as aliens. (Allow me at this point to commend the New York City Police department for acting very calmly, under the circumstances.)
But for someone with no real goals, James does triumphantly manage his happy ending. Although, young readers should note that I have been reliably informed by the Office of Mayor Bloomberg that placing enormous peaches, magical or otherwise, on the top of the Empire State Building is Highly Illegal and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and certainly not allowed to live inside a peach pit given a place of honor in New York City afterwards. You have been warned. Do something else with your magical green crystally things. That is not to say that good is always rewarded—James’ parents have done nothing, as far as I can tell, to deserve their fate of death by rhinoceros, except perhaps failing to provide James with appropriate guardians—but after those first few pages, good is rewarded with good, and bad rewarded with death. Parents may be horrified, but as a seven year old I cheered when the bad aunts went SQUISH because this is exactly the sort of thing that rarely happens to bad people in real life but you know full well when you are seven SHOULD happen. And it’s nice to see the others get their happy endings too—almost all involving employment, I note, and I don’t think we want to think too hard about the one exception: the Ladybug who marries into the Fire Department. In fact let’s all try very hard not to think about this at all.
The book also has some laugh out loud funny moments, although I must say, as an adult, that it is not quite as funny as I remember; I think you have to be seven to enjoy some parts of this book. The nonsense verse sprinkled throughout the book is also delightful, even if it contradicts much of what the book says, and even if some of it, specifically James’ poem at the end of the book, contains a somewhat unlikely vocabulary for the speaker. Come to think of it, James is not entirely honest with the New York City authorities when he gives the biographies of his friends in rhyme. Perhaps he doesn’t deserve his happy ending after all, although I think we can probably forgive him his exaggerations. He’s seven.
The insects (and spider) are all well drawn; I’m particularly fond of the Centipede, for all of his fuss about his boots, and his tendency to exaggerate his number of feet. I also like that the most helpful and active of the insects tend to be the women: Miss Spider not only spins comfortable beds, but can also scout out the condition of the peach. Meanwhile, the loudest complainers are the men—the Earthworm and the Centipede, though the Wise Old Grasshopper provides moral support. And to really accomplish things—capturing seagulls, for instance—everyone has to participate, in a nice touch of the importance of working together.
I suspect, though, that for kids, most of the fun and enjoyment comes from seeing the bad guys thoroughly punished, and a group of adults—insects, to be sure, but adults—turning to a small child for leadership and support. It’s a fairy tale, sure, and a silly one and funny one at that, but certainly satisfying.
Mari Ness tries to be open-minded, but really thinks we ought to draw the line with human-insect marriage.