You will learn as you get older, just as I learned that autumn, that no father is perfect. Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets. Some have quirkier quirks and deeper secrets than others, but all of them, including one’s own parents, have two or three private habits hidden up their sleeves that would probably make you gasp if you knew about them.
— Roald Dahl, Danny the Champion of the World
What do you do when you turn nine—and find out that your father is engaging in criminal activity?
Roald Dahl’s 1975 Danny, the Champion of the World, takes a very different direction than Dahl’s previous children’s books. Rooted in a very real world, its only touch of true fantasy comes from the stories told by Danny’s father about a magical giant. The humor, although certainly present, is both more dry and more subtle. And this is a story about finally taking control of something in your world—even if it’s not the something you expected.
The novel is told in autobiographical style; the narrator, Danny, is presumably a kid somewhat, but not much, older than nine. He begins his story exactly as a child would—the beginning, his birth—a narrative conceit that also allows Dahl to immediately establish some important facts. Danny’s mother died shortly after his birth, and Danny has been raised by his father alone, without assistance.
They are not precisely destitute—Danny’s father owns a very small plot of land and a filling station, and supplements his income by fixing cars, and they have plenty of food—but they are not precisely well off, either. They live in an old gypsy caravan (loosely based on one Dahl had purchased to do his writing and creative work in) behind the filling station, which lacks electricity and other modern conveniences. Their position leaves them vulnerable to harassment from the wealthy and unpleasant Victor Hazell, and from one of Danny’s teachers, who falsely accuses Danny of cheating. Danny doesn’t mind. He has his father, and his father tells stories, and as Danny will tell you, his father is the most wonderful man in the world.
When Danny turns nine, he learns his father’s secret: the man is a poacher. Worse, he is poaching from Victor Hazell.
On one level, the rest of the book is a simple adventure story: Danny must rescue his father, which includes stealing a car and trying to drive it while evading the police (one of the book’s best sequences), then help his father poach a couple hundred pheasants from Victor Hazell. This accomplishes the dual goals of getting to eat fresh roasted pheasant (which, from the description given by Danny’s father, is almost worth all the effort in itself), and humiliating Haskell, who is hoping to use the pheasant hunt to increase his standing in the British aristocracy—the old money, that is, since Haskell, among his failings, is very very new money, if desperate to get in with the old money. Poaching that many birds takes considerable effort and planning; one thing I do appreciate about this book is that it is not too likely to inspire kids to take up drugging birds for fun.
But the real story is the relationship between Danny and his father. Danny knows poaching is wrong (legally and morally, even leaving the question of hunting aside) and very dangerous (the local landowners will shoot poachers first and ask questions later). And here is where the slow pace of the book’s first few chapters really pays off: it makes absolute sense that Danny would join and support his father, even if this means risking his own life and criminal record, since, in Danny’s eyes, his father is the most wonderful, marvelous man on earth—why wouldn’t anyone help him?
And yet this masks a potentially dangerous emotional dependency on both sides. Apart from customers, the father and son seem to have few other social contacts. Danny has friends at school, but never brings them by, saying that he would rather hang out with his father. We catch glimpses of just how much his father misses his wife; Danny, who never knew her, does not have the same sense of loss, but slowly grasps it through his father’s stories. It adds a layer of guilt and loss that binds the two closer together. I’d be worried—except that they really do seem to be having fun, and Danny knows that his father loves him. It gives him the self-confidence he needs to pull off driving a car—and to suggest a solution to the bird dilemma.
(Incidentally, I don’t know enough about pheasants to know if the trick would actually work, but as Dahl describes it, it sounds plausible enough.)
Behind that is another, darker story of class resentment and fury. Danny’s father is a highly intelligent man who has memorized extensive information about animals and birds; we aren’t given the details, but something prevented him from getting a further education. He doesn’t complain—I get the distinct impression that he’s happy fixing cars—but Danny, on some level, resents this, feeling his father could have been far more.
And they are not the only two who resent Victor Hazell—called, by Danny, a “roaring snob”—and Hazell’s attempts to climb into still higher social circles. When the great poaching plan starts up, the entire village, including the Vicar, is all for it—largely because of a dislike for Hazell. This is partly because Hazell is a jerk who has been harassing the residents. He also kicks dogs. But the fault isn’t all on Hazell’s side, unpleasant though the social climber is; the residents have been vicious to Hazell right back. It also doesn’t help that, at least according to the local constable, these aristocrats are all terrible shots, and their shooting practice ends up injuring and torturing the birds instead of killing them.
All of this leads to a book that above all, respects its young readers, assuming that they can understand and accept that life isn’t always good or pleasant, and that sometimes, choices aren’t easy. (I’m also going to just skip over a rather disturbing moment where a doctor confesses to deliberately causing additional pain to a patient to get revenge for the dog. Ouch.) And that sometimes, good people can still do unethical things, or be caught between unethical choices: abandon your father to danger in the woods, or steal a car.
Oddly, for all the unpleasantness and moral dilemmas, in many ways this book offers far more hope to children than Dahl’s earlier works. After all, Danny and his father are not dependent on magic (James and the Giant Peach) or luck (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) They are able to take steps against someone they see as an oppressor, and win a small battle though a lot of hard work and innovation.
I remember disliking this book when I was a kid. I’m not sure why—possibly because the only characters I really felt sorry for were the poor pheasants, who really do get a bum rap in this book. Or possibly because with Dahl’s name on the cover, I was expecting something funny, or at least magical, especially after the story about the Big Friendly Giant (the BFG), who I thought would enter the story later, but doesn’t. Reading it now, I still can’t find myself liking it, exactly, and I still find myself missing Dahl’s over-the-top zany humor. But I can be impressed by Dahl’s rich character development here and his respect for his younger readers, and his understanding that sometimes, parents can do things that it may be difficult to understand.
Mari Ness apologizes for reading this book out of publication order; things should be back on schedule with Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator next week.