“I must admit,” said Mr. Wonka, “that for the first time in my life I find myself at a bit of a loss.”
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator begins by swiftly catching us up with the events from the previous book (summarized in two quick sentences) and a listing of all of the characters now present in the Great Glass Elevator—the not-exactly-entirely-explained apparatus from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that was able to zip through the entire factory at tremendous speed before exploding through the ceiling. It’s the sort of home transportation device we all need but are unlikely to get.
To catch you up, the people in the elevator include the fabulous if slightly hyper-energetic Willy Wonka, young Charlie Bucket, winner of the Golden Ticket and now about to inherit the marvelous chocolate factory, his rather colorless parents, and his four grandparents, Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina, and Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine. We now pause our recap to ask my eight year old question:
Me: Mom, did Grandma Georgina and Grandma Josephine have to change their names to match Grandpa George and Grandpa Joe’s names?“
Mom: I don’t know. Maybe Grandpa George and Grandpa Joe looked for girls who had matching names.
Dad: Or maybe their names WERE CHANGED BY A DUCK!
Dad: He promised changing their names would make them all better, but he TURNED OUT TO BE A QUACK!
And now you pretty much know everything you need to know about my childhood and why it took me some time to finish this book the first time through, despite the lack of traumatizing memories of girls getting rolled off to who knows where. Anyway.
For whatever reason, Mr. Wonka is convinced that in order to get back into the factory the elevator has to go way, way up. (He is still conveniently deaf to any requests for explanations for his more outrageous or inexplicable statements, like, for instance, if the elevator is attached to the sky by skyhooks, what, exactly, are those skyhooks attached to?) And by up, I mean nearly into orbit, and thanks to Mr. Wonka’s inability to be at all reassuring (which, to be fair, is kinda difficult to be when you are in a glass elevator suspended by absolutely nothing in particular or visible well above the sky) actually into orbit.
Incidentally, as they shoot up into the sky, they can see the United States below them, which answers everyone’s questions about where, exactly, Mr. Wonka’s factory is located. Later on, Grandma Georgina confirms this suspicion by noting that her three hundred and sixty five year old self (this makes more sense in the book) remembers coming over on the Mayflower, and some of the highlights of U.S. history. Also, incidentally, this tells us that this particular book is set in 1972, and I must say, I am exceedingly distressed that 40 years later we still don’t have the luxury orbiting hotel mentioned in this book. (The international space station doesn’t count since unless NASA is lying it doesn’t have a pastry chef.) But I am now really digressing.
It’s the start to a really wild space adventure, complete with horrible aliens who know how to spell only one word—SCRAM!—effectively shown in the illustrations. They are joined in their adventure, not entirely willingly, by the entire staff of service workers who have arrived to service the new space hotel, three astronauts, and the President of the United States, his Vice President Miss Tibbs, his entire Cabinet, a Chief Spy who the CIA would immediately deny any connections with, and his pet cat.
Okay, I have to take a moment to confess: I love this President. Sure, he tells terrible knock knock jokes in dreadful situations, and his foreign policy skills could use a little work, to say the least, and he flicks chewed chewing gum at people in these same dreadful situations, and he’s still terrified of his nanny—to the point of making her the Vice President. But he also does not allow the sudden arrival of aliens and the near certain destruction of the United States to distract him from his real love—inventing things—and he does not hesitate to invite a sword swallower from Afghanistan AND his cat, Mrs. Taubsypuss, to important state events, the opening of space hotels, alien invasions, AND state dinners. And he can keep his head in a crisis:
”Nanny!“ he cried. ”Oh Nanny! What on earth do we do now?“
”I’ll get you a nice warm glass of milk,“ said Miss Tibbs.
”I hate the stuff,“ said the President. ”Please don’t make me drink it!“
While we’re talking, let’s also hear it for Miss Tibbs, the remarkable woman of 83 who can terrify the President AND the head of the FBI AND fire the Head of the Army when necessary. (In an almost certain lingering remnant from Dahl’s military past, the generals in the room all thank her.) Not only is she the only person, apart from Willy Wonka, to really keep her head, even when facing an alien invasion, but she also offers sensible, straightforward advice—and urges a peaceful, sensible solution. She is awesome. And her delightful song about the President, explaining his rise to power, if for the most part a way for Dahl to channel his cynicism about the U.S. government, is a highlight of the book.
A few evil aliens and some wild orbits later the elevator takes a plunge back to the factory, as if Dahl suddenly remembered that half the point of this particular book was to capitalize on the (initially unachieved) success of the 1971 film which had not exactly focused on adventures in space. A few more breathless passages, a quiet pause for a bit of reflection from Mr. Wonka, some adventures with surprisingly strong medication and rather questionable mathematics, and the novel rushes to a non-stop conclusion.
Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way quickly. Fast-paced as the book is, the plot can most kindly be called ”episodic,“ dashing here there and here and again with pretty much no overwhelming point. The villains disappear midway through the book, almost never to be mentioned again until their cameo mentions in later Dahl books. Character development is mostly nonexistent, unless we count Mr. Bucket’s sudden soaring excitement and equally sudden bout of sullenness, and absolutely none of the episodes make a lot of sense if you try to think about them carefully, which I recommend not doing. (As I noted, Mr. Wonka himself is conveniently deaf to any requests for explanations.)
Indeed, several questions are left unanswered, such as, how, exactly, did the Vermicious Knids learn to spell one, and only one, word in English—and why English? How did Willy Wonka, alone of everyone on earth, find out about them? (Well, that one is perhaps easy to figure out—he’s Willy Wonka.) Why are the Joint Chiefs of Staff allowing a sword swallower from Afghanistan and a pet cat to remain in a high security meeting?
Also, the passages about the Chinese will offend many readers and make others cringe. At best they are really bad parts, and parents reading this part to their children may want to skip that page; this will have no effect on the plot, or discuss the passage with their children afterwards. Also, parents reading this out loud should be aware that Roald Dahl slipped a mild profanity aimed at his Hollywood acquaintances into the names of one of the hotel guests. I laughed because I am secretly still six, and, well, it’s a funny joke if you are six. Most of you will groan.
And yet this was hands down my favorite Dahl book as a child. In part because so much of it is written at the level of a six year old, with the accompanying humor (although I fear that six year olds will find some of the humor too childish even for them, and adults will find many of the puns and jokes wearisome.) It made me laugh. A lot. Dahl would later claim that laughter was the most important part of a children’s book, and here, at least, he succeeded. Even as an adult I found myself laughing at sections (mostly the political jokes), and the image of everyone waiting around for aliens to spell out ”SCRAM" in large capital letters never gets old.
In part, because the character of Lancelot R. Gilligrass, president of the United States, offers hope to all of us that no matter how much we screw up as children (or even later) we can still succeed. In part because, after the ongoing disasters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this book does return to the comfort of saying that everything will be all right. Crisis after crisis after crisis may occur, and you and your family and three astronauts and several pastry chefs may be threatened by Vernicious Knids, and even the great Willy Wonka may find himself at a loss, but this is all stuff that can be fixed.
Reading it now, I find myself somewhat wistful for parts of the world that Dahl describes. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator was written shortly after the first moon landings, when so many were confident that luxury space travel really would be the next step—and really would appear in the near future. (2001, anyone?) Unlike its predecessor, which focused on the inability of protagonists to prevent bad things from happening, this is a triumphant, joyful book that argues that everything and anything has a cure. For all of the many disgusting and horrible parts of the book, and the offhand discussion of the destruction of distant civilizations and the ongoing possibility of war and destruction, this is one of Dahl’s most hopeful books, with a confidence in the future he was never to achieve again.
Mari Ness is in major need of a great glass elevator capable of orbiting earth. It can be delivered to her residence in central Florida.