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📅 2023-Jan-16 ⬩ ✍️ Ashwin Nanjappa ⬩ 🏷️ book ⬩ 📚 Archive

Discussing Roald Dahl with our neighborhood kids led to more of his books being loaned to us, among which I was surprised to discover he had written an autobiography too, titled Boy. I merely flipped a few pages out of curiosity, and needless to say that Dahl was able to yet again pull me into his world easily.

To set the stage for Dahl’s childhood, we are in the period before WW1/WW2 in Europe. Dahl’s father moved out from Norway to England to have a better life and succeeds in establishing a ship broking business. His second wife (after the death of the first) was a Norwegian woman, who gave birth to Dahl and more of his siblings. She turns out to be a woman of immense mental fortitude, as she would handle all the children and the family finances her entire life after Dahl’s dad passed away in his early childhood.

Dahl notes that he recalls very little of his life before the age of 8 (same for me!). What does stand out from this era is his proclivity to play tricks on adults and generally being a jovial person. The instance of tricking a candy store lady is especially fun to read and the consequent caning he receives from his headmaster stands out.

The biggest annual event of his childhood was the summer vacation to Norway that his mother organized. Getting to Norway and back involved scores of taxis, trains, ships and hotel bookings - how she did all that for 8 kids and 2 adults (herself and nanny) astounds me. The entourage would meet their grandparents for a summer feast and then vacation among the fjords. Many idyllic weeks of swimming, sunbathing, boating and fishing on islands of fjords filled Dahl’s summer memories.

After his primary schooling, his mother shipped Dahl off to a English boarding school called Repton. These are the formative years of his life with his writing, studies, sports (in which he excelled). He also gives us the inside scoop on the running of all such upper-class boarding schools of that era and their money-making origins. His daily life in the classes, in the dormitory and his adventures there are enthralling, though way more realistic than the dreamy Enid Blyton boarding school novels. The book ends with his move to Africa to work for Shell, and his life thereafter as a RAF pilot in WW2 continues in his other book Going Solo.

The most unsettling aspect of this book has to be the corporal punishment in schools of that era. Dahl and his friends are caned for every misdemeanor in all their schools. Not any ordinary caning - pants pulled down, with the headmasters striking them repeatedly on their behinds with a thin cane, viciously. He says that the worst offender was his Repton headmaster (unnamed in the book), who took cruel pleasure in mercilessly caning students until he saw blood. He is surprised how such a man climbed the social ladder and ended up becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury! (A little research online shows that this was Geoffrey Fisher, a great example of how not to trust the background of any prominent person.)

Dahl wrote his mother a letter every week when he was in school. Scanned excerpts of these letters are interspersed in the chapters offering a great witness to the real life of a early-1900s boy in England, and we also see the evolution of his handwriting (beautiful cursive!), grammar, and vocabulary through the years. Also illuminating are the various photos of his childhood, family, travels and school friends of that era shown in the book.

Boy is yet another un-put-downable book from Dahl. Every memory, every experience, every character here evoked my childhood and that of my kids that I experience. However, I felt the caning experiences were quite traumatic, so not sure if this book is right for kids. And in case you were wondering about the book title, I think it might have something to do with how Dahl ended every letter to his mother: Love from Boy.

Rating: 4/4

© 2023 Ashwin Nanjappa • All writing under CC BY-SA license • 🐘📧