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June 2, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Boy: Tales of Childhood


Let’s be honest folks—if your grandfather ever starts a sentence with ‘when I was a boy’, most people would have to stifle a groan. While sometimes they are oft-repeated, these memories of the past tend to highlight the enormous social, medical, political and legal changes that the world has undergone since then. Fortunately for us, Roald Dahl knows better than anyone the power of a story, and Boy, his childhood autobiography, is full of fascinating rather than dull tales.

Beginning before his birth, through his father’s early passing, his mother’s difficult passage to England and the hurdles they faced as a single-parent family in the early twentieth century, Dahl regales us with stories that are sometimes disgusting, frightful and often just completely astonishing. Canings, for example, were all too common during Dahl’s childhood. And most people, let alone children, would squeal like a stuck pig at the idea of a scalpel to the leg or mouth, but this is what Dahl was expected to deal with in an era when anaesthetic wasn’t common practice in general medicine.

Dahl’s writing style in this book is just the same as it is in any of his children’s fiction; sharp, intelligent and never patronising to his audience. He doesn’t dwell on sentiment, but he doesn’t avoid it either. The guilt he experiences after
playing a trick on an elderly woman is something he clearly thought it was important to impart, because it has coloured his memory of the fateful day that he was caught in the act.

Boy is more of a scrapbook than a cohesive piece of writing; images of his hand-written letters to his mother, as well as grainy black and white images of various events in his life, are scattered throughout the book, making it seem as though you are reading Dahl’s wandering memory itself. All in all it is a pleasant journey, because all of these experiences show the influences which have shaped the mind of one of the most famous children’s authors in the English language.

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