One of my favourite Dahl books is The Enormous Crocodile. No anthropomorphizing nature here: the world's biggest croc hunts kids. Fortunately, though, his "secret plans and clever tricks" (which really are quite clever) are betrayed by the other wild animals that have larger brains and no patience for predators. Children who've never heard it before are mesmerized by the croc's boasts of his past child-eating and howl at the conclusion; those who've read or heard it a dozen times are still fanatical about it (me included).
I have blogged previously about how good historical fiction is often many times more useful as a learning tool than a dull geography text on the same topic. Dahl is no exception. If I were teaching a course on the social geography of rural England, I would have my students read Danny, The Champion of the World. Nowhere will you find a more real or engaging tale of the class structure, economy and nature of post-WWII rural England than in this story of a poor boy and his father waging war with the biggest landowner in the county, Mr Hazell. Hazell is downright nasty to those poorer than him (i.e. most people, including Danny) and obsequious to the nobility whose hereditary title he lacks. Hazell stocks his private forest with lots of pheasants and then sucks up to the lords and ladies of the country by inviting them to his annual shooting party. The local residents despise Hazell, and comfort themselves by poaching the odd pheasant from Hazell's land. When Danny comes up with the most brilliant plan to thwart Hazell's next shooting party... I'll stop there, I don't want to ruin a great story.
The plot parallels The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Danny provides a host of subtle details about daily life of humans in rural England that don't make it into the shorter, more action-oriented Fox's tale. For example, Dahl's description of Danny's village school and the motley assortment of teachers working there is a wonderful distillation of modern life. Danny's teacher, the dull-witted and brutal Captain Lancaster, insists that everyone address him by the military rank he held during the war, and Dahl does not need to explicitly say it for you to realize Lancaster served in the commissary or in some other capacity that ensured he never saw any combat. And you are reminded there are unfortunately too many Lancasters as compared with true heroes out there in this world; real heroes (wartime or otherwise) are humble about their deeds, require no title to prove their worth, and never pick on the helpless. Miss Birdseye, the kindergarten teacher and only woman on the teaching staff, is pleasant and humane. You get the suspicion she will never become head of the school, but will have to put up with the daily leering of soppy old Mr Corrado until she gets married and moves on. And then there's the headmaster, Mr Snoddy, who drinks gin all day because his wife is a witch... OK, allow Dahl a bit of creative license, it is after all an entertainment for children...
I could go on about Dahl's true-to-life descriptions of the forests, fields, hedgerows and the wildlife they contain, how he captures the importance of social capital in maintaining rural communities, or how Danny and his father are there to tell us that living simply and sustainably is possible and pleasant so long as we love one another (and make time to poach the odd pheasant). But I won't go on, I think I'll instead go read the book again. Happy New Year to you and yours. R.