I still remember my fourth grade teacher. She wore wrap-around skirts with bright animal prints, and read books out loud to our class. That read-aloud time was my introduction to Roald Dahl.
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Despite my admiration for my teacher, and my growing love of English children's literature, I never became a fan of Dahl's. I credit the original film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for that. As a kid, I caught part of it on television and found the whole thing creepy. I knew it was supposed to be enchanting, mysterious, funny...but it just freaked me out. Enough that I stayed away from Dahl's books for years. And you better believe I stayed away from the recent film adaptation involving Tim Burton and Johnny Depp (whose combined dark genius was enough to heighten the creep factor for me, sight unseen).
So I've never had much interest in revisiting Dahl. Despite knowing other people who grew up loving his books, and despite hearing him cited (often) as an influence on other writers I've come to love, like J.K. Rowling, I figured I could get on just fine without ever cracking open another one of his books. Until recently when I found myself with a half-hour long wait next to a shelf full of children's books that just happened to include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
And I figured: why not? I was mildly concerned that the story might indeed creep me out, but only mildly. I am, after all, a big girl now. If ten year olds have read this book without major damage, I was pretty sure I could handle it. So I took a deep breath, opened to page one, and took the plunge. And pretty soon I was chuckling, turning pages, and chuckling some more.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory turns out to be only partly what I thought it was. We'll get to the odd factor later -- though I'm pretty sure it's still mostly due to the film images I can't banish. Let's talk first about what works.
There's poor Charlie Bucket, the hero of the story. He's a poor, sweet, hungry kid who you might expect to be an orphan (he meets the literary criteria in every respect) but who actually has a loving family. His mom and dad work hard but can barely make ends meet. He has four incredibly elderly grandparents who tell him stories (especially grandpa Joe) but who otherwise hardly ever get out of bed. Charlie's greatest wish, and it's a tangible wish we readers can understand, is to have enough to eat. His hunger is exacerbated by the delicious chocolate smell emanating from the enormous chocolate factory on the edge of town.
The factory is run and operated by Mr. Willy Wonka, a mysterious and reclusive gentleman renowned for his creativity. Years before, when other candy factory owners kept stealing his ideas, he shut down operations. When he re-opened, it was in the midst of great secrecy. Everyone in town is puzzled by the factory's continued productivity and its new product lines, because Mr. Wonka has not re-hired any of his former workers. So one of the great mysteries of the chocolate factories has to do with its employees.
Brilliant marketer that he is, Mr. Wonka decides to hold a contest. He knows everyone would love to get inside his factory and see how it runs, so he puts five golden tickets inside five random candy bars. The five lucky children who stumble upon these golden tickets will be invited to tour his factory and get all sorts of other perks, including a lifetime supply of candy.
It comes as little surprise that Charlie finds one of the tickets, though Dahl stretches out the possibility with some delightful suspense. The other four children who end up on tour with him are all brats: incredible over-the-top character parodies who remind one a bit of stock characters that represent deadly sins. Augustus Gloop is fat and greedy; Mike Teavee stares glassy-eyed at the television all day; Veruca Salt is spoiled by parents who give her everything she wants; Violet Beauregarde has an annoying gum-chewing habit.
Where Dahl most shines is not in story telling, but through imaginative details and wordplay. Hence he appropriately gives most page time to the remarkable tour of Mr. Wonka's marvelous factory, where every page seems crammed full of new inventions -- ways to manufacture candy, candy names, wild stories about the Ooompa-Loompas who work in the factory, vivid settings. Since the factory is enormous and Mr. Wonka has manic amounts of energy, this main section of the book flies rapidly along, interrupted only by set pieces when one of the bratty kids does something rude and disobedient and gets their startling comeuppance.
Then the Ooompa-Loompas engage in gleeful rhyming songs about what happens to bad children when they do bad things...rhymes that will likely make one think of Edward Lear or Hillaire Belloc. My favorite, by far, is their ode to books -- an over-the-top ditty in which they sing out warnings about the dangers of television and remind parents of the magic of books: ("So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,/Go throw your TV set away,/And in its place you can install/A lovely bookshelf on the wall.")
It's hard to know what to make of the "morality tale" aspect of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, because one gets the sense that Dahl is spoofing the genre as much as exploiting it. And while it's true that it's hard not to delight in seeing such rotten kids get their due, some of the proceedings seem mean-spirited. The book also suffers from the fact that none of the characterizations -- and that includes gentle, obedient Charlie -- go very deep. The bad kids have their one note, but Charlie (though we get glimpses of his inner thoughts) pretty much only has one note too. It's nice to see him so full of wonder and awe when the other kids are just full of petty selfishness, but it's still hard to feel he's fully believable. Maybe because I'm the mom to an oversensitive kid, I found it especially hard to believe that Charlie wouldn't feel at least some moments of fear and trepidation as he watches truly awful consequences befall his tour companions. But he never seems to worry.
One thing I enjoyed very much, as a fan of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, was noting all the places where she does indeed seem to owe a debt to Dahl. There's the scene where Violet gets blown up into a giant blueberry, which every literary critic and their aunt seems to cite as a possible inspiration for Harry's inadvertent blowing up of his Aunt Marge.
I agree the scenes share a similar vibe, but where I thought the Dahl-Rowling connection strongest was in all the weird and wacky candy inventions and the playful names employed for them. If Fred and George Weasley ever read a muggle book, this is the one. Their ton-tongue toffee, and the oafish, greedy Dudley Dursley's comeuppance for eating it, practically drips Dahl. I can just imagine how gleeful the twins would be over square candies that look round (literally), hair toffee that makes you sprout a beard, and rainbow drops that allow you spit in six different colors. Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Rowling's fictional drink butterbeer found its genesis through the butterscotch and soda and buttergin and tonic that the Oompa-Loompas like to drink.
But whereas Rowling uses fun details like this to embroider humor on a much larger story tapestry, pretty much all Dahl has is the frills. They're fun, but they feel about as frothy as the chocolate waterfall cascading down into Mr. Wonka's chocolate river. I missed a stronger narrative, and especially a stronger ending, though a requisite happy one is provided.
I was happy to realize that, for me, most of the creep factor still comes from the movie images. While there are a few gross and startling moments in the book, mostly involving the bad kids' consequences, none felt anywhere near as creepy as the film, and Mr. Wonka seemed more hyper and mildly lunatic than sinister. Granted, I didn't understand him or his motivations, but then, one doesn't always understand creative, crazy types in real life either!
While I still don't think I'm Dahl's biggest fan, I enjoyed this foray into his creative world more than I expected. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, first published in 1964 and a classic in its own way, will likely still be enjoyed by generations of 10-and-up kids for many years to come. Assuming, of course, that they don't let a film version turn them off.
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