Thursday, September 17, 2009

Danny, the Champion of the World (or, a Dahl Day reprise)

Most people have a favourite Roald Dahl book, and I can’t say for sure if Danny, the Champion of the World is mine (I think I lean a little more toward the second half of Dahl's autobiography, Going Solo), but it is the book in his canon I return to most frequently.

Plot-wise, Danny, the Champion of the World is about a boy and his father who set out to outsmart the mean and ugly Mr. Victor Hazel (all of Dahl's villains are ugly,which is why I mention it). Victor Hazel is a wealthy man who owns all the land around the small filling station owned and operated by Danny’s father, which is also where the father and son live in a gypsy caravan underneath an apple tree (Danny’s mother died when he was very young). Victor Hazel is rude to Danny and his father and does a great deal to try and have their filling station shut down.

Naturally, neither Danny nor his father can stomach this, so they set about to revenge themselves on Victor Hazel (who is absolutely a full-name kind of character). Because this is a children’s story, the revenge is not based on violence, but on cunning. After Danny gets over the shock of learning that his beloved father is secretly a pheasant poacher, the two of them decide to poach all the pheasants in Victor Hazel’s wood the night before his annual pheasant hunt. Danny comes up with the poaching method, which involves plumping up raisins in water (all pheasants love raisins) and then filling them with sleeping powder so the pheasants will drop, sound asleep, out of the trees after flying up to roost and then be easy to collect.

The plan, of course, works brilliantly (with some fun, which I won’t give away because that would be cheating) and Danny is hailed as the Champion of the World in poaching.

So, what is it about this book that brings me back to it time and time again? Well, I do love a good caper, and this book certainly delivers on that front. I also very much enjoy the fun Dahl brings to language. But the real reason is that I love the portrayal of Danny and his father. Their relationship is so lovely and Danny’s father is one of the few adult characters Dahl has created that he treats with great respect and admiration.

It sounds silly (and was not something I noticed so much as a kid), but every time I reread Danny, the Champion of the World I get all caught up in the sort of love story that Dahl tells of a father and son. It’s a quick read—so I can get my fix and move on—but it’s one that sort of fills up my heart in a way.

Also, I just love the way the poaching scene looks in my head. I can just hear the pheasants plopping out of the trees and picture Danny scurrying around to scoop them all up. And that is something else that runs throughout Danny, the Champion of the World: the way Dahl wrote this book makes it entirely envisionable, a characteristic that makes you feel like you’re part of the daring escapade, and sometimes like you’re part of those lovely moments between a father and son.

Danny, the Champion of the World
By Roald Dahl
First Published in 1977

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