Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) is an autobiographical book by British writer Roald Dahl. This book describes his life from birth until leaving school, focusing on living conditions in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, the public school system at the time, and how his childhood experiences led him to writing as a career. It ends with his first job, working for Royal Dutch Shell. His autobiography continues in the book Going Solo. An expanded edition titled More About Boy was published in 2008, featuring the full original text and illustrations with additional stories, letters, and photographs.
|Followed by||Going Solo|
Key points in the story
Roald Dahl's father Harald Dahl and mother Sofie Hesselberg were Norwegians who lived in Cardiff, Wales. Harald and his brother Oscar split up and went their separate ways, Oscar going to La Rochelle, while Harald had lost an arm from complications after fracturing it. A doctor was summoned, but was drunk on arrival and mistook the injury for a dislocated shoulder. His attempt to relocate the shoulder caused further damage to the fractured arm, necessitating an amputation. According to Dahl, his only serious problem was not being able to cut the top off a boiled egg.
Harald Dahl had two children by his first wife, Marie, who died shortly after the birth of their second child. He then married Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg, Roald's mother. Harald was considerably older than Sofie; he was born in 1863 and she was born in 1885. By the time Roald Dahl was born in 1916, his father was 53 years old.
When Roald was 3, his 7 year old sister Astri died of an infection from a burst appendix. Only weeks later, Roald's father died of pneumonia. As the narrator of the book, Dahl suggests his father died of grief from the loss of his daughter. Roald's mother was forced to choose between moving the family to Norway with her relatives or relocating to a smaller house in Wales to continue the children's education in the United Kingdom, and ended up choosing the latter which is what her late husband had wanted.
Roald Dahl started at the Elm Tree House Primary School in Cardiff when he was 6 years old. He was there for a year, but has few memories of his time there because of how long ago it was.
Roald writes about different confectionery, his love of sweets, his fascination with the local sweet shop, and in particular, about the free samples of Cadbury chocolate bars given to him and his schoolmates when he was a pupil at Repton School. Young Dahl dreamt of working as an inventor for Cadbury, an idea he said later inspired Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Some of the sweets sold at Mrs Pratchett's sweet shop were lemon sherbets, pear drops, and liquorice boot laces.
Great mouse plot of 1924
From the age of eight, Dahl attended Llandaff Cathedral School in Cardiff. He and his friends had a grudge against the local sweet-shop owner, Mrs Pratchett, a sour, elderly widow who gave no thought to hygiene (and described by Dahl's biographer, Donald Sturrock, as "a comic distillation of the two witchlike sisters who, it seems, ran the shop in real life"). They played a prank on her by placing a dead mouse in a gobstopper jar while his friend Thwaites distracted her by buying sweets. They were caned by the headmaster as a punishment.
Mrs Pratchett, who attended the canings, was not satisfied after the first stroke was delivered and insisted the headmaster should cane much harder which he did: six of the hardest strokes he could muster while Mrs Pratchett beamed with great delight as each boy suffered his punishment.
St Peter's School, Weston-super-Mare
Dahl attended St Peter's School, a boarding school in Weston-super-Mare from 1925, when he was nine, to 1929, when he was twelve. He describes having received six strokes of the cane after being accused of cheating at his classwork. In the essay about the life of a penny, he claims that he still has the essay and that he had been doing well until the nib of his pen broke—fountain pens were not accepted. He had to ask his classmate for another one when Captain Hardcastle heard him and accused him of cheating, issuing him with a "stripe", meaning that the next morning he received six strokes of the cane from the headmaster, who refused to believe Dahl's version of events on the basis of Captain Hardcastle's status. Many of the events he describes involved the matron. She once sprinkled soap shavings into Tweedie's mouth to stop his snoring. She also sent a six-year-old boy, who had allegedly thrown a sponge across the dormitory, to the headmaster. Still in his pyjamas and dressing gown, the little boy then received six strokes of the cane. Wragg, a boy in Dahl's dormitory, sprinkled sugar over the corridor floor so they could hear that the matron was coming when she walked upon it. When the boy's friends refused to turn him in, the whole school was punished by the headmaster who confiscated the keys to their tuck boxes containing food parcels which the pupils had received from their families. In the end, he returns home to his family for Christmas.
Repton and Shell Oil Company
After St Peter's, Roald's mother entered him for either Marlborough or Repton, but he chose Repton because it was easier to pronounce. Dahl soon realised that Marlborough may have been a better choice, as life at Repton was difficult and cruel. The prefects, named Boazers as per school tradition, were utmost sadists and patrolled the school like secret police. The headmaster treated students similarly, and Dahl describes an occasion when his friend received several brutal strokes of the cane from the headmaster as punishment for misbehaviour. According to Dahl, this headmaster was Geoffrey Francis Fisher, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London in 1939. However, according to Dahl's biographer, Jeremy Treglown, Dahl's memory was in error: the beating took place in May 1933, a year after Fisher had left Repton. The headmaster concerned was in fact John Traill Christie, Fisher's successor.
Despite his difficulties at school, Dahl did make friends with the Maths professor and a boy named Michael. Even one of the Boazers, Wilberforce, took a liking to Dahl. Despite it being punishment for Dahl's tardiness, Wilberforce was impressed by how Dahl warmed his lavatory seat that he hired him as his personal lavatory warmer. Dahl also excelled in sports and photography, something he says impressed various masters at the school.
After school, Dahl worked for Shell, despite the headmaster trying to dissuade him because of his lack of responsibility. Dahl was nonetheless entered into the business and toured Britain in the job. He became a businessman in London and was content. However, he took a trip across Newfoundland with some other boys and a man who had travelled to Antarctica with Scott; Dahl describes Newfoundland as "not much of a country". He was then assigned to go to Africa, but declined Egypt because it was "too dusty". The manager instead selected Dahl for East Africa, delighting him. The book ends with Dahl setting off to Africa, unknowing of the ascension of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany, a man who would soon split the world in two.
- Sturrock, Donald (2010). Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4165-5082-2.
- Treglown, Jeremy (1994). Roald Dahl: a Biography. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-16573-5.