My generation grew up on James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; later generations grew up on Matilda and The Big Friendly Giant. Somewhere in the middle is a forgotten book that is arguably Roald Dahl’s best: Danny the Champion of the World. It tells the story of a boy and his father who live in an old caravan and run a rural filling station and car repair. The father turns out to have a secret love of poaching, and Danny, after his initial shock, becomes an enthusiast too. To take revenge on the awful local land-owner, Danny comes up with an idea for poaching a whole forest full of pheasants in a single night.
One of the pleasures of the book is its well-structured plot (if we forgive that one chapter about Danny’s school), but more important is Danny’s relationship with his father. The father is not tempermentally suited to be a conventional parent, but he gives Danny everything he has of love, knowledge, and a sense of how to live a good life. He tells Danny stories every night, which emerge in a question-and-answer format between father and son, and shows him how to make tiny hot air balloons like floating paper lanterns in the dusk. He delays Danny’s start at school for two years, teaching him first how to take apart a small car engine and put it back together. One night when the father is late returning home from poaching, Danny goes to rescue him, making his way to the woods all alone in the middle of the night, eventually finding him trapped at the bottom of a pit with a broken leg. The father looks up at him and simply says, “Hello my marvelous darling.”
This episode of the rescue is quietly extraordinary. Danny, in the dead of night, takes a small car from the repair shop and drives it down the country road to the woods where his father is. Most authors wouldn’t realize it, but reading about a nine-year-old shifting a car into third gear, alone in the dark without an adult around for miles, makes gripping reading when you’re nine years old yourself. When I read it to my daughter she spent this rather long, uneventful passage mangling the bedcovers and squealing through clenched teeth. It’s the real toad in the imaginary garden.