BAD ADULTS, REAL BUGS and Roald Dahl’s Peach

One of my oldest and dearest friends recently welcomed two new children into her family: five and six year-old sisters who came through a state foster care system. If all goes according to plan, they will be fully adopted within the next two months.

The whole brood (my friend, her 12 year-old step-daughter, her husband and the two girls) recently spent five days with us in central Pennsylvania, en route to New York City  (the girls’ first trip out of their home state, and their first time on an airplane too). While here, my friend read the girls Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.

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(a Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition that my mother read aloud to me)

Intentionally or not, the book offered a way for them to begin to imagine that great metropolis where their trip would end, and by the time they left us plans were in the works for a visit to the Empire State Building (I also suggested they try to visit the peach pit sculpture in Central Park. Whoops! The aging brain at work again: there is apparently no such thing. But really. If Hans Christian Andersen gets a bench, and Alice gathers her crew around a cluster of big, bronze mushrooms, why not a habitable peach pit?) alice-in-wonderland

The girls’ paths so far, as one would expect, have carried them through complex territories, inhabited by adults whose impact – good and bad — they will be making sense of for the rest of their lives. I couldn’t help wonder, after they left, about what sense they made of the parent-less James, and of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spike, those vile old child-hating aunts.

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(I blame this Burkert illustration for my mistaken belief in the Central Park Peach Pit)

Most Dahl grown-ups are either all good or all bad — like characters in fairy tales. In Dahl’s stories though, the good and the evil live much closer to the here-and-now than the fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers of days gone by.

In James, Dahl’s first book for children, there are only bad grown-ups (save for James’ parents who we know only in their absence). Spike and Sponge dominate the first portion of the book, and even the barely-present little guy who gives James the bag of green wigglies is a bit of a creep.

But, there are good bugs. Centipede, Grasshopper, Ladybug, Silkworm, Earthworm, Glow-worm and Spider are full of idiosyncracies and foibles but, at the end of the day, all win sympathy. Dahl seems to be freed up by this cast of critters — by the fact that they are not human — and he ironically grants them much more humanity than his good and bad human adults. The Peach’s oversized inhabitants are so much more nuanced than, say, Matilda’s father, or Miss Honey, or even Charlie’s lovely grandfather.

For my friend’s two new daughters — and for their whole family — the journey is not, right now, about finding a prince or slaying a dragon or freeing a trapped unicorn. It is about growing trust and about forging connection and about becoming part of a forever family. And I love the idea of their discovering one roadmap for this quest in an improbable story about a boy working his way into a quirky new family of giant, mismatched bugs in the belly of a juicy, oversized fruit — floating across an unimaginably vast Ocean through a world of Cloud-Men, rainbows, seagulls and sharks.

6 comments

    1. Thanks! My friend arrived with a newer edition from her local library and they switched over to mine, which happened to be on hand, part way through because she found the illustrations so much more compelling. Some of their power has to do with James’s intensity. He is gaunt and has rings under his eyes: clearly he is suffering. I remember finding him disturbing as a child… Anyway, it was fun to go back to my old copy, and to hear the girls reacting to the story.

  1. We spent our vacation (re)reading a collection of Dahl short stories. Have you read The Swan? That one’s about bad kids, and it’s powerfully sad in a tragic, fairy-tale way. It sent my son into a funk. Fortunately, he perked up after reading Dahl’s essay on becoming a writer — the best story of them all! Congratulations to your friend and her newly enlarged family!

  2. Was the collection for kids or for adults? Title? Atypical beach reading, but I would expect nothing other!
    I used to have this great book of his stories for adults that I bought at The Strand in NYC a million years ago (just thinking about that place gets me misty-eyed…). “Lamb to the Slaughter” was one that stuck with me: a woman is being questioned about the death of her husband (?) via blunt force trauma. No weapon to be found — but all the while she is roasting a big old leg of lamb. And there was another about this guy who invents a machine that can hear plants “voices” — esp. their expressions of pain (I ivdlt remember the chorus of cries he detects as he walks across a lawn). He messes around to see what sounds he can conjure up and ends up getting killed when a tree falls on him, if I remember correctly…
    Cheery stuff — sci-fi-twist-ish…

    1. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More is the name of the collection; it’s for kids, but not overly sensitive ones, ha. I haven’t read any of his adult stories — not sure I’m ready!

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