Hello all! I’m a Cannonball Read newbie and this is my inaugural review. I am absolutely thrilled to be here!
Matilda was one of my very favorite books when I was in elementary school. As a smart little girl with a love of reading and my own particular and deep-seated sense of justice, I found it an immensely appealing fantasy. (Of course, I’m really nothing like Matilda: I enjoyed the attentions of loving parents, went to schools that challenged and supported me, and as far as I know I never exhibited any telekinetic powers. Also I cannot multiply large numbers in my head. C’est la vie.)
Well, my folks came to visit NYC over Christmas and we finagled tickets to the musical version of Matilda, which had won pretty much every theatrical award when it premiered in London. I loved the production and it inspired me to take a look back at the book.
So! Matilda follows the titular exceptional little girl as she overcomes a neglectful family and a psychotic headmistress. At 4 years old Matilda is already walking herself down to the library reading the classics with the guidance of Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, think this is folly of the highest order: “What’s wrong with the telly, for heaven’s sake? We’ve got a lovely telly with a twelve-inch screen and now you come asking for a book! You’re getting spoiled, my girl!” She is sent to school at Crunchem Hall, under the iron fist of Headmistress Trunchbull. Her only respite is her friendship with her teacher, Miss Honey. To preserve her sanity, she takes revenge on those who mistreat her. As Matilda’s powers grow, she faces off against the Trunchbull to finally give the headmistress what she deserves.
As in all his stories, Dahl spins a delightful world. Start with the names: Wormwood. Trunchbull. Crunchem Hall. What perfectly delicious words to roll around in your mouth, and they capture the essence of the characters and setting. The whole book is simply fun to read. Mr. Wormwood’s elaborate schemes to sell used cars are particularly enjoyable, and remind me of the poaching stories in Danny the Champion of the World.
Curiously, I think my favorite character in the book is Miss Trunchbull. Not that she’s a good person, no! But what a masterfully drawn villain. Forgive the long quote:
When she marched – Miss Trunchbull never walked, she always marched like a stormtrooper with long strides and arms aswinging – when she marched along a corridor you could actually hear her snorting as she went, and if a group of children happened to be in her path, she ploughed through them like a tank, with small people bouncing off her to left and right. Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in the world, although they do exist and all of us are bound to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush – climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away.
Miss Trunchbull, what are your thoughts on little girls?
I have discovered, Miss Honey, during my long career as a teacher that a bad girl is a far more dangerous creature than a bad boy. What’s more, they’re much harder to squash. Squashing a bad girl is like trying to squash a bluebottle. You bang down on it and the darn thing isn’t there. Nasty dirty things little girls are. Glad I never was one.
The Dahl estate should really consider publishing The Collected Wisdom of Agatha Trunchbull. Something in the vein of Sterling’s Gold. I would buy ten copies.
Dahl is a fabulist and the reality in his books is quite elastic. This is essential for a book like Matilda, which, if played straight, would be unbearably grim and horrific. (The Trunchbull seizes a little girl by her pigtails, lifts her off the ground, swings her around, and throws her like the hammer. Someone should probably call Children’s Services, no?) As it is, the humor and horror combine to create something like a really good ghost story – captivating and terrible enough to give you the shivers, but exaggerated enough that you can reassure yourself that it’s just a story.
The one minor drawback is that Matilda is written for a very young audience. Coming back to it as an adult, even with my fond memories of re-reading it every few months, it felt very thin. I could tell that I was no longer the intended reader, and I didn’t really need to hear any of the book’s messages. But gosh, reading this at 6 or 7? Brilliant! Parents, give this book to your children right now. (Maybe hide the superglue and peroxide first.) And young readers, listen to Mrs. Phelps: “Don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.” That’s excellent advice for readers of any age, actually.