Roald Dahl was one of the authors who dominated my childhood reading which makes sense as he is one of the most celebrated children’s authors of the 20th century. I spent a lot of time deep in a few of his books, seeing bits of myself in his protagonists. But this is my goodbye to him. Dahl was an unrepentant bigot. He was profoundly anti-Semitic, perpetuating harmful tropes and falsehoods for years in his public statements and books. Dahl is also easily read as a misogynistic writer, in large part due to the openly misogynistic theme of The Witches. in this book women are demonized for dressing up, feminizing their appearances, and framed as monsters lurking inside seemingly sweet and complacent disguises. Its lurking right in the book’s blurb: This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies.
So why read this then? Read Harder has a task this year to read an award-winning book from the year you were born and The Witches won the Whitbread Award for Children’s Novel in 1983. The award is now known as the Costa Book Awards and are a set of annual literary awards recognizing English-language books by writers based in Britain and Ireland. The awards are more populist than some of the other major awards, being awarded for both for high literary merit but also for works that are enjoyable reading and whose aim is to convey the enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience. The awards are separated into six categories: Biography, Children’s Books, First Novel, Novel, Poetry, and Short Story.
The award makes sense to me, in retrospect. The Witches is less about the plot than it is about a feeling: it features Dahl’s signature sense of things being terribly messy, unnatural, and unjust. Dahl has long fallen into the classic tradition of British children’s literature, showing the world as a cold place in which wonderful things like magic and human kindness are rare gems. Dahl’s stories depend upon their hyperbolic portraits of how people live for their fanciful appeal and their ability to speak directly to young children as I had felt spoken to thirty years ago.