Many parents would not like their children to have access to this book (some of them to any book by Roald Dahl). However, I am irrationally and irresistibly attracted to his books, and my children adore them too. I have not found ways to fully rationalise the attraction, and I would not like to justify them on moral grounds as I feel I am not up to the task.
Here is a very short plot summary that will give you an idea why I wrote the previous paragraph: Danny’s father is a poacher (not full-time, thank God!) who hunts pheasants raised for hunting in a local rich guy’s private forest. Danny reveals his father’s well-kept secret and takes part.Surely, reading the book will be objected on diverse grounds by diverse groups of parents.
You can guess that the book must be written is such a way so that it is tempting to read and share. Of course, it is! Just like all books by Roald Dahl. I believe that a great deal of their charm comes from the highly spirited characters and their desire to do what they believe is good and just, their ingenuity, resourcefulness, skills and strength.
Danny’s father is a loving parent (with an honest smile that shows not through his lips but through his eyes) who works hard in his car-repair workshop (that he built himself) and filling station, and despite the fact that he does not earn much and lives in a quaint gipsy wagon (without electricity), he provides the best childhood for his little son (of whom he takes care on his own as his wife died when Danny was just 4 months old) – tells him fascinating stories, builds and flies kites, etc. Danny truly loves and trusts his father.
Their property is alongside a small country road, surrounded by fields and woody hills. Before Danny reaches school age, he spends his days in the garage, helping his father, who is enthusiastic about his job and really competent in it. He is not a very educated man, but he believes that Danny needs good education, so he walks his son to school (in the next village) and then picks him up in the afternoon. They have to walk because they cannot afford a car. Their life is limited within the confines of the school – workshop – nearby fields and hills, but they are never bored as the father is such a sparkly person, always full of plans and the energy and skill to make them work.
Danny is nine years old when he discovers his father’s dark secret – the fact that his father is a poacher. Then he has to act as a real hero to rescue his father who went out hunting again on a dark night and was caught in a trap and severely wounded. Later Danny and his father make a plan to catch all the pheasants that a rich guy raises in his private forest in order to invite the wealthy, powerful and influential people from all over South England for an annual pheasant shoot and thus make fun of this arrogant person.
How could such a story be good for children? Doesn’t it promote irresponsible and even criminal behavior? Well, to tell you the truth, I do feel it is risky, but believe it is worth taking the risk – because it also has the potential to teach valuable lessons. All fine literature has this potential because it is written in such a captivating way, and it is so devoid of moralising.
What could be the moral we draw from it then? I believe reading this book is an excellent way to teach about complexity, controversy and nuance. Sooner or later children will face these realities, and they better be prepared for them. The most important lesson they can learn is that no matter how good, smart and fascinating a person might be, they are only human, and human means fallible, capable of making bad decisions that too often present themselves as good and nice. Seemingly just acts, for example, might in fact be the opposite, and too often, especially when they are exciting and employ our talents and zeal, we are incapable of seeing through them.
This is a book that might raise different questions in different families, and I believe wise parents will make the most of them – through thinking along with their children, discussing, sharing. It is also a book that makes a truly exciting read, so I would not be surprised if it is re-read many times.