book review: Storyteller, the Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock

the fabulous story of a fantastic storyteller

I grew up hearing and reading the stories of Roald Dahl. From the novel Charlie & the Chocolate Factory to the short story The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar to the memoir Boy. I loved them all!

In this wonderful and compelling biography, Donald Sturrock rises to the challenge of writing a biography almost as interesting as the stories of its subject. Dahl apparently found biographies boring. “Why on earth would anyone choose to read an assemblage of detail, a catalogue of facts, when there was so much good fiction around as an alternative?” (p6). I loved many elements of this book; among my favorites are the following:

  1. While Sturrock is clearly a friendly biographer, he paints no picture of a saint, demonstrating how much previous biographical work on Dahl is rose-colored, how Dahl was mercurial – by turns generous and kind and then rude and judgmental, sometimes (later in life) making unfortunate public statements.
  2. Dahl was a storyteller through and through: many stories from his own memoirs was fictionalized. “I don’t lie. I merely make the truth a little more interesting…” (p4)
  3. In the wake of a tragic accident that left Dahl and Patricial Neal’s son Theo with serious head wounds, Dahl teamed up with a craftsman to develop a special valve that would drain excess fluid from the head which was effective and very cheap (as a result of neither inventor gaining from it), the valve “was used successfully on almost three thousand children around the world” (p392). Likewise, after his wife Patricia Neal suffered a serious stroke, Dahl took an intensive rehabilitation approach which led to a very rapid recovery and return to acting for Neal, ultimately “revolutioniz[ing] treatment for future stroke victims” (p444).
  4. Hearing how long Dahl struggled to achieve professional success is inspiring.

But without doubt my favorite part was the story of the stories:

  1. How Dahl’s agent, for years, encouraged him to try children’s fiction;
  2. How James & the Giant Peach came to be the first children’s book;
  3. How Charlie and the Chocolate Factory evolved dramatically in plot;
  4. Tidbits such as how the NAACP forced the change of the name of the first chocolate factory movie to “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (because they thought the book was racist and didn’t want the movie to support book sales), and how Dahl disliked the original movie: He preferred Peter Sellers for the role over the chosen Gene Wilder, who he found “pretentious” and “insufficiently gay [in the old-fashioned
    sense of the word] and bouncy” (p513).

I just loved this book. It is well written, easy to read, and meticulously documented. I’m glad to have it in my library.

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