"The Witches"

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Writing about The BFG the other day, I was shocked to realize that I hadn't yet taken a look at Roald Dahl's work.  Surely no other author tapped so well into a child's complex psyche-- he gave us the terrifying thrills we craved, the naughty humor we guiltily loved, and he never talked down to us.

After I'd devoured all of Dahl's books in the "Juvenile" section of the library, I remember eagerly moving on to his other titles-- the ones way over in the "Adult" section.  They didn't have Quentin Blake's illustrations, but they did have a man who had his skin flayed for his tattoo, a woman bludgeoning her husband to death with a leg of lamb, and a compulsive gambler who chops off people's fingers.  Such wonderful, twisted stuff!  I imagined that all those "adult bookstores" I saw signs for downtown must have shelves full of similar stories.

For some reason, just the label "Adult" had prepared me to expect the morbid twists and turns in those books, but the same Hitchcokian plot devices absolutely shocked me in Dahl's fare intended for children.  The one that most stuck with me was from the end of The Witches.  The hero, a little boy, gets turned into a mouse and doesn't ever get turned back!  Then Dahl goes for another turn of the screw--the boy asks his grandmother how long a mouse can expect to live.

‘A mouse-person will almost certainly live for three times as long as an ordinary mouse,’ my grandmother said.  ‘About nine years.’
‘Good!’ I cried. ‘That's great! It's the best news I've ever had!’
‘Why do you say that?’ she asked, surprised.
‘Because I would never want to live longer than you,’ I said. ‘I couldn't stand being looked after by anybody else.’
There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger. It felt lovely.
‘How old are you, Grandmamma?’ I asked.
‘I'm eighty-six,’ she said.
‘Will you live another eight or nine years?’
‘I might,’ she said. ‘With a bit of luck.’
‘You've got to,’ I said. ‘Because by then I'll be a very old mouse and you'll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we'll both die together.’

Yes, this is "the best news [he's] ever had!"--the fact that he will only live another eight or nine years, that he will remain a mouse, and that he will die in tandem with his aged grandmother.  Way to dream big, kid.

Now, I realize that if this plot were to be found on the shelves of an "adult bookstore," it would only appeal to a very, very, very specialized kind of audience-- folks more twisted than even Dahl's tales.

Lesson learned:
Did you know that the heart of a mouse beats at the rate of five hundred times a minute?

Dahl, Roald.  The Witches.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.
Buy The Witches

Doggone it.

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I grew up convinced that I was totally deprived because I didn't have a dog.

At one point, I even came up with a half-baked plan to play with a lit firecracker so I could get blinded just enough to merit a super-smart seeing-eye dog like in Follow My Leader.  (Eventually, I realized that I might also miss seeing, so I tabled that plan until I could think of something less permanently disfiguring.)

In fairness, I should mention that my family actually did have a dog.  But Choo-choo was sixteen years old, blind with cataracts, and pretty much just liked to sleep.  Sure, she was gentle, tolerant, obedient--but what did that matter when she was old and couldn't do any cool tricks?

She weighed about twelve pounds, so I couldn't ride her like Belle from "Belle and Sebastian," or  Falcor from The Neverending Story.

She couldn't talk, like Poochie, or Cooler from "Pound Puppies."

She wasn't a scrappy ragamuffin from the streets, like Boomer, or Benji, or Sandy from Annie.

She lacked heroism.  She was never going to save me from imminent danger, like Chips the War Dog or the wolf-dog from The Journey of Natty Gann.

She also was not an alien.  There went my "Fluppy Dogs" theory.

After reading Julie of the Wolves like a how-to guide then coming home to watch "Lassie" reruns on Nickelodeon in the afternoon, I was pretty convinced I would be an awesome dog trainer.  "Lie down, Choo-choo!" I would say.  (She would remain prostrate on the couch.)  "Good dog.  Now beg!" (She would open one cloudy eye, if I was lucky.)  "Okay then, drool, Choo-choo, drool!"  (This she would do with utter abandon.)  "Good girl."

Why did the '80s have so much dog-centric programming?  Was it to ensure against a new generation of Cat People?  Was it to make the allergic kids feel even more unloved?  Or was it just to put us off guard, so that when we were all subjected to Sounder, and Shiloh, and Where the Red Fern Grows in middle school, we would all feel appropriately devastated?

Lesson learned:
Of course, when your dog goes all Old Yeller on you and dies, you could always revive him, per Frankenweenie.



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By popular demand, I'm addressing the timeless children's classic Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman, author of the similarly-themed Slovenly Betsy.  I somehow was lucky enough to miss out on being subjected to these tales as a child, but it sounds like if you were, you never forgot them. 

The most infamous story in the collection has to be "Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher," or, in English, "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb."  The story is presumably intended to dissuade children from sucking their thumbs.

There is a way to humorously cure children of nasty habits, but I don't think Hoffmann's story is it.  I remember whooping with laughter as a kid at Shel Silverstein's poem "Warning," which reads:

Inside everybody's nose
There lives a sharp-toothed snail.
So if you stick your finger in,
He may bite off your nail.
Stick it farther up inside,
And he may bite your ring off.
Stick it all the way, and he
May bite the whole darn thing off.

See?  Direct and to the point, but hilariously absurd.  Roald Dahl's The BFG teaches a fine lesson about burping in a similar fun fashion-- the BFG advises Sophie that burping is "flithsome," so "us giants is never doing it."  As a kid, the BFG seems completely awesome, so if he says burping is taboo, you believe him.  (Of course, whizzpopping is another matter entirely, a bodily function to be celebrated, even, so you should feel free to fire a whizzpop at will.)

But now we must get back to "Little Suck-a-Thumb" to see how Hoffmann's parable plays out.  Mother warns Conrad not to suck his thumb while she's gone because:

"The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he's about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off—and then,
You know, they never grow again."

Why a tailor should care about thumb-sucking I have no idea.  A manicurist I could understand, but a tailor?  Perhaps he specializes in constructing thumbless mittens.

Regardless, Conrad fails to heed his mother's warning and sure enough, the tailor barges into his house, and--"Snip! Snap! Snip!"--he cuts both of poor Conrad's thumbs off.  Thus are vanquished Conrad's future plans to effectively hitchhike, become a movie critic, or play Nintendo.

Lesson learned:
One must presume the tailor only punishes children with anatomical-oral fixations, since I imagine that with adults, the potential consequences might prove far more dire.

Hoffmann, Heinrich.  Struwwelpeter: Merry Tales and Funny Pictures.  1845.
Struwwelpeter: Or Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures