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Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl

by Donald Sturrock

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Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
© Simon and Schuster
Simon and Schuster, December 2010

It's no small feat to write about such a complex person as Roald Dahl - and Storyteller is no small book. Weighing in at 2.5 pounds and 660 pages, this fascinating authorized biography is worth every word. Roald Dahl was a larger-than-life person, and Donald Sturrock writes about him with a sure hand. It's hard to be objective about someone who was widely considered both blunt to the point of rudeness and as fanciful and unguarded as a child, but Sturrock achieves it. Just when the reader is beginning to think Dahl is unpleasantly stubborn and pompous, some delightful bit of his writing or a kind act tips the balance again. The choices that Sturrock makes as a biographer help us see the full range of a man who often found the adult world confining.

As a young man, Dahl worked for Shell Oil and spent a year in East Africa. Then he made the fateful decision to join the British RAF. He was a natural flyer and loved the adventure of swooping all alone in the tiny cockpit. However, during Dahl's first sortie into a field of war, he missed the coordinates for his destination and had to make a forced landing. The plane hit a boulder and Dahl was smashed into the front of the canopy, his skull fractured. A fellow pilot stayed with him all night, and he recovered, but suffered long-term physical effects. Dahl spent the rest of his life wishing he were flying.
Roald Dahl's writing career was, like the rest of his life, tempestuous. His first story, which he wrote during his job as a British diplomat to the United States, began as "Gremlin Lore" and interested Walt Disney. He began writing screenplays, drawing on his RAF experiences. Meanwhile, he was tapped as a British spy. A book of short stories went badly and he gave up for a while. In New York, he dated celebrities, including Patricia Neal. They got married quickly, moved to England, and had five children together. But catastrophe occurred. Their son Theo was badly injured when his pram was hit by a taxi. Then Dahl's favorite daughter, Olivia, died at age seven from the measles. Two years later, Pat had a stroke, but she was eventually able to return to acting. However, their long-strained marriage was further stressed when Roald fell in love with another woman and began an affair. The Dahls' marriage ended after almost thirty years. Roald and Liccy married and the rest of his life was dedicated to writing.

And what a writing career it was! Sturrock expertly weaves the stories of Dahl's masterpieces into the fabric of his life. Readers will love hearing about everything from Charlie's Chocolate Boy to the final book, Matilda. Dahl's devotion to plucky children who excel in a macabre world of absent parental figures is more than hinted at in his early reading list. His reading led to his writing, which was a window into his personality.
Sturrock compares Dahl to one of his characters, the beloved Willy Wonka: "He was capricious, entertaining, and brilliant. He was an adult, but one with the sensibilities of a child. He was devoid of sentimentality. He was funny. He was private. He was elusive. And he had a dark side... On the surface he could seem aloof, but underneath he had a kind heart." It meant the world to Dahl, as he neared death, to know that through storytelling he had touched the interior worlds of millions of children.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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