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Review: Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, Donald Sturrock

storyteller roald dahlRoald Dahl wrote some of my favorite childhood books. I’ll never forget James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, or any of the other amazing books that he wrote for children, and I fully intend to share them with my own children someday. But a couple of the ones I found most interesting were the memoirs he wrote about himself, Boy and Going Solo. I was naturally very eager to learn more about his life, and Sturrock’s biography was a brilliant choice for doing exactly that.

Charting Roald’s life, from his immediate ancestry to his death, Sturrock does an amazing job communicating what sort of man Dahl was. He doesn’t shy away from some of the more difficult aspects of his life, or the way that he manipulated his own past when it suited him – mainly, it becomes clear that Dahl was a storyteller in all respects, and if he thought he could make his life more interesting by telling tales about it, he was happy to do so. While I wasn’t thrilled to discover that both Boy and Going Solo had a large degree of fictionalization, I was still eager to discover the actual, documented truth, and indeed there is a considerable amount of that here thanks to archives, research, and interviews consulted and conducted by Sturrock. Sturrock had also met Dahl before his passing, and so shares personal knowledge of him with us.

There is so much here that I’d never really guessed at it; I knew he’d written darker stories for adults, but I had never really known about his many love affairs, the true misery of his childhood, the losses he suffered in his own life both as a child and an adult, nor his crotchety and sometimes difficult personality. Sturrock liberally quotes from the author’s letters and documents, and I felt like I was genuinely getting to know him and connect him with the author I knew. His writing style is distinctive, and the picture Sturrock tells is cohesive. It’s in no way idealized; it makes him into a fully rounded person, which I think is the best possible result of a biography such as this one. Sturrock is equally praising of the author’s merits, especially his unflagging commitment to children’s literature and charitable work, as he is critical of other aspects of his life.

Naturally, I also found the circumstances around Dahl’s life to be fascinating. An attendee at a British boarding school, a pilot during World War II, and then an up-and-coming writer with a Hollywood star as his wife, Dahl lived through a considerable amount of exciting twentieth century history. I enjoyed Sturrock’s distillation of the facts and the way he built the background around Dahl’s life; it helped ground me and made the rest of the book wonderful reading.

A detailed and intensely appealing biography about one of the world’s best known children’s writers, Storyteller is worthy of a place in the library of any Roald Dahl fan.

Keep on reading!:

  1. April 2012 Reading Wrap-Up
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7 comments to Review: Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, Donald Sturrock

  • I’ve had my eye on this for a while… it’s great to hear it’s every bit as interesting as I hoped!

  • I’ve heard he had quite a fascinating life. This sounds like a book I’d enjoy.

  • I would love to read this, as I think it gives a great picture of what Dahl’s life was like, not only the background on the stories he wrote. I loved your review, and can totally see your enthusiasm for the book in your analysis, which I love. Enthusiasm in reviews will sell me faster than a well written summary every time. Great job today. I will be looking for this one!

  • I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while. I’ve read Jeremy Treglown’s biography and remember coming away with the impression that Dahl wasn’t the nicest of people – I wonder if he is portrayed differently in this book?

    I’m a primary school teacher and I LOVE reading Dahl books to my classes, they always adore them. We’re halfway through The BFG at the moment :)

  • I too have been eyeing this book for a bit. I actually just got the time to read Vol. 1 of Mark Twain, then got swept back into the responsibilities of a busy life. I’d love to get some time and jump into this one next. Charlie is like my own generation’s Huck Finn.

  • I have this and started it when it came out, but for some reason I couldn’t get into it when I started it. I assume it was probably a mood at the time. I keep looking at it, though, and really must pick it back up. I am glad it is good!

  • I never read that much Dahl as a kid. I did read The Witches but only because I liked the movie (the book is better). It sounds like he lived an interesting life! The only thing I know about him is one of his grade school teachers said he was an awful writer. The fact that he continued writing after that is proof that he was pretty tough.

    Speaking of crotchety writers, have you seen Stephen Colbert’s interview with Maurice Sendak? Hilarious!