Warning: This review contains a small spoiler for the end of the book.
September 13th was Roald Dahl day, a yearly celebration of the author’s work that takes place on his birthday. As a kid, I grew up watching James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka, and Matilda. I especially liked the later, since the main character was as obsessed about books as me. I remember my teachers reading the novels these three movies are based on outloud to the class, but that’s where my exposure to Dahl stopped. Since my social media feeds were blowing up last week with Roald Dahl quotes, I decided to give another one of his novels a try.
The Witches has all the things you come to expect from Dahl: child main character, bad guys (or gals, in this case), gross humor, and little touches of sweetness and wisdom stirred into the mix. The story follows Lucas, a young child who lives with his grandmother, an expert on witches. She imparts what she knows about the subject to him, namely all the physical ways to identify a witch and that their main goal is to kill children. One day, he encounters a group of witches, including the High Witch, and has the opportunity to get rid of them…if he’s brave and smart enough.
Dahl’s writing reminds me of JK Rowling and other great children’s authors. The prose moves along quickly and smoothly and keeps you entertained. While there are poinent things said about people committing evil actions, teamwork, and the power of having a loving family, The Witches does not appear to have a hidden meaning. Dahl trusted children to be smart enough to understand the points he was making outright and didn’t try to spoon feed them a sappy “moral”.
The witches in the book are violent creatures, and their intentions are presented outright. Though they use silly sounding words like “squelching” to describe what they want to do with children, Lucas states outright at one point that they are plotting to kill him. In this children’s novel, violence is depicted an aspect of the world and not hidden or downplayed. Nor are the evil things done by the witches magically reversed at the end of the story. However, through the character of Lucas’s grandmother (a badass cigar smoking grandmother, by the way) Dahl also shows that compassion and love are also present in the world. Lucas’s grandmother says several times throughout the story that she loves her grandson, no matter what he looks like. When bad things happen to him and he is afraid, Lucas draws strength from the fact that he knows his grandmother loves him. The importance of communicating unconditional love to children was not lost on this adult reader.
The story ends with the knowledge that while some of the witches were killed by Lucas’s actions, other witches still exist in the world. Lucas and his grandmother make plans to continue fighting them, driving home the point that removing evil is a slow and continuous process, but one we must keep working towards. Not a bad thing to meditate on in 2018.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. That being said, several parts felt a little dated (it was written in the 80s) and problematic. Dahl states early on in the story that not all women are bad, but Witches are always women. The importance placed on gender (and a gender of only two sides at that) just feels odd today. More disturbing, there are several references made to women with bald heads (one of the indicators that a woman is a witch) as being unnatural and offensive. What about women undergoing chemo? What about women from cultures where it’s more common to shave their head? What about women who just…want to shave their heads? Without saying it, the novel paints the picture of women who meet traditional society standards of appearance as being “normal” or “ok” and women falling outside of this as being suspect of wanting to do harmful things. The rest of the novel was wonderful. I could have done without this part. I don’t think the novel would have suffered with the exclusion of them.
That being said, would I let a child read this? I’d probably recommend another book with the same themes first. If the child still wanted to read the book, I’d let them, and then have a conversation about the problematic aspects afterwards. If they are capable of understanding this book, they are capable of understanding that conversation as well.
Happy late Roald Dahl Day!