The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More
by Roald Dahl
This is a set of six stories, aimed at adults actually. Roald Dahl's grown-up stories are as excellent as his young-readers' ones. They often have a sense of irony that reminds me of O. Henry. Nevertheless, I found this book among others by Dahl in the children's section of Barnes & Noble, and I suppose you may find it there too.
One of these six stories is an autobiographical account called "Lucky Break: How I Became A Writer"--including yet another awful account of growing up in British boarding schools, of which I can't remember reading any story that wasn't revolting, brutal and sad. In this case one of the brutal headmasters was later the Archbishop of Canterbury who crowned Queen Elizabeth II, and who (according to Dahl) actually beat boys bloody in his schoolmaster days. Dahl goes on to recount his experiences in WWII as an RAF fighter pilot and how a chance meeting with C. S. Forester (author of the Horatio Hornblower stories) led him to write his first story, an account of all that he remembers of the time he was shot down over Africa. Forester actually wanted Dahl to give him the details of the story so Forester himself could write it for the Saturday Evening Post, but he was so staggered by what Dahl wrote that he submitted it unchanged & sent a check to Dahl along with a letter telling him (to Dahl's surprise) that he was a gifted writer.
It's a very interesting account, and it concludes with the first story that Dahl wrote, "A Piece of Cake," vintage 1942, which starts out like a fighter pilot adventure but turns out mostly to consist of a series of hallucinations Dahl suffered after having his skull cracked open and suffering burns in a fiery plane crash. Dahl also claims to have invented the term "gremlins" in a children's story that Disney started to make into an animated movie, then left unfinished. The story was published with illustrations from the aborted Disney cartoon and became such a hit that the concept of "gremlins" causing damage to Allied fighters and bombers went into military aviation folklore. My favorite animated cartoon of all time dates from WWII and is a Bugs Bunny short about gremlins. (Best moment: after a long and intense sequence in which it seems Bugs' plane is going to crash, the machine stops dead about 2 feet off the ground and Bugs exclaims, "What do you know! Ran out of gas!") I wonder how closely that story is related to the Disney movie that never happened?
Also in the book are a handful of stories which Dahl narrates from the point of view of a professional writer either eye-witnessing the events in the story or being given the material to write a true account after the fact: "The Boy Who Talked with Animals," "The Hitchhiker," and "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar." Actually Dahl reveals in his autobiographical account that these, like almost everything he wrote, were pure fiction developed from two-or-three-sentence ideas he scribbled in an old notebook. (He lets you see the ideas as he originally wrote them, also for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox"). A fourth story, "The Mildenhall Treasure," actually is non-fiction, the only non-fiction Dahl ever wrote other than that first story. And the other story in the book, "The Swan," makes no pretence of being anything but fiction. Nevertheless he does such an amazing job creating scenes that come alive in your mind's eye, that you can nearly believe that these fantastic tales are true.
In "The Boy Who Talked With Animals," the writer/narrator is vacationing in Jamaica when he sees a disturbance on the beach. A crowd of people is watching a group of fishermen drag an enormous, ancient turtle out of the sea, up toward the hotel, where it is to become steaks and soup for the hotel guests and its polished shell will be sold at a high price. Along comes a little boy named David who loves animals, and who becomes hysterical at the sight of this cruelty. He eventually prevails on his father to buy the turtle and have it set free. The next day another disturbance happens: David has disappeared. The only clue of what happened to him for years afterward is a few sightings of a boy riding a turtle's back...
In "The Hitchhiker," the author/narrator is driving his fancy BMW convertible to London when he picks up a man who first boasts, then later proves himself, to be a world-class pickpocket. Or rather, "fingersmith," which is infinitely more than a pickpocket, a truly amazing and ingenious fellow.
In "The Mildenhall Treasure," a man who makes a living plowing other men's fields, accidentally discovers the greatest buried treasure ever found in the history of England. He doesn't know that this discovery could make him a millionaire, under the laws of the land... nor does he know that another man's greed will prevent that from happening.
In "The Swan," which takes place near a small English town, two young hooligans fiddling around with a rifle decide to terrorize and torment a smaller, weaker, smarter boy named Peter Watson. Poor Peter is unable to resist because he doesn't know what these vicious armed boys might do, and he fears that if he stands up to them it will only go worse for him. But his courage prevails in the end, when it comes to a matter of life or death, after atrocity upon atrocity has driven him to the point of desperation. It is, at its climax, a depiction of the inner strength some people display when they're pushed to the edge and beyond. It is also, throughout its length, a depiction of the monstrous evil inside even the youngest people that, once a person commits himself to it, he can only carry it forward and may not even think of turning back. For instance, Peter is tied to a railroad track and forced to find a way to survive being run over by a train. That's just the first thing they do to him; it gets worse from there!
In "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar," a rich idle playboy discovers a manuscript account of how an Indian yogi learned to see without his eyes. Henry Sugar realizes that if he follows the yogi's procedure, with effort and time he could learn to see through playing cards and make a fortune at casinos. So for three years he trains himself, through intense concentration, to see what's on the other side of a playing card. Then he goes out and strikes it rich at a casino, and realizes that his years of meditation have changed more than his sense of sight. The money no longer matters to him. An interesting chain of events follows by which Henry Sugar discovers his new mission in life...
All of these are rich, wonderful stories, or at least well-developed snapshots of life with an interesting twist. I suppose when you get down to it, the first two stories are more like ideas for a story that never happens. But they're that much more realistic for it, I think. They're like what happens in real life, that become the basis for a more developed story when a fiction writer sits down to work on the material. "The Boy Who Talked To Animals" could have been an adventure of a Dr. Doolittle type child living it up around the world without parents, going native with nobody for company but the animals who love him. But that's been done. What hasn't been done before, is the idea that such a child existed in the real world and a real live writer had a weird brush with him on a Jamaican beach. "The Hitchhiker" could have been a novel about the career of a fingersmith, which I'm sure would be entertaining, but the short story gives you all you really need to know and grabs you with the idea that such a person really exists. And who knows, you may see him hitchhiking along a highway near you. The "Mildenhall Treasure" could have been a more dramatic tale of betrayal and justice, but instead it has the fascination of being an extraordinary true story that happened to a very ordinary man. And "Henry Sugar" actually makes reference to one of the characters in it planning to write a novel on the subject, partly in explanation for why certain details are left out. But the one story in this collection that is simply a perfect, self-standing, fully-developed work of fiction is "The Swan," which gives you a suspenseful and moving glimpse into the goodness and courage some boys have inside them, and the ugly cowardice at the heart of others.
Recommended Age: 12+
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