Tuesday, February 19, 2013


This week, I read one of Roald Dahl's greatests (shamelessly pushing the boundaries of pluralization here), Matilda. When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was it. You bragged about how many of his books you read, you bought Matilda the day it came out (because RD was publishing new books into the 90s!), and if you had read Boy which was really an adult autobiography about his life as a kid, you were really hot sh!t. 
I was one of those kids that bought Matilda right away and read it with fervor as if it were 2005 and the book was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I remember being delighted with the same shock that I had with a lot of RD’s other books—I was shocked by the fact that almost all of the adults were all terrible human beings, the children were the wise, noble ones, and there was an alarming amount of violence and trickery going on between adults and kids. Roald Dahl's books all took place in sordid yet hilarious worlds where kids and kind people were always triumphant in the end. And since at the time I was both of those things, I would feel triumphant too. 

So let’s start at the beginning: Matilda Wormwood is a five year old girl who is a child prodigy. She teaches herself to read at the age of three! Side Bar: I wikipedia-ed "child prodigy" just for fun and Taylor Swift is formally listed as a child prodigy in the arts. Now, everyone knows I'm a Tay fan, even after the media has spun her into being this sort of terrifying stalker/maneater Amazon woman. And there is no doubt she was a talented songwriter at a young age--but I feel like the term “child prodigy” is reserved more for the likes of those kids who finish college at age 10. Like Doogie Howser or that chess kid, Bobby Fisher. Or Matilda. Side bar #2: That kid who plays Luke in Modern Family in real life is a member a Mensa and already graduated high school at the age of 12. Mind blown?!

Okay, back to Matil--so she is a child prodigy but this goes completely unnoticed and unappreciated by her highly neglectful parents. For some reason, her terrible parents hate her and think her dimwitted brother is a gem. It’s all very Dursley-esque, except with even less justification. Matilda’s dad is a slimy carsalesman who cheats people, her mom is a housewife who doesn't do anything except play Bingo, not cook and get fat. The first part of the book is dedicated to showing how Matilda empowers herself by seeking revenge on her parents for their terrible behavior towards her. She successfully Superglues her dad’s head to his hat and tricks her family into thinking there is a ghost in the house by stuffing a talking parrot in the chimney (such an obvious plan). It’s all great fun because these parents wholeheartedly deserve this treatment and you are totally rooting and fistpumping for Matilda. 

 A child prodigy of the Doogie variety

When Matilda starts grade school, her genius is finally discovered and appreciated by her first teacher, the adorable and sweet Miss Honey. Miss Honey tries to make the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, aware that they have a truly exceptional student on their hands, but the only problem is Miss Trunchbull is the worst person in the world. And also the meanest. And also the scariest. I imagine her having the build of Coach Bieste from Glee with the meanness of a combination of Cruella de Vil, Regina George, and those horrible fleshy monster orcs from Lord of the Rings. Everyone is terrified of Trunchbull because she is a complete tyrant who is totally unpredictable. When I was a kid, I was so afraid of her. As an adult, I found myself wondering, why is everyone standing idly by as she partakes in highly criminal activities?! Just one whistleblower would have led to this woman being locked up forever!  Here are some of the things she did/crimes she committed:
  • locked students up in a closet that is lined with shards of glass and nails for hours [kidnapping, torture]
  • launched a child through a window for eating licorice during class [assault, attempted murder]
  • grabbed a child by the pigtails and launched her across a field for wearing said pigtails [assault, attempted murder (and general discrimination)]
  • turned a kid into human foie gras by making him eat every piece of an enormous chocolate cake in front of the entire school as punishment for stealing a sliver her own cake [child abuse, torture]
  • smashed a plate over the head of the abovementioned boy for successfully accomplishing the cake eating [assault, child abuse]
  • dangled a kid by his hair for forgetting his times tables [assault, child abuse]
  • dangled a kid his ears for misspelling "what" [assault, child abuse]
  • dangled a kid by his legs for forgetting his times tables [assault, child abuse]
 I mean, this woman was clearly a sociopath! 

It turns out that Matilda's beloved Miss Honey was actually raised by Miss Trunchbull. We learn this one day after school when Miss Honey invites Matilda to her house for tea. Matilda learns that Miss Honey lives in a little cottage in the woods--which sounds like a fairy tale -- but inside, Matilda finds out that Miss Honey sleeps on the floor, has only wooden crates for furniture, and her kitchen contains no granite countertops or stainless steel appliances, instead, it has only a camping stove and a wood plank (This would be the “fixer upper” option on House Hunters). Miss Honey was the child of wealthy, loving parents, but then her mother died and her aunt moved in --Miss Trunchbull. Her father died under mysterious circumstances which we can only assume was the work of the psycho Trunchbull. Poor Miss Honey was raised in a horrible manner by the Trunch and when she finally grew up, Trunch told her she owed her so much money for raising her, so she took reign over Mr. Honey’s house and took Miss Honey's wages from her except for a tiny amount. Somehow, Miss Honey found a way to rent her little shanty cottage, and that was a large victory for her. 

It is around the time of this big reveal that we find out Matilda can focus her thoughts to move things with her mind. She first does this accidentally in class when she splashes Trunchbull in the face with water. Once she realizes she can harness this power, Matilda decides she will use it to get rid of Trunchbull for good and help Miss Honey return to her rightful home.When the Trunch is next terrorizing her kindergarten class, Matilda focuses her mind to pick up a piece of chalk and write a threatening message from Mr. Honey to the Trunch from beyond the grave. Trunchbull goes white in the face and flees the school and her house and is never heard from again. Within days, the will left by Miss Honey's father that has been mysteriously missing for years is finally found, and the house and the remaining fortune is transferred to Miss Honey (where were the lawyers on this one years ago?). Success!

At this same time, it turns out that the Wormwoods are fleeing the country because Mr. Wormwood's crimes have been discovered. Miss Honey asks to keep Matilda and the reponse from her charming parents is pretty much "yea, whatever.' So in the end, Matilda and Miss Honey move into the big house together and presumably live happily ever after.  

This book was still as funny and and shocking and delightfully British as ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think worthy of mention is the movie that came out in 1996 featuring that lispy girl from Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street, Mara Wilson.

Whatever happened to this cute, lispy girl?  Last year, her personal blog post went viral re: what the hell she's been up to since 1996.  FYI, it's not acting. She quit. And she now looks like this:

"She's not as good. She always skips parts, and she never does the voices. She smells funny, too."

And on a final note, how weird of a name is Roald? Did Mr. And Mrs. Dahl mean to name him Ronald and just happen to forget an "n" in the birth certificate? It's not really a name so much as a funnily spelled verb.  Like if you named your kid Wokd or Leffd. Something to think about.

1 comment:

  1. Love Roald Dahl and Matilda. And the movie is one of the few I can stand being played over and over again. Thankfully, since we had a lot of it on our drive from CA to VA. Of course, I could only hear it from the speakers as my delightedly quiet children enjoyed it. Matilda forever has a place in my heart, and my sanity.