The Witches – Roald Dahl

Puffin, 1983
Here’s a secret about my married life:
Jessica likes to be read to. Something about my deep, sonorous (read: monotone) voice comforts her at bedtime and sends her right off. While she spends her own reading time either in magazines or on a few books (right now it’s some Buddhist text), we use the reading time to check out children’s literature. (They’re quick to get through, and fun to read out loud. Not like, say, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.)
It was a sad fact that I never read “Winnie-the-Pooh” until I read it to Jessica, although by that time I enjoyed all of its nuances and Milne’s effortless style.
I picked up “The Witches” the other day for 50 cents, and that became our new book.
First of all, this is a great book for reading out loud. With The Grand High Witch, parents and other readers can indulge in their vurrrrrrrst German accent, as Roald Dahl envisions a witch not as a cackling crone, but as a half-zombie She-Wolf of the SS. The witches’ grand plan to exterminate all children is not far indeed from Hitler’s “Final Solution,” and the mice/vermin parallel is well taken.
Dahl creates a hero who gets turned into a mouse half-way through and doesn’t get turned back into a boy. He very cleverly reverses the “coming of age” trope – by getting smaller and becoming unhuman, the hero grows up and realises his destiny. There’s also a penultimate chapter where the mouse-boy realises that he won’t live that long, being a mouse and all, but as he loves his dear old grandmamma, they will grow old together. It’s a weird, mortality-filled chapter that made Jessica ask, “Is this book really for kids?” (Don’t ask me, I’m still getting over the recent shock of my first read of The Velveteen Rabbit. Talk about traumatizing a child.)
Dahl is a devious genius, and his bile is well placed. There’s no coddling here, with witches not just seeing children as nuisances, but as things needing to be eradicated. There’s no witches with hearts of gold, or witches to be fooled, they are just there to kill children. That’s it. Refreshing, indeed.

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