Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): Danny’s life seems perfect: his home is a gypsy caravan, he’s the youngest car mechanic around, and his best friend is his dad, who never runs out of wonderful stories to tell. And when Danny discovers his father’s secret, he’s off on the adventure of a lifetime. Here’s Roald Dahl’s famous story about a 9-year-old boy, his dad, and a daring and hilarious pheasant-snatching expedition. Just as important, it’s the story of the love between a boy and his father who, in Danny’s own words, is “the most marvelous and exciting father a boy ever had.”
And here's what I thought: I think this might be my favorite Roald Dahl story -- it was one I read over and over as a child, and I basically wore out my original paperback. A few years ago, in a used bookstore, I found a nice, hardcover copy, and was so thrilled! As you can see from the above summary, this is the story of a boy and his father, and some of the adventures they have. The two of them live in a converted Gypsy caravan, on the site of Danny's father's filling station and garage, a small piece of land in the middle of a bigger patch of land that belongs to a wealthy man (more on him in a moment). Although they live pretty simply, Danny's life is a rich one, because his father not only constantly educates Danny about the world around him, but he's also a wonderful storyteller.
In the book, Danny describes his father by saying, "My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had." And he certainly is --- he makes up wonderful stories about things like The Big Friendly Giant, but teaches Danny how to take apart and put together car engines, and more. Life seems exciting enough until one night, when Danny wakes up and his father's not in the caravan. In fact, he's not on the property at all. Once he comes home, it turns out that Danny's father was up in Hazell's Woods..... poaching pheasants.
So, a few quick words here --- like in Fantastic Mr. Fox, there's a character who ..... practices thievery of some sort. Poaching pheasants is a crime, which Danny's father knows. However, as he explains to Danny, he just can't help himself. Sounds a bit like Mr. Fox, yes? When Danny finds out, he's shocked; ""My own father a thief! This gentle, lovely man! I couldn't believe he would go creeping into the woods at night to pinch valuable birds belonging to somebody else." But once Danny's father starts to explain, it somehow starts to seem like it's okay. Danny's grandfather, apparently, was "a magnificent and splendiferous poacher." He taught Danny's father the art of poaching, and although he's been able to resist the allure of the pheasants for a long time..... he just couldn't help himself this evening. And, after all, the pheasants belong to wealthy Mr. Hazell, who's really not a very nice person.
Didn't I say we'd get around to him? Mr. Hazell is the villain here, and Dahl once again gives us a character we can truly despise. Like the farmers in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Hazell is a nasty piece of work. He owns a brewery (and apparently, likes to drink his beer quite a lot), is extremely wealthy, and is a jerk. Actually, the description is "a roaring snob." He drives a silver Rolls Royce, and tends to be rude to everyone he encounters. His woods are full of pheasants, and he has an annual hunting party so he can try to mingle with other wealthy people. Because he's such a awful person, it seems completely justified that Danny's father doesn't feel bad about trying to poach some of Hazell's pheasants.
Once Danny learns about his father's poaching, he makes him promise that if he does go back to the woods, that he'll let Danny know, and be back by a certain time. Seems like a good plan... until the night that his father doesn't come back, and Danny has to go find him in the woods. Once he rescues his father, the two of them come up with a brilliant plan to bring down Mr. Hazell in a big way: poach as many of his pheasants in one swoop as they possibly can. If you read my last post about Fantastic Mr. Fox, I mentioned that the movie borrowed something from this book (they made it blueberries and beagles). Apparently, pheasants are mad about raisins, so Danny comes up with a plan to use raisins and sleeping powder to snatch as many of the birds as they can (thus ensuring that Mr. Hazell's big hunting party will have no pheasants at all).
What happens next is the biggest, and funniest, part of this story. Needless to say, it's not easy to pull off such a plan ... and Mr. Hazell isn't a man to be trifled with. What happens? Not telling! Read the book!
As in all of his stories, Roald Dahl uses wonderfully descriptive language. We see everything through Danny's eyes, and whether he's telling us about his father, their caravan, or even the apple tree that grows on their property, there's a honesty and sense of wonder at it all. As a child reading this book, it didn't matter that I wasn't a boy, and didn't live in a caravan --- I felt like I knew Danny. When he said, "I will not pretend that I was petrified. I was. But mixed in with the awful fear was a glorious feeling of excitement. Most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn't be exciting if they didn't.", I understood this completely. I always trusted Danny as a narrator, and found his adventures to be thrilling. I liked how good and honest Danny and his father were, and how awful Mr. Hazell was (nothing like a wonderfully bad character). I suppose the reason I still re-read this book is because it's just a great, well-written story. And, the illustrations inside, by Jill Bennett, wonderfully enhance the story. So, if animals aren't quite your thing, maybe try this one!
Coming up soon -- James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and then on to some of Dahl's stories for adults