by Roald Dahl; ill. by Quentin Blake

Jonathan Cape, 1988

240 pages

A couple of months into our marriage, my husband and I took a 2,000-mile road trip to attend a friend’s wedding. As we planned our trip, my husband suggested taking some audiobooks along. I don’t enjoy being read to, but I love to read aloud to other people, so I countered with a suggestion of my own.

“Let’s take a car book,” I said, “and I’ll read to you.”

He loved the idea–and so, for the last dozen years, I’ve been reading aloud to him in the car. We’ve been through the Harry Potter series, the Middle Earth books (twice), the Anne of Green Gables series, and a host of stand-alone volumes.

Once our daughter was born, we kept up the tradition, but in a way that suited her comprehension level. We started out extemporizing our own simple stories and then gradually worked our way back up to proper novels.

Last month, our car book was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and I think it’s now on my daughter’s list of favorites. Being a long-time Roald Dahl fan, I couldn’t believe that I’d gone so long without reading this particular work (especially since it’s one of only a few Dahl books to feature a positive female lead).

But, as they say, all’s well that ends well. We read it, we loved it, and (happy fringe benefit) I came away with a new book to review.

Matilda is the story of Matilda Wormwood, a tremendously gifted little girl whose crass parents treat her with a contempt that often escalates to verbal abuse. Once Matilda starts school, things get even worse—her headmistress, the colossal Miss Trunchbull, terrifies the children into submission with frequent outbursts of violent behavior.

In characteristic Dahl fashion (helped along by illustrations from Quentin Blake, of course), the villainous adults are the shocking but somehow hilarious embodiment of every boorish stereotype kids and fairy tales have ever pinned on grownups.

But Matilda also has a grownup comrade-in-arms—and this is where the story becomes inspiring.

Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, is a delicate-looking, self-effacing young woman who is hiding a tragic personal history. Simultaneously stunned and intrigued by Matilda’s precociousness, Miss Honey finds new purpose in mentoring the little girl.

Matilda, for her part, blossoms under Miss Honey’s kindness. Later, when she uncovers Miss Honey’s story, she uses her prodigious intelligence to save the teacher, take down the villainous Trunchbull, and escape her own parents’ clutches.

As Dahl’s books often do, Matilda hides some very serious content under a veneer of outrageously dark humor. Miss Honey’s spirit has been nearly crushed by years of systematic abuse; if Matilda doesn’t escape her current environment, she’s likely to end up equally defeated.

But, instead of just finding company in misery, the young woman and the little girl encourage and validate the best in one another. They find a way to score a decisive victory against their abusers and, as their reward, end up with a beautiful home and a new relationship as mother and adopted daughter.

Two victims of abuse, spurring each other to escape and overcome, making family as it should be. My daughter was so inspired she was literally cheering from the back seat as the book ended. Sounds like a keeper to me.

2 thoughts on “Matilda

  1. My son and I just finished reading The BFG — in fact, we finished it with a 1 1/2 hour long reading session on the couch for which he passed up on going to the library and playing outside — and he had the same reaction to the end (and several parts in between).

    Little Sophie is another one of those admirable girl characters that Dahl created: not a bit cowed by a giant more than 8 times her size,ingenious and insistent on righting a serious wrong (or Left as the BFG would say :). I see Dahl’s work with brand new eyes when I read them to my kids and bravo for that! 🙂

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