Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Danny lives with his father in an old painted gypsy caravan with built-in bunk beds, a wood-burning stove, and an apple tree out back. His father, a car mechanic with an old-fashioned country filling station, is the perfect boyhood companion and the two have an idyllic life together tinkering on car engines, making kites, and launching tissue paper fire balloons on windless nights. At the age of 9, Danny discovers that his father has a secret life – as a pheasant poacher in Mr. Victor Hazell’s woods, Mr Hazell being the arrogant and vulgar brewery owner and property baron of all the lands surrounding the filling station. (“As he flashed by we would sometimes catch a glimpse of the great, glistening beery face above the wheel, pink as a ham, all soft and inflamed from drinking too much beer.”) His father initiates Danny into the art of poaching by revealing his two pheasant-immobilizing methods, The Horsehair Stopper and The Sticky Hat, both based on the pheasants’ inordinate love of raisins. Danny invents a new method, involving raisins laced with sleeping pill powder, and he and his father try it out the night before Mr. Hazell’s annual hunting party, thus thwarting his vain attempts to be accepted by the titled upper class. Along the way, they receive help of various kinds from the kind Doc Spencer, the upright constable, the vicar’s wife, and the local taxi driver, all of whom turn out to be unlikely members of the poaching underworld.
Of all Roald Dahl’s books, Danny the Champion of the World is the gentlest. It is suffused with the tender love that exists between Danny and his father, two figures drawn close since the death of Danny’s mother when he was four months old. The book is unusual for being naturalistic – there are no witches, no giant peaches, no magical dream powders. There are scenes that are as funny as any that exist in Dahl’s writing (witness the rising of the pheasants from the baby carriage as the effects of the sleeping pills wane), but he does not resort to the nonsense verse, silly naming, and general absurdities that are his usual stock in trade.
Roald Dahl was particularly fond of this story. He originally wrote it as an adult short story that appeared first in the New Yorker in 1959 and subsequently in the collection, Kiss Kiss. Although he made significant changes when he revised it for children, including the switch from two friends to a father and son, the basic plot line remained intact and whole passages were lifted verbatim from the story. Dahl often reworked an idea – the genesis for The BFG came from a bedtime story told by Danny’s father about The Big Friendly Giant.