Friday, September 28, 2012

Mainstream Review: The Witches by Roald Dahl

As September draws to a close, signs of Halloween are popping up everywhere.  In many elementary school classrooms, The Witches by Roald Dahl is standard, read-aloud fare. After two attempts, I have finally finished reading this quirky, bizarre story.

After a young boy's parents are tragically killed while on holiday in Norway, he goes to live with his Grandmamma. Grandmamma loves her grandson, but smokes a "foul cigar" and fills her grandson's head with horrifying tales of witches, who:
"...dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and work in ORDINARY JOBS...A real witch spends all her time plotting to get rid of the children in her particular territory. Her passion is to do away with them one by one. It is all she thinks about the whole day long. Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman, or driving around in a fancy car...her mind will always be plotting and scheming and churning and burning and whizzing and phizzing with murderous bloodthirsty thought."
After this alarming notice on page one, we get involved in the boy's adventures. After he has been properly warned (terrified, actually) about all women who wear gloves, and "even the nice teacher reading this story," the boy has the misfortune to run into a convention of witches run by the Grand High Witch herself. He becomes mixed up in the witches' evil plot to turn all children into mice, so the people of England will exterminate them.

Plot Spoiler Ahead:  The boy's bravery and quick wit, coupled with his grandmamma's diversionary tactics result in the witches' plan backfiring, and English children being saved from witches. The boy is content to live the rest of his life as a mouse, even though mice have a shorter life span than people. The boy and his grandmamma resolve to live the rest of their lives trying to dispose of as many witches as possible.

Ink line drawings by Quentin Blake are scattered throughout.

What I Like:  There is a hilarious episode where the boy, who has been turned into a mouse, runs up the trousers of a chef, and ends up in his knickers. Although the scene could be considered inappropriate, I found myself laughing out loud.

I admire the boy's bravery. He is determined to save children from the witches, and thinks up creative, resourceful ways to combat their evil plans. He is not content to rest when England is rid of witches, but instead, wants to continue fighting them regardless of where they live.

What I Dislike:  Despite the boy's bravery, this is a creepy book.  I can't figure out what age would enjoy reading it.  If you were old enough not to be terrified of the witches, it seems you would be too old to enjoy the plot.

When the boy asks his grandmamma how she can be sure the Grand High Witch exists, she responds, "Nobody has ever seen the Devil, but we know he exists." Ordinary women are described as potential witches, and the boy can't tell if women are nice or not, given his grandmamma's descriptions. Grandmamma's insistence that witches are real, and her descriptions of them being disguised as regular women makes the book more scary than the average fairy tale. 

There is a fairly graphic description of the Grand High Witches' rotting face, (hidden under a mask), and children are described as smelling like "poo" to witches.

Overall Rating:  Ho-Hum--I would stick to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Age Appeal:  8-12 (Publisher lists 7 and up)

Publisher Info: Scholastic, 1983; ISBN: 978-0-590-03249-0 ; Paperback, 208 pages, $6.99


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