My favorite place in the whole world during my formative years was without a doubt the library. Ponca City, Oklahoma, for all its small-town faults, has a singularly spectacular library, due to the vision and philanthropic efforts of one Mr. Ernest Whitworth Marland, founder of the Marland Oil Company which later became the Continental Oil Company for which my father worked. Despite being a child molester who married his adopted daughter way before Woody Allen made it fashionable, Marland spread his wealth with abandon, flinging it hither and thither like an out of control fire-hose of greenbacks, building mansions on the prairie and importing exotic animals only to watch them wither and die in the harsh winters that were typical of Oklahoma.
Although he was spectacularly terrible at animal husbandry, he was not all that bad at commissioning buildings, and the Ponca City Library remains a testimony to his ability to demand that something beautiful be erected in his honor. With soaring ceilings and marble columns, the library says SHHHHH!!! in the loudest way possible. Only downstairs, in the children’s area, was speaking at a rational pitch admissible. Scattering in all directions, my siblings and I would examine every spine in the place, heads tilted 90 degrees until our heads ached. At first I plucked books at random, books with bright colors and interesting titles. After a while, I began to recognize names and cultivate distinct preferences. Certain authors made their way into the giant cardboard box my mother toted with her more often than not; names like Cleary, Peet, Williams and Seldon were early favorites. As I grew and my scope lengthened and stretched, L’engle, Lewis, Sewell and even *gasp!* Bloom were toted home with eager anticipation.
The blessed day upon which I discovered a writer by the unlikely name of Roald Dahl was surely a sunny one. Surely the birds sang with unusual vigor and flowers bloomed with preternatural brightness. Surely the atmosphere held its gaseous breath as I crept towards the “D” aisle and thumbed through the books, head cocked at its usual painful angle. Surely the world itself giggled madly as I approached James and the Giant Peach and pulled it from its spot. Surely there was a burst of wild celestial applause as my eyes grew wide with awe at the drawing of the small boy and the enormous fruit on the cover (and yes, I am extremely partial to the original illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert) and sat on the floor, its indoor-outdoor carpet smelling of old milk and playground dirt, immediately enraptured.
To say a love affair ensued would be understating the facts. On the heels of James, I relished Charlie’s adventures with Willy Wonka inside the most spectacular chocolate factory every imagined, rooted for a truly fantastic Mr. Fox, grew outraged at the mistreatment of a small girl named Matilda, grossed out at the Twits, held my breath as a little boy got caught by witches, and laughed at the misguided dreams of a particularly enormous crocodile. I devoured his books like they were the greatest smorgasbord ever set before me, as indeed they were. In the hands of Mr. Dahl, words became much more than mere collections of letters and were instead golden tickets to other worlds where adults knew nothing and children were always brave and right. Villains were never sympathetic and heroes were never conflicted. Gross was more than gross, it was vile, noxious, despicable, and shocking, and beauty was resplendently effervescent.
I loved Dahl because he never talked down to me. He expected me to know big words. He let me hate with abandon and love without limits. Occasionally he threw in a phrase like “silly ass” and it was our little secret; he trusted me to understand that bad words had their place in literature, and in life, so long as you saved them for the right occasion. His characters shone with bright, bold colors and he lifted the mundane out of life and polished it until you saw the beauty. The good guys might have always won, but the bad guys were second to none in the halls of villainy, so in that way they won as well. Nobody lost in a Roald Dahl book, least of all the reader, who was so enriched by his experience upon closing the back cover that, if he had any sense, he immediately turned it over and began again. My sorrow upon realizing that I had, in fact, read every single children’s book he wrote, was tempered by discovering that Mr. Dahl wrote books for grown-ups too!
Of course, I had to wait to read them but was not disappointed once I had the chance.
To this day I wish I had let him know, before his death in 1990, how much he had meant to me. What was I so busy doing that I couldn’t have penned him a line or two? Oh, that’s right, I was raising two children and was pregnant with a third. When I heard that he had died I felt the sorrow like a shooting star streak across my heart; an echoing thud shook me to the core where it landed. If I could talk to him today, I would tell him how much he had enriched my imaginative world as a little girl, how vastly he had enlarged my vision, how Charlie and James and Matilda and Danny and Sophie had kept me company on more than one lonely day when I wasn’t sure where I belonged. They always welcomed me into their worlds, and so they belonged to me, and I to them. I think that he would have enjoyed knowing that. Maybe, somehow, he does.