An orphan boy accompanied by a grasshopper, a centipede, a glow-worm, a spider, a silkworm, a lady bird and an earthworm cross the Atlantic Ocean atop a giant, juicy peach. This crazy mix of characters features in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, and this year marks 50 years of its publication.
For a book to remain in publication for 50 years is no small feat. But what is it about James, his friends and the giant peach that has entertained children (and their children!) around the world for 50 odd years? All great books share one common thing; a powerful story. The story and its ability to resonate with the reader is what makes a book, well, immortal!
And this book has exactly that, a powerful story. James Henry Trotter, the protagonist, is an ordinary boy. He lives happily with his parents in a beautiful house near the sea. Life is perfect for little James till the day when his parents, while on a visit to London, get eaten by an angry rhinoceros who has escaped from the zoo. The very absurdity of this accident lends it humor although, for a child, it is somewhat scary.
Alone in the world, James ends up living with his villainous aunts -Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. In almost all of Dahl’s books, the characters, and especially the villains, are very strong. Their personalities reek of evil; their looks, actions and manners of speech all spell BAD GUY. There are some amazing villains in literature and many in Dahl’s own writings but none are so mean, ego-centric, greedy and repulsive as Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.
“Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy over boiled cabbage. Aunt Spiker, on the other hand, was lean and tall and bony, and she wore steel-rimmed spectacles that fixed on to the end of her nose with a clip. She had a screeching voice and long wet narrow lips, and whenever she got angry or excited, little flecks of spit would come shooting out of her mouth as she talked”.
Quite ghastly aunts!
James spends three long, miserable years with his aunts. During all this time he is not allowed to meet or play with any other children or go to school. He can’t even accidentally bump into another child because his aunts live on top of a hill where no one happens to drop by (sounds pretty draconian!). One fine day, when James is feeling awfully miserable, an old man in 'a funny dark-green suit' gives him a bag full of magic beans along with lots of instructions. He promises James that on swallowing the beans "marvellous things will start happening to you, fabulous, unbelievable things - and you will never be miserable again in your life". If only beans could actually do that!
Magic turned James’s life topsy turvy, quite literally. The peach was his magic lamp and genie in one and along with his insect friends, James escaped from his horrid aunts and their “queer ramshackle house on top of a high hill in the south of England”. Along with him escape seven creatures of the soil, which came across the magic beans, and on swallowing them, became the same size as James. They included the musical Old-Green-Grasshopper, the nine spotted Ladybird, the emotional Miss Spider, the timid Silkworm, the quiet Glow-worm, the ego-centric Centipede and the blind Earthworm. The relationship between the insects, especially the centipede and the earthworm is very amusing. Each creature uses his/her ability to protect the peach and themselves from danger which includes a shark attack and an awful row with the cloud men.
But all’s well that ends well and after a very adventurous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the peach and co. land smack in the middle of New York, on an “enormous silver needle sticking up into the sky” (the Empire State Building). They become heroes and spend the rest of their lives, happily ever after, in New York.
USA is the happy land where James and his friends lead their lives as heroes. UK, on the other hand, is the land of the villains, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, which they leave behind forever. After reading Roald Dahl’s biography, this doesn’t appear strange because Dahl, himself, had a soft spot for New York. As a young RAF officer, during World War II, he was posted in New York where he made many friends and rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty. As a writer, too, he found support and fame in America before United Kingdom.
Even though it is a book for children, I loved re-reading and listening to the audio book narrated by Andrew Sachs. There are many things you can take from the book no matter which age you are. James is an amazing boy. Maybe it is his misfortune which shapes him into a compassionate young fellow who is not just intelligent but brimming with optimism. His innovative solutions and readiness to help others is very admirable, especially in a seven year old. His friends, too, are pretty amazing creatures. This just goes to show that friends can come in any shape or size, but as long as they’re at your side through thick and thin, it doesn’t really matter what their color/race/creed/status is. And of course, never stop dreaming because dreams do and can come true. All it needs is a lot of belief and a little bit of magic!