Roald Dahl (1916-1990) had many flaws: he was irascible, self-aggrandizing, a feather-ruffler given to anti-Semitic remarks and a domineering husband who cheated on his first wife, American movie star Patricia Neal. Nevertheless, he was by all accounts a devoted father. Dahlophilic readers will take heart from this revelation in Roald Dahl: Teller of the Unexpected, an uncommonly perceptive biography of the children's book colossus by Matthew Dennison (The Queen; Behind the Mask; Queen Victoria).
Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales, to Norwegian immigrant parents, his father a successful shipbroker who died when his son was three. In 1939, with war threatening and while working an under-stimulating office job in London, Dahl trained as a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. The following year, he survived a plane crash that was likely attributable to his inexperience. While working for the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., Dahl authored an account of his crash for the Saturday Evening Post and, in doing so, discovered his flair for writing.
Dennison--the author of books about two other children's literature greats, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame--is a resolutely objective chronicler, noting when something Dahl said doesn't jibe with the factual or emotional truth. Although it's directed at adults, Roald Dahl seems governed by a bedrock principle of writing for children: it doesn't overstay its welcome. Dahl fans, though they shouldn't expect an exhaustive look at Dahl's work, will savor tidbits like the fact that as a young man, the eventual author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory saved the silver wrappers from his chocolate bars. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer