Fiction — audiobook. Read by Ron Keith. Puffin Audio, 1994. 4 hours, 53 minutes. Library copy.
Following the death of his parents in a car crash, Dahl’s unnamed, eight-year-old narrator is sent to live with his grandmother in Norway where he learns that witches are real. In fact, witches are all around us hiding in plain sight – wigs on their bald heads, clawed hands hidden with gloves, and toeless feet jammed into pretty shoes – amongst the public hating children and turning them into bugs and other loathsome creatures so unsuspecting adults kill them.
Per his parents’ will, the little boy and his grandmother return to England so he can attend the school his Norwegian-born parents wanted him to attend. Both are hesitant about the move – English witches are, after all, known to be among the cruelest in the world – and, unfortunately, a bout of pneumonia forces them to cancel a planned holiday in Norway for a trip to o a luxury hotel in Bournemouth on the southern English coast. There, the little boy accidentally interrupts the annual meeting of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a cover for the annual meeting of English witches with the cruelest witch of them all, the Grand High Witch.
My biggest fear when I reread books I greatly enjoyed as a child or young adult is that I will not find them as wonderful now as I did then. Unfortunately, my fear came true with this particular book by Dahl because I found it failed to live up to recollection. It is still a charmingly imaginative read, but the spark to my imagination seemed to be somewhat dimmed this time around.
Maybe because I listened to the audiobook and therefore missed out on the simple line drawings? Maybe because some of the biggest aspects of the narrator’s life seemed to be rather glossed over? Maybe because I could rattle off all the ways to identify a witch even before I reread this tale? Maybe because I’m outside the targeted age of the witches so the fear no longer lurks in the back of my mind?
One lovely aspect of this book I enjoyed rediscovering about was the narrator’s grandmother. I remembered her explanation of the physical characteristics of witches, but I had largely forgotten her role following the narrator’s discovering of the witches’ annual meeting. She was never nonplussed about the whole situation – laying out all the facts about witches, accepting her grandson no matter what – and I imagine for some children there is something rather lovely about a grandmother who is opposed to baths.
The audiobook version I checked out from the library was riddled with scratches and the voice of the narrator, Ron Keith, kept fading in and out. This made for a rather cumbersome listening experience as I had to keep raising and lowering the volume with each new track.