Tuesday, October 3

The Magic Finger


by Roald Dahl
illustrated by William Pene du Bois
41 pages Harper & Row 1966


This is a story of a girl with anger management issues, a story with a high sense of justice and a low tolerance for senseless violence, and the delightfully quirky world that Roald Dahl excelled at creating. The Magic Finger is a pushing, prodding, poke-in-the-eye, accusatory allegory to war via a pointed attack on thetradition of English sport hunting. In the right light, it could also be a call to vegetarianism, though I don't know that was Dahl's intent back in the mid-60's.

Our unnamed antagonist -- who'll I call Zak for reasons to be explained -- is the type of child who is a tempest beneath a barely calm surface. When humiliated by her teacher for spelling cat with a 'k' (and Twain had something to say about this) her boiling point is reached as fast as it takes to point her finger and turn the font of derision into a house pet. In the fantasy world of children's literature this casual power and transformation is presented as a natural occurrence, one in every classroom. Zak's abilities and her unwillingness to be trifled with are the point at which we jump to the real story.

Zak's neighbors, the Greggs, are a typical English hunting family proud to return from the fields with their kill, one duck a piece. The injustice of this needless killing sends Zak to seeing colors, and in her rainbow fury she turns her neighbors into duck-sized, bird-winged humanoids for the night. And because this universe needs balance (and the Gregg's need a lesson) their house is taken over with people-sized, human-armed ducks. As the humans are chased out and fired at with their own guns they quickly take to the trees and learn the obvious but valuable lesson of seeing the world from the eyes of the hunted. Come morning the world is set to rights and the Greggs set about atoning for their hunting sins while Zak goes of in search of another family that needs a lesson.

The joy I had discovering this shortly after it was first published left a lingering mark. In some ways I prefer this to Dahl's better-acknowledged classics James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in that it distills the lesson and entertains without unnecessary baggage.

Sadly, modern editions of this book no longer contain the original illustrations by du Bois, favoring instead more cartoony illustrations by Quintin Blake who has illustrated (or reillustrated in this case) all of Dahl's books currently in print. This apparently was Dahl's illustrator of choice beginning with The B.F.G and presumably the earlier books were reillustrated with his approval. One of my favorite parts of the original is the doubled page that allows you to watch the school teacher turn into a cat. There is also a multi-page spread where Zak's fury changes color but are presented in black and white ink wash that may be the result of economics (color being more expensive to print) but force readers to translate colors to emotions in a way that is more internal (and less obvious) than a similar expression in Leo Lionni's Frederick.

As for Zak, unless you read the original edition you won't see a little girl wearing a sailor's hat with that name on it, pointing at the reader in an homage to James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam posters of the early 20th century. This closing image appropriates the iconic military recruiting image and transforms it into an accusation addressed to the reader. Is Zak attempting to teach you a lesson for your unknown sins, or is she merely warning you to beware your actions. Written and illustrated early in the Vietnam conflict the message isn't overt in Dahl's text but du Bois illustration appears to draw a connection between the senselessness of sport hunting and mindlessness of war.
Perhaps it is time to re-release the original edition.
Post a Comment