May 12, 2008

Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Going Solo is Roald Dahl’s account of his years working for Shell in what is now Tanzania, and of his experience as a RFA pilot during World War II. The story takes up where Boy, Dahl’s previous memoir, left off: he is 22 and about to depart to Africa in a ship called the SS Mantola. He’d been in Africa for almost a year when, in September 1939, the Second World War officially began, and shortly thereafter he joined the Royal Air Force and became a pilot.

The first third or so of the book is, as you can imagine, much lighter than the rest. But throughout the whole book you can find Roald Dahl’s unique mix of tragedy, poignancy and humour. There is, for example, an unforgettable episode in which an elderly lion runs off gently carrying the cook’s wife between his jaws, and I can’t imagine any other writer describing it the way Dahl does (for the record, in the end neither the cook’s wife nor the lion were harmed, and incidentally, did you know that "simba" was Swahili for lion? I did not.)

The outbreak of the war brings about a series of uncomfortable situations, both for Dahl himself and for the reader. Roald Dahl was among those responsible for imprisoning all German citizens in an interment camp when war was declared. These were civilians whose only crime was being German, and therefore “the enemy”. From a strategic point of view, I suppose I can see why this was done, but from a human point of view, well, it’s quite horrifying. I guess it’s one more example of how in a war terrible things are done even by those who are fighting for a just cause.

There’s an even worse episode involving a beheading, and I simply can’t decide what I think of the whole thing, or of the way Roald Dahl handled it. I’ll say one thing: I admire him for speaking of it at all. I can’t say much more or else I’d be giving too much away, but I’ll say that it’s the kind of situation that exemplifies how tricky the kind of relationships and dynamics colonialism creates are.

Shortly after becoming a pilot, Dahl miraculously survives a plane crash in the desert, and after a long and painful recovery, he joins the RFA squadron in Greece, where they are ridiculously outnumbered – fourteen Allied pilots (well, to begin with anyway. They weren’t to remain fourteen for much longer) against hundreds of German ones. I would never imagine that I'd find descriptions of air battles so interesting. But what interested me the most was what Dahl had to say about the way in which the war was being fought – he thinks that hundreds of lives were wasted more due to bad planning than to enemy action.

While I think I preferred Boy, Going Solo is undoubtedly a very interesting book. It’s uncomfortable at times, but for that very reason it will give readers of all ages a lot to think about.

(Remember: Let me know if you've also reviewed this one and I'll link to your post.)


  1. I didn't even realize he'd written his life story. Of course, I'm ashamed to say I've never read any of his books at all. Annie read several when she was younger and always enjoyed them. Anyway, back to this one. I think the situations you described in this book can be among the hardest things of all to read. It's bad enough when you're reading about undeniable evil...people committing atrocities that no one can doubt are wrong. But reading about how "good" people can commit "evil" acts...somehow that's even harder to stomach, I think. Hope that made sense.

  2. when my sons were young I remember how they loved when I read "James and the Giant Peach" to them, by Dahl... but mostly I remember him being married to the actress Patricia Neal (same name as me!)

  3. Debi, it does make sense. It's hard too know how to react when people do bad things for "good reasons". And unfortunately that happens more often than we'd wish. You need to give Dahl a try some day! His children's books are a delight, and his short stories for adults are among my very favourites!

    Deslily: I actually knew that, and I think it was from you that I learned it :P James and the Giant Peach! I really like that book :)

  4. Like Debi, I wasn't aware he'd written about his life. I'm definitely curious now to look into reading his memoirs.

    I am glad he took the chance and wrote about the darker things he had done during his lifetime. It's too easy to gloss over that stuff and pretend it never happened in an effort to make one's self look good.

  5. this one seems to cover some heavy issues, and, as you pointed out, doesn't quite seem as light-hearted as his other stuff.

    i read and thoroughly enjoyed BOY, though. i found it very funny and poignant. you've reminded me of this now, though... and i'm rather intrigued to have a look at it...

  6. Literary Feline: That's very true. The beheading episode, for example...I'm sure he would have liked to forget it and never speak of it again. I admire him for bringing it up.

    JP: It is heavier, but there are still plenty of typical Roald Dahl passages. Boy is wonderful, isn't it? Considering how much you enjoyed it, I really do recommend picking this one up!

  7. I completely missed the fact that Roald Dahl had written his memoirs - what fun!
    I'm glad he didn't try to gloss over or ignore the uncomfortable parts of his war-time experiences - it shows he was a man of character, in spite of the regrettable decisions.

  8. Good review, you make it sound interesting, what would be the age appropriate level for the book?

  9. Ken: The thing is, I don't even know if his decisions were regrettable - I simply would have no idea what to do in his place. It's such a tricky situation. I'm thinking mostly of the beheading thing. It's hard to explain what I mean without recounting the whole episode, though. Hopefully I've made you curious enough to pick it up :P There's an edition with both Going Solo and Boy! Considering what I know of your taste I think I can say you would love Boy.

    Sage: Hmm... It's classified as YA, so 12-14 perhaps? I'm sure that some youngers reader could handle it just fine, though. There's wartime violence, but nothing is described graphically, and the tone is very much accessible.

  10. You're right, of course - "regrettable" was a poor word choice; sometimes folks are faced with impossible decisions and when that happens you make your choices and then pray that everything will sort itself out in the end.
    Oh and just so you know - I ordered the combined edition yesterday!

  11. Ken: yay, I'm so glad you got it! I can't wait to hear what you think :)


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