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Roald Dahl | Biography

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Childhood

Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, on September 13, 1916; his parents were Norwegian, and his father was a shipbroker. Even before Dahl's birth, his parents worked to give him a love of nature. His father believed a pregnant woman could develop her unborn child's aesthetic sense by spending time in beautiful settings. In the last trimester of each of her pregnancies, Dahl's mother regularly took hour-long hikes in the countryside with her husband, who called the hikes "glorious walks."

The childhood of Roald Dahl was jammed with adventures, the first of which took place when he was nine. He was in a car with his family, his older sister at the wheel, when the car crashed into a hedge as a result of a sharp turn. Dahl flew through the back window, severing his nose. His mother held the nose in place while his sister drove to the doctor's, and the nose was successfully reattached.

Dahl's idyllic early childhood ended in 1920, when his sister, Astri, died of appendicitis. Dahl's devastated father developed pneumonia soon afterward. Lacking any will to fight for his life, he died a few months after Astri. Dahl's mother was left with two stepchildren, three biological children, and a baby on the way. Though moving back to Norway might have made her life easier, Dahl's mother decided to stay in Wales and carry out her late husband's wish that his children be educated in England. Each summer the family returned to Norway for the holidays.

Like many children, Dahl adored candy. In his autobiography, Boy, Dahl describes stopping with friends at the window of a sweet shop on the way home from school, "gazing in at the big glass jars full of Bull's-eyes and Old Fashioned Humbugs and Strawberry Bonbons ... Sweets were our lifeblood."

Education

Dahl attended an English boarding school near Cadbury, the famous chocolate manufacturer. Sensing that the school provided a built-in test panel whose members would be unable to spy on factory secrets, Cadbury executives had a practice of sending Dahl and other students chocolate bars to test. Each tester would be given 12 different foil-wrapped chocolate bars and a grading sheet. Testers graded the bars from 0 to 10. Once, Dahl wrote that a bar was "too subtle for the common palate." The experience taught Dahl that candy companies "actually did possess inventing rooms and they took their inventing very seriously." Thirty-five years later he would put this idea to use in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Dahl decided not to attend a university after secondary school because he wanted a traveling job. He was hired by the Shell Company and received two years' intensive training before being sent to East Africa for what was meant to be a three-year stint: "I got my African adventures all right," Dahl would write later. "I learned how to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilization."

Military

Great Britain entered World War II in 1939, before Dahl was due to return home. He joined the Royal Air Force in Nairobi and trained as a fighter pilot, flying several missions before a plane crash in Egypt. Dahl spent six months in an Alexandria hospital and then returned to active duty. In 1941 he was "invalided home" due to the lingering aftereffects from his earlier injuries.

On a London visit, Dahl met Major Harold Balfour, Under-Secretary of State for Air, who saw in Dahl a promising combination of bravery and intelligence. In 1942, Balfour hired Dahl as assistant to the air attaché, an Air Force officer who is part of a diplomatic mission, and he was posted to Washington, D.C. Dahl didn't much enjoy the job, considering life in Washington to be a "pre-war cocktail party." But it was in Washington, D.C. that he met British author C.S. Forester, who helped him publish a 1942 article about his war experiences in The Saturday Evening Post. It was also in Washington, D.C. that Dahl became a British spy, supplying intelligence to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Career and Family

In 1943 Dahl's first children's book, The Gremlins, was published, and he began writing short stories for adults. His adult writing was known for being "twisted," with grotesque humor and strange surprise endings. Dahl won three Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, and some of his stories were filmed for television. In the 1960s he would go on to write the screenplays for You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. A British TV series, based on Dahl's anthology Tales of the Unexpected, ran from 1979 to 1988.

Dahl is best known for his children's books, which have received tremendous acclaim, have been published in about 60 languages, and have sold over 250 million copies. James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961, followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964. Many bestselling children's books followed, including The Magic Finger (1966), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), The Enormous Crocodile (1978), The Twits (1980), The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988).

Dahl was married for 30 years to actress Patricia Neal, with whom he had five children. Their life together was marked by three tragic episodes. In 1960 their infant son Theo's baby carriage was hit by a taxi. One of his injuries was hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. Theo was fitted with a shunt to relieve the pressure of fluid buildup, but it kept getting blocked, so Dahl teamed up with a neurologist and a toymaker to produce an improved version. Theo recovered before the device was available, but it was subsequently used successfully in over 3,000 children with hydrocephalus.

In I962 the Dahl's daughter Olivia, age seven, died of measles, for which there was not yet a vaccine. When a vaccine became available, Dahl devoted much time to promoting immunization. He also dedicated The BFG to Olivia.

In 1965 Patricia Neal suffered a serious stroke that left her half-paralyzed and unable to speak. On his own, Dahl developed a rehabilitation regimen for her, and although Neal's recovery was slow, it was successful, and she was ultimately able to return to her acting career. Dahl wrote up his therapy methods in a guide that a neighbor developed into a book. The book's popularity led to the establishment of The Stroke Association, Great Britain's leading stroke charity.

Dahl and Neal divorced in 1983, and he married Felicity Crosland. He died November 23, 1990, in Great Missenden, England—now the home of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.

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