The Dark Side of Roald Dahl

The beloved author may have held offensive views, but we can still find redeeming messages in his books

The stories of Roald Dahl transport their delighted readers to worlds with chocolate rivers and peaches as large as houses. But behind these magical tales is an author whose personal life didn't always reflect the values we may hope for from a role model; Dahl has been accused of racism and anti-Semitism, though he always denied the charges. Kris Rasmussen knew about this side of Dahl when she decided to write "WonkaMania," her new book for teens, which looks at the lessons of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" through the lens of Scripture. With the new Willy Wonka movie--directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp--now playing, Rasmussen emailed with Beliefnet about Dahl's alleged dark side and why she pursued her project nonetheless.

I've heard Roald Dahl wasn't--how to put it?--a very nice guy. He's been accused of anti-Semitism and racism. From the research you've done, how much truth is there behind these accusations?

Dahl always seemed to stir up some kind of controversy. He would write or say outrageous, often hateful things, and then later insist he was misunderstood and never meant any harm by his comments. For every nasty story I could find about him, there was also an anecdote about Dahl's incredible kindness or generosity. Dahl was a complex man, a walking contradiction even in the eyes of those closest to him.

One of the most controversial moments in his career came in 1983 when he was asked to review a book entitled "God Cried." The book focused on the controversial Israeli invasion of Lebanon at the time. In the review Dahl claimed that once Israel invaded Lebanon, "we all started hating Jews." He made several other inflammatory statements around that time regarding Jewish people, which caused a serious backlash in the United States in particular. Booksellers stopped selling his books. American Jewish readers often returned his books to his publisher with letters protesting Dahl's comments. Dahl later defended his position by saying he was not anti-Semitic but anti-Israel because of the situation in Lebanon.

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As I researched all of these stories about Dahl's attitudes and behavior, I concluded that Roald Dahl was a man who was angry with God. Here was a man whose father and sister died while he was still a toddler. As an adult he lost his oldest daughter to illness, then his only son was left brain damaged after a terrible accident. His first wife, actress Patricia Neal, had a severe stroke during this period of time as well. In fact, according to biographer Jeremy Treglown, Patricia Neal said that while Dahl's faith in a God may have wavered over the years, the death of his daughter snuffed out any belief he had left. In fact, at the end of his life he reportedly said that he desperately wanted to believe in Christianity and couldn't. He couldn't believe that if there was a God his family would have been allowed to suffer so much loss.

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