Secondary School English Read-Alouds - Roald Dahl
Imagine yourself a teacher of secondary school English. The day's lesson plan calls for coverage of a dry area of grammar or punctuation - one that is difficult to make interesting or amusing especially to students of regular and lower ability. Announce that your attention is to cover the material. Encourage the students to concentrate by promising them a treat. "If we can cover the necessary material in x number of minutes, the remainder of class will be devoted to my reading aloud to you a story that will absolutely rivet your attention."
The story read may be completed in class if it is short. If not, it may be strung out as class ending activity for 2 or three days. I often conceal the author and title in order to prevent students from finding and finishing it in the library. However, the stories I have stockpiled for this purpose will be so packed with suspense, horror, or humor that even those who know the endings will be involved and interested in observing the effect on other students.
Isn't it treating high-school students like children to read aloud to them? Not if the material is well-chosen and the teacher is a talented reader who can alter voice for different characters, do dialects if necessary - in short, an actor. I have known whole classes of advanced placement students who delighted in hearing the renditions of gifted readers. After all, the jongleurs and meistersingers of ages past could captivate both the highly educated and the illiterate.
I shall discuss some short fiction of Roald Dahl, one of my favorite writers of this type of fiction. Dahl is perhaps most famous for having penned chilldren's classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory now more commonly referred to by its movie name, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. However, he is also a master of the macabre as seen in collections like Kiss, Kiss and Someone Like You. My task is now to capture the effect of the stories while not revealing "spoilers" that give away all of the author's subtleties and cleverness, in case the reader has not read them.
Lamb to the Slaughter
Mary Maloney, 6 months pregnant, is the devoted wife of Patrick, a policeman, and awaits his return from work. Patrick arrives, has a cocktail and then another very strong one. It's Thursday, the night they usually dine out, but Mary senses a problem and offers to cook something.
Patrick shocks his wife announcing that he intends to leave her. "Of course, I'll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss.’’ In shock, Mary goes to the freezer and grabs an object.
Patrick angrily says not to fix him anything; he's going out. Mary wordlessly hoists a frozen leg of lamb, strikes him on the skull, and kills him.
Aware what this might mean for her and her unborn child, Mary calmly unwraps the lamb and places it in the oven. She practices a little speech, heads for the nearby grocer, purchases vegetables, and establishes her alibi.
Returning from the grocer, Mary is "surprised" to find Patrick lying dead on the floor. She calls the police. They arrive and begin looking for the murder weapon, which must be a large blunt object - probably metal. They fail to find it. Before leaving, one of them makes a remark that causes Mary to giggle.
Once the story is finished, begin some discussion of the title. Students will probably come up with "led like a lamb to the slaughter" and the concept of a sacrificial animal that dutifully waits in line to be executed, skinned, and eaten. A brief writing assignment might be to have students explain the full significance of the title.
In this Dahl story we are introduced to Cyril Boggis driving his car, wearing parson's clothing and delighting in the spring flowers of the countryside on a beautiful day. Surely nothing criminal or macabre will transpire.
He drives to a hilltop where he can examine this Sunday's "section." He draws a map of "possibles" to visit. He ignores a prosperous looking Georgian house and makes notes about 10 dwellings. Then he eases back down the hill to go to work.
Boggis is not a parson but an antique dealer. His showroom is not large but he makes a tidy income by purchasing very cheaply and selling at high prices. Sundays are days when he visits likely looking dwellings in search of antiques to purchase. A talented salesman, he is an expert at judging people and sliding into whatever mood he wishes to adopt. ". . . grave and charming for the aged obsequious for the rich, sober for the godly, masterful for the weak, mischievous for the widow, arch and saucy for the spinster."
Boggis finds no interesting furniture at the first house. The second has some lovely Hepplewhite pieces but no one is home. At his third stop, a most diseputable looking farm, he interrupts an illegal pig butchering performed by the low-life owner Rummins and his son Burt. They demand to know what Boggis wants, and he preents them with one of hs phony cards attesting to his membership in the Society for the Preservation of Rare Furniture. He asks for permission to have a look around the filthy premises and is stunned.
"What he saw was a piece of furniture that any expert would have given almost anything to acquire. To a layman, it might not have appeared particularly impressive, especially when covered over as it was with dirty white paint but to Mr Boggis it was a dealer's dream. . . . . It was a most impressive handsome affair, built in the French rococo style of Chippendale's Directoire period, a kind of large fat chest-of-drawers set upon four carved and fluted legs that raised it about a foot from the ground. There were six drawers in all, two long ones in the middle and two shorter ones on either side."
Boggis recovers from his near faint and launches into his routine. "'This chest-of=drawers" he walked casually past the Chippendale Commode and gave it a little contemptuous flip with his fingers `worth a few pounds, I dare say, but no more. A rather crude reproduction, I'm afraid. Probably made in Victorian times. Did you paint it white?'" Rummins said that Burt had done so.
Boggis sneers at the fine carving saying that it had been done by machine. He extracted a screw, palmed it, and substituted a new machine-made screw to prove the commode's age. He finally convinces the owners that he has a use for the legs but would buy the whole chest since he might find some use for the drawers.
The lying charlatan finally settles on 20 pounds and goes trotting off to fetch his car. He had spent a pittance on a Chippendale Commode that when cleaned up would fetch 15 or 20 thousand!
And there I shall have to interrupt my summary. Learn for yourself whether or not a lying, cheating con man has the success he anticipates.
This story could lead to a composition about how Roald Dahl used description of landscape, flowers, and the happy movements of the parson to make the final reversal more horrendously effective.
Other Dahl stories
Equally effective as oral reading materials are Mr. Dahl's stories The Landlady. Poison, and The Man From the South. Teachers, practice your oral reading. The art of the storyteller is disappearing. Students delight in hearing a good story that is well read.