Roald Dahl, Esio Trot and The Minpins
[unabridged audiobook, read by Joanna Lumley] (Harper Children's Audio, 2002)

I never read Roald Dahl as a child. I was introduced to his wickedly dark mainstream fiction through adaptations on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and have been a fan of that area of his career for many years. I've seen the films James and the Giant Peach and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and enjoyed them immensely but never ventured into his writings for the younger set. However, I was curious, so when this audiobook became available, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to be introduced to the "lighter" side of Roald Dahl. What a wonderful surprise.

But I had my hesitations. First off, the combined readings of these two books — Esio Trot and The Minpins — come in at just over one hour, so it's a concise experience, to say the least. In addition, having known the work of Joanna Lumley only from Absolutely Fabulous and The New Avengers, I wasn't at all sure she was the proper person for the job. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised at just how well her voice suits these recordings, and also at the breadth of her skill at vocal characterization. She slips easily from one character to another, giving them all individual voices and personalities.

Side One contains The Minpins in its entirety. It is the story of Little Billy who, "awfully tired of being good," leaves the safety of the garden gate (against the warnings of his mummy) and goes out into the Forest of Sin where he finds himself in the world of the Minpins, little people who live in the trees and are consistently pursued by the Red-Hot-Smoke-Belching-Gruncher. Of course, there are lessons to be learned, but Dahl's prose keeps them subtle, until, just at the end, he proselytizes a bit to make his point:

Above all watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.
Sage advice, to be sure, but I felt slightly cudgeled (if that can be) by it.

Side Two consists of Esio Trot, a different kind of story. Mr. Hoppy is very in love with his downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Silver, but too shy to proclaim it. To make matters worse, Mrs. Silver has eyes only for her pet tortoise, Alfie. Mrs. Silver has a wish, however, and through his effort to fulfill it, Mr. Hoppy finds his opportunity for amore.

It was a wonderful discovery that the man that wrote such stories as "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "The Landlady" (which can both be found in The Best of Roald Dahl) came up with these tales for young readers. Both Esio Trot and The Minpins were delightful and, though they're short, they seem to be the perfect length. The audiotape is just the right length for a car trip or some other time when children (or those slightly more advanced in age) are looking for a literary distraction that doesn't require a considerable time commitment. Esio Trot and The Minpins will certainly please long-time fans as well as engendering new ones.

[Craig Clarke]

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