The Who, The What and, The When -A love letter to the unsung heroes of history. Including some literary geniuses…
Ever wondered who inspired Roald Dahl’s stories?
SOFIE MAGDALENE (HESSELBERG) DAHL 1885 – 1967
ROALD DAHL’S MOTHER
An old, wrinkled grandmother fills out every inch of an armchair, chewing with relish on a foul-smelling black cigar, in the Witches, one of the many popular children’s stories written by Roald Dahl. Smoke encircles her large body as she tells the young main character the “gospel truth” about how to identify witches. “She was a wonderful story-teller and I was enthralled by everything she told me,” the character narrates.
The description purposefully echoes how Roald thought of his own mother, Sofie. He based the grandmother’s character on her in a tribute to “undoubtedly the absolute primary influence on my own life,” Roald says in More About Boy, an expanded version of his memoir of his earlier years.
The Norwegian Sofie married Roald’s father, Harald, in 1911, and she moved to Wales to be with him and his two children from a previous marriage. She had three children of her own, two girls and Roald, before her seven-year-old daughter, Astri, died from appendicitis in 1920. Only three weeks later, Harald also passed away from pneumonia, leaving a pregnant Sofie alone to raise her soon-to-be five children.
Rather than return to Norway to live with her parents, she respected her late husband’s wishes that she stay in Wales and have her children educated in British schools. And despite her children’s mischievous activities while growing up, she was “a rock, a real rock, always on your side whatever you’d done,” Roald noted. “It gave me the most tremendous feeling of security.” Roald was her favourite child, and although the family called him “Boy,” she also called him “Apple.”
To entertain the children, Sofie told tales, pulling creative inspiration from folklore from her home country. “When we were young, she told us stories about Norwegian trolls and all the other mythical Norwegian creatures that lived in the dark pine forests, for she was a great teller of tales,” Roald wrote in More About Boy. “Her memory was prodigious and nothing that ever happened to her in her life was forgotten.”
Roald reciprocated this creative storytelling when Sofie enrolled him into boarding school when he was nine years old. He started writing letters to Sofie, telling stories about his life that meant to entertain and amuse.
In one letter in 1929, after Sofie gave him a pair of roller skates for his birthday, Roald tells his mother about skating in his school’s yard. “At one time I had eight chaps pulling me with a long rope, at a terrific lick, and I sat down in the middle of it,” Roald wrote. “My bottom is all blue now!”
From those very first letters until Sofie died thirty-two years later in 1967, he wrote her at least once a week whenever he was not home, including his time in school, when he worked with the Shell Oil company in Africa, and when he flew with the Royal Air Force in the Mediterranean during World War II.
Sofie secretly collected every single letter, amounting to more than six hundred from 1925 until 1945, into neat bundles with green tape, according to Roald. Only one term’s worth of letters are missing: the fall of 1928, which were damaged in a bombing in 1940. At the bottom of each letter, he signed his love with his given name—all except his first semester at boarding school, when he simply wrote “love from Boy.”
written by JACKI E LEAVITT
illustrated by J ENSINE ECKWALL
The Who, The What and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, reveals 65 people you’ve probably never heard of, but who helped shape the word as we know it. Muses and neighbours, friends and relatives, accomplices and benefactors, such as Michael and Joy Brown, who gifted Harper Lee a year’s worth of wages to help her write To Kill a Mockingbird. Or John Ordway, the colleague who walked with Lewis and Clark every step of the way. Each eye-opening story of these unsung heroes is written by a notable historian and illustrated by a top indie artist, making The Who, the What, and the When a treasure trove of word and image for history buffs, art lovers and anyone who rejoices in unexpected discovery.
Want to find out more? Follow the #SecretSidekicks hashtag!