The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

Voyages_of_Doctor_Dolittleddvoy3

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1923

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

by Hugh Lofting

Ages: 7 +

Interests: animals, travel, fantasy, boats, adventure

Dell: 1922/1988

311 pages

Other Dr. Dolittle books: The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920), Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office (1923), Doctor Dolittle’s Circus (1924), Doctor Dolittle’s Zoo (1925), Doctor Dolittle’s Caravan (1926), Doctor Dolittle’s Garden (1927), Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928), Doctor Dolittle’s Return (1933), Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (1948), Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary (1950), Doctor Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures (1952)

Movie versions: Doctor Dolittle (1967) (Though to be honest, the reviews for this movie are universally negative. There is a more modern series of Dolittle films starring Eddie Murphy, but they seem to have nothing to do with the original books save for the central concept of a doctor who can understand the language of animals.)

Ten-year-old Tommy Stubbins meets the brilliant Dr. Dolittle in his small town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh and, sharing his love of animals, becomes his apprentice. Dr. Dolittle is a medical doctor and dedicated naturalist who has learned to speak and understand the languages of many animals and birds. He has traveled the world studying all kinds of creatures, and plans to take Tommy along on his next voyage. At the dock an old friend arrives to join the crew: Bumpo, the crown prince of Jolliginki who had been studying at Oxford but has decided college life is not for him. After a couple of mishaps with stowaways they are finally on their way, and land on a Spanish island where the doctor disrupts a bullfight and attempts to convince the people to stop the practice altogether. After a storm shipwrecks them friendly porpoises help Tommy rejoin his friends on Spider Monkey Island. There they rescue a famous naturalist named Long Arrow from imprisonment inside a mountain. The island itself is drifting southward into colder climes, and the doctor enlists the help of whales to push it back to South America where it belongs. Next they help Long Arrow’s tribe defend themselves against an attacking tribe, and Dr. Dolittle fights with such ferocity that he is crowned king. After a few months of good governance a giant Pink Sea Snail appears and is kind enough to give them a ride back to England. They arrive in Puddleby just in time for tea.

This is the second of Lofting’s books about the doctor, but is apparently much more ambitious than the first, and pitched to an older audience. (This is also one of the three books –¬†along with The Story of DD, and DD’s Circus – that were merged into one story for the 1967 movie.) It has a great deal of old-fashioned charm, particularly in its description of Dolittle’s home life with all his animals. The plotline is all over the place, as meandering as their travels, but full of adventure and excitement.

The main character is quite inspirational in his dedication to learning and science, and his love and empathy for all creatures, large or small. In these aspects Dolittle is quite modern, though strangely enough he is not vegetarian, which would seem like a no-brainer today! Eating bacon when in the company of pigs, in fact having it cooked for him by a pig may strike some modern readers as pretty shocking. Presumably in 1920s England it didn’t seem possible for even an animal-lover to give up sausages.

The whimsy of the story makes it good for young children, though it might be too difficult for them to read for themselves. This would be a good book to read aloud to seven-year-olds. There are moments of violence, especially in the chapter about the war. Dolittle states mildly that wars are a bad business, but when push comes to shove he picks up a club and fights. The war is not described in much detail, but Long Arrow does get a spear in the chest (he survives). Read ahead to decide if anything is too intense for your child.

The main reason you might hesitate to read this to young children would be the general attitude of white superiority. It’s inevitable that a book written in 1922 and including encounters with other races would include outdated and derogatory language. I read the 1988 Dell edition, which removed some of the worst bits. As Christopher Lofting puts it in this edition’s Afterward, “there were certain incidents depicted that, in light of today’s sensitivities, were considered by some to be disrespectful to ethnic minorities and, therefore, perhaps inappropriate for today’s young reader.” The problem was whether or not one should meddle with a classic at all, and raise the spectre of censorship, but in the end the changes were “minor enough not to interfere with the style and spirit of the original”, and Lofting asserts that had the author still been alive he himself would have been more than eager to make the changes. (If you are interested in the details of these changes, they have been laid out nicely in this blog post by Mark Dominus from 2006.)

There are still many traces of imperial thinking that remain: namely the entrenched assumption of white superiority in intellect, breeding and morals that is difficult to purge entirely from a book like this. It is most apparent when Dolittle rules over the Popsipetel tribe, who are so backward and helpless that they fairly clamor for his help and revere him like a god. Even so, Lofting does seem to be pretty fair-minded for the time. Even though Bumpo is a figure of some ridicule, with his malapropisms and enormous bare feet, he is also a brave and trustworthy friend. Likewise, Long Arrow is a brilliant naturalist who Dolittle admires greatly. There are also several villainous white characters encountered along the way, to balance the scales somewhat.

When all is said and done, this is a classic children’s novel, but also a product of its time. If you include a little context and explanation it could provoke a great discussion with readers in the nine to ten-year-old range.

p005350px-Voyages_of_Dr_Dolittle_p189(illustrations by Hugh Lofting)

 

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.