Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting

First, let me say that this was a lot of fun! I had seen the Disney movie from the 60s (with Rex Harrison) a long time ago, but the movie didn't exactly thrill me and I never picked up the book. I'm not a huge Eddie Murphy fan, so the newer movies didn't increase its appeal. But the "hype" around the book, I now understand!

The edition I picked up from the library happened to be a revised edition, "for 21st century readers". The editors explain that they took the job very seriously, and tried their very best to keep Mr. Lofting's style, while removing some cultural insensitivities that were okay in 1922 but not 2001. I couldn't tell where they had made changes, so I think they must have done a good job! I'll see about finding an "original" edition to compare, later on.

For those unfamiliar, Dr. John Dolittle is an extraordinary doctor in that he can speak the languages of animals. He considers himself not a vet, however, but a naturalist. He would probably talk to plants, too, if he could. His attitudes toward animal husbandry are actually quite modern - he grows furious at the thought of a bull fight, and is emphatic in his belief that big cats should never be caged, as two quick examples. In this book, which is actually a sequel (more on that later), the story is told by Tommy Stubbins, who is 9 at the start of the book, and is eventually the Doctor's assistant in exchange for room, board, and education. Tommy accompanies Dr. Dolittle on a voyage to a floating island somewhere near the coast of Brazil, along with the African Prince Bumpo, Polynesia the parrot, Jip the dog, and Chee-Chee the monkey. Along the way they also make friends with some bulls in Spain, porpoises, polar bears, a few fish, and a giant snail. The characters are delightful, and the story is exciting enough to keep you turning pages (yes, even as an adult) yet not stressful enough to frighten younger children much.

While the book was carefully edited for overt cultural insensitivities, there are some more subtle ones that remain. On the floating island, the crew finds an Indian village full of friendly but woefully ignorant people. Their chief dies of a cold early during their stay, and a mother comes to the doctor desperate to have him save her baby - who is merely cold. These people don't know about fire! So the Doctor gives them fire. Their chief having died, they elect him as their new king, and though he is reluctant about accepting, Dr. Dolittle takes his new position seriously. He immediately goes about "improving" their lives. With Doctor Dolittle in charge (who they have renamed Doctor Thinksalot), there are roads, and theaters, and better houses, and better farming practices, and healthier babies... Doctor Dolittle, though, is not content. He's a naturalist at heart. But he feels he cannot leave the people now, because they couldn't manage without him. In the end, his crew convinces him to take a holiday, and from there convinces him to catch a ride with the giant snail back to England. Though for months he couldn't bear to leave his subjects alone, he finds the best solution is to disappear without any warning. We don't know how the people manage without him, but hope for the best, I suppose. The colonial implications here are obvious, and yet... it's hard to know what to think of the solution.

As I mentioned before, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is actually a sequel. The first book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, was actually a compilation of letters written by Lofting to his children from the Front during WWI. While recovering from an injury in an army hospital, Lofting found himself thinking about how humans got medical help when severely wounded, but a horse only got relief in the form of a single shot to the head... and that in order to really help animals, it would be immensely helpful to be able to speak their language. As he later told an interviewer, there were not many things to write to children about that were not either too boring or too horrible, and so he ended up writing stories for them about a doctor who could talk to animals. And thus Doctor Dolittle was born.

As for this book, I'd recommend it. It's a lot of fun, and the language has aged well (sentence-wise, it feels like it could have been written this year!). I think the colonial overtones would be a great thing to talk to a kid about, as or after they read it - there could probably be interesting discussions about whether the Indians really needed Doctor Dolittle's help as badly as he thought they did, and whether his solution to the problem was the right one.

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