Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle

I really wanted to like this book by Hugh Lofting. It sounded like such a fun premise -- man talks to animals and all -- that I was hoping for a fun, whimsical book, something like Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh.

But I was highly disappointed.

It started out all right: Tommy Stubbins, son of a Puddleby's cobbler meets Dr. Dolittle, highly regarded naturalist and animal doctor. He's not a veterinarian -- there was a great aside by Polynesia, the parrot:
"Oh, of course there are those vet persons, to be sure. But, bless you, they're no good. You see, they can't understand the animals' language, so how can you expect them to be any use? Imagine yourself, or your father, going to a doctor who could not understand a word you say -- nor even tell you in your own language what you must do to get well! Poof! -- those vets! They're that stupid, you've no idea!"
Anyway. Tommy meets Dr. Dolittle and decides he wants to become a naturalist and talk to animals, too. They arrange it with Tommy's parents, and Tommy becomes Dr. Dolittle's apprentice. And then the adventures (and the problems with the book) start.

Dr. Dolittle is your quintessential uber-Englishman. He manages to keep a man from being hung, sail a ship with only two other crewman (Tommy and an African prince named -- cringe -- Bumpo), beat a Spanish matador at his own sport (bullfighting is cruel and vicious and wrong), find a floating island, find and free Long Arrow (yes, an Indian), practically single-handedly win a war, and become king of the island natives (the Popsipetels) and "educate them" before the book is through. By the end I'd had enough of Dr. John Dolittle.

Then there's the completely racist tone. Yes, I know, it was written in 1921. But still. Bumpo (aside from the name) is a complete doofus, mangling the English language at every turn. Which, while quaint at first soon became highly annoying. (One quote: "How stratagenious!" Bumpo chuckled. "As Cicero said, Parrots cum parishoioners facilime congregation.") I know it's meant to be funny -- and often it was -- but it was at the expense of Bumpo's dignity. Even Long Arrow (the greatest naturalist around) was often at the mercy of O Kindly One (as he took to calling Dr. Dolittle). The island natives were completely helpless, in the dark (both literally and figuratively) until the Great White Englishman came and brought them light. Only Tommy and the animals managed to avoid the complete domination of the white man (ah, but then Tommy was white, too).

In fact, the only character I liked was Polynesia. She was sensible enough, always complaining about the animals bugging the doctor during mealtime. She even had the sense to put a side bet on the doctor during the bull fight thereby getting enough money to fund the rest of their voyage. And after two years on the island, she decided that she wanted to go home, so she got everyone (meaning Tommy, Bumpo and the animals) together and came up with a plan to trick the doctor into leaving his job as king. Here she is, trying to convince the doctor to take a holiday:
"Oh bother the theater -- and the babies, too," snapped Polynesia. "The theater can wait a week. And as for the babies, they never have anything more than colic. How do you suppose babies got along before you came here, for Heaven's sake? Take a holiday... You need it."
But it's biggest fault is that it wasn't silly enough. Lofting was alternately too serious -- launching into lectures about zoos or bull fighting or Indians or something or other -- and just plain dull. It always felt like he was forcing the silliness, trying too hard to come up with something odd or original. The best whimsical books are much less heavy-handed in their, um, whimsy, allowing the books to soar. And in the end, Dr. Dolittle fell flat.


Bekah said...

My memories of Dr. Dolittle were that it was quite dry. What's with these early children's books?

Melissa said...

It wasn't really dry as much as it was trying too hard. Older books can be fun -- The Secret Garden/Little Princess, Anne of Greene Gables, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland for example.

But I think that in the early years perhaps the committe or authors were trying too hard -- to be dignified? to be English?

Maybe it being the 1920s had something to do with it.