Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

The first thing that I had to chose when I decided to read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting, was which edition to pick. I tried reading the original edition online here, but I don't have an e-reader and I really like reading in bed.

After looking at Amanda's post on the different editions and the content that was removed, I settled on Bantam's Yearling 1988 paperback (shown here), which was the one my local library had on the shelf anyway. I like the fact that it has many of the original illustrations and it is upfront (well, in the afterword) about the editing and the reasons for doing it. I don't really like the cover, though. Pink? Are they trying to drive boys away from it? When I went Googling for this cover, though, I found that Bantam had changed the design and the cover, and the new blue-green one was much nicer.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the first part of the story. I think that I had read at least the beginning of this book as a child (I remembered Tommy Stubbins and Polynesia and Dab-Dab, though maybe this was from a different Doctor Dolittle story), but it didn't make enough of an impression on me that I ever re-read it, or asked for my own copy.

As an adult, I particularly liked the description of the Doctor's garden (in the chapter appropriately titled 'The Garden of Dreams'), probably because it really is my dream garden:
When breakfast was over the Doctor took me out to show me the garden. Well, if the house had been interesting, the garden was a hundred times more so. At first, you did not realize how big it was. When you were sure that you had seen it all, you would peer over a hedge or turn a corner or look up some steps, and there was a whole new part.

It had everything. There were wide lawns with carved stone seats, green with moss. Over the lawns hung weeping willows, and their feathery bough tips brushed the velvet grass when they swung with the wind. The old flagged paths had high clipped yew hedges on either side of them, so that they looked like the narrow streets of some old town; and through the hedges, doorways had been made; and over the doorways were shapes like vases and peacocks and a half-moons all trimmed out of the living trees. There was a lovely marble fishpond with golden carp and blue water lilies in it and big green frogs. A high brick wall alongside the kitchen garden was all covered with pink and yellow peaches ripening in the sun. There was a wonderful great oak, hollow in the trunk, big enough for four men to hide inside. Many summerhouses there were, too - some of wood and some of stone - and one of them was full of books to read (p. 44-45).
There's more, too - there is also an outdoor fireplace, couches (with wheels on them) to sleep upon on warm summer nights, rocks, ferns, and a treehouse, and loads of birds, and "stoats and tortoises and dormice" and "toads of different colors and sizes" (p 45).

So I was happily reading along, enjoying Lofting's aptitude for description, and the character of Dr. Dolittle, who is rather charming, and then Tommy and the Doctor (does anyone else think of Doctor Who with all these references to "the Doctor" and with everyone calling John Dolittle "Doctor" instead of Dr. D. or Dr. Dolittle?) and Bumpo and some animals set out on their journey to Spider Monkey Island.

I got increasingly uncomfortable at the way the Indians on Spider Monkey Island are portrayed. Long Arrow is a great naturalist, but his people - the Popsipetel - are so backwards they don't even know how to use fire, or cook their food. Now this is interesting, because this was a huge Victorian myth in the 19th century - that there were actually humans in far off "savage" places who had so little material culture that they didn't have fire (or clothes or tools) or cook their food.

There is absolutely no evidence that any people anywhere in the world did not use fire, by the way, as Richard Wrangham describes in a recent book (Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human), which proposes that the use of fire was as essential to human evolution as walking on two legs, hunting, or using tools. So having John Dolittle not only show the Indians "what town sewers were and how garbage should be collected each day and burned" (p. 271), and make a dam and purify their drinking water to prevent "many of the sicknesses that they had suffered from before" (p. 272), and teach them metallurgy, democracy, and "the proper care of babies, with a host of other subjects" (p. 273), but for him to give them something that essentially makes them human? Yeah, more than a little condescending. And this part of the book can't be as easily removed as the pictures of Bumpo and the descriptions of his wife.

The journey home in the great glass sea snail is wonderful and whimsical, and something I'm glad to have read. I just wish the Doctor had stuck to animals and never met the Popsipetels or the Bag-jagderags, or become King Jong Thinkalot.


Amy B. said...

Your blog is such a great find! As a second year ES library media specialist, this is a great resource and I look forward to contributing as I read through the Newberys. Thank you!

Karen B said...

Sandy, I think your last sentence is a good summary. It seemed to me, among other things, that the author tried to take on too much by crowning Doctor Dolittle king and suddenly casting him as some kind of architect of civilization. The book's and characters' strengths are in their teamwork as they travel from place to place, helping people and animals. As a reader, that was all I needed. Doctor Dolittle's suddenly becoming this godlike personage teaching a "backwards" people how to live--that is just over-reaching and more than a bit offensive.

Your comments also made me realize how uncomfortable I was with the name "Jong Thinkalot." So...nobody else on the island does much thinking?

But the book does have its charms, especially the garden. I guess we learn from the book's faults and its merits.

Amanda (the librarian) said...

I agree - the blue cover is much better than the pink one!