The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting

VoyagesWe’re back!  At least, I’m back…after a long hiatus that can only be explained by the fact that having a full-time job is, in fact, a full-time job, and especially so when you occasionally have to work overtime and always come home to a house with a toddler in it.  Also, my laptop died early last year (see Blue Screen of Death) and once it miraculously revived itself, I had forgotten the new password (I am never ever changing my password again).  I only unlocked it last week (thank you Canada Computers for your knowledgeable staff and great prices!  I know some people think you are a bunch of tech snobs who look down on us mere mortals, but I still love you!) and have since been busy downloading pics from iCloud and gettin’ stuff done.  (In case you are wondering, I did have a laptop all of last year, thanks to work.  It was a work laptop, which I habitually do not use at home unless I have actual work to do.  This is a sanity-saving measure that I encourage lawyers to invoke in order to, well, save sanity).

Anyways.  All this to say that I am writing this review long long after having read the book.  Thankfully, my past self was smart enough to leave reams of notes about Dr. Dolittle and his voyages.

The bare bones of the book: Dr. Dolittle, who has been introduced to readers in a previous book (which I have not read), goes on an epic sea voyage, taking along the narrator, young Tommy Stubbins who is reminiscing about the whole amazing trip.  And amazing it is – any trip with an animal doctor who speaks animal languages is bound to be pretty cool.  Especially if it is an epic sea voyage, around the world, to places unknown (at least, unknown to Tommy), and with no particular itinerary.  Courtroom drama?  Check.  Lots of animals?  Check.  Did you catch that it is about an epic sea voyage where they sail around the world?  I’ll mention it again, because the words ‘sailing’ and ‘around the world’ get a lot of imaginary adventuring traction (at least, I think so – which is why Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the best Narnia book, hands down.  Also, Dawn Treader is such a great name for a ship, but I digress).

A few things about this book:

  • It won a Newbery Medal in 1923.
  • The afterward is by Gary Schmidt.  I’ve reviewed (and likely will continue to review, because he is so amazing) his books, including Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and What Came from the Stars.
  • The book is also available for free at Project Gutenberg, if that’s your thing.  I borrowed mine from the library, because that’s my thing.
  • Oh yeah, and it’s super racist.

Yup, you heard me.

This particular edition (the Signet Classics edition) is the unedited original version.  It includes racist terms and stereotypical depictions of Africans and aboriginal persons. Other editions omit racist terms, depictions, and so on, with the blessing of the author’s son (Christopher Lofting), who claims his father would be horrified to be considered offensive (Hugh Lofting had passed away by the time the racism was pointed out). The preface is super interesting and does talk about this a bit (not in depth – it’s only a preface).

I don’t want to get into a long discussion of racism, mostly because I no longer have the book with me and it’s been so long since I read it (about a year).  But it would feel, well, wrong, to ‘review’ the book without mentioning race at all, since it is clearly a sore point in what is otherwise a great story (at least, a sore point for me).  So with my post-baby2 brain (i.e. facts and arguments may be located in corrupted sectors and may be unrecoverable), I can report:

  • The characterization of Bumpo, the African prince, bothered me.  A lot.  My guess is that he was meant to be a mixture of comic relief and endearing to readers.  This is, clearly, dated.  He was so much a caricature of a bumbling, out-of-his-element, fool, that I was quite uncomfortable.  Bumpo is an Oxford man, in England for his education.  He is a prince.  Lofting chooses to strip him of dignity and to mock his poor English, without any acknowledgment of the dignity he might actually have (you know, being a prince among his own people), his bravery (you know, in crossing the globe to attend school in an unknown and completely alien country), or his smarts (you know, since he got in Oxford for goodness sake, and is being educated in his third or likely fourth language).  I don’t remember Bumpo as being an unsympathetic character – Lofting clearly liked him (as did the narrator of the story and Dr. Doolittle).  And of course, children’s novels often portray characters in a one-dimensional way (I think this is also true of the good Dr. Doolittle himself).  And in a book that is primarily about animals, one can hardly expect Lofting to spend a chapter talking about Bumpo’s overcoming of adversities and oppressions and to give readers a fuller idea of who Bumpo may be…but I still didn’t like it.
  • The characterization of Long Arrow (the ‘red skin’, and more on that here for those of you interested in the Washington Redskins court cases) really bothered me.  Clearly a Noble Savage – ugh.  Did it bother me more than Bumpo?  I think so.  Why?  I’m not sure – we could do a psychological study to see, but I think that part of it is that the Bumbling Black Man is (I believe, but maybe I’m wrong) now a well-recognized racist stereotype that is just plain wrong (and other, newer, racist stereotypes now prevail)…whereas the Wise Old Indian is still one of those pervasive racist myths that could be coloured as ‘acceptable’ and therefore not racist (isn’t wisdom good?  How can you be racist about good things? Don’t all Indians have a special connection to Nature?  How can that be a racist portrayal?  Well, it can and is, and don’t even get me started on model minorities).

All that said, this book is, well, winsome and fun. Am I an anglophile, or do I just like animals?  It’s hard to know.  I did grow up reading a lot of Enid Blyton, longing for clotted cream on berries, ginger beery picnics in the heather (or is that Scotland?) and potted meat sandwiches.  (Why is it that English food is mythologized as generally terrible, but English books have the most delicious descriptions of teas?  There is something not quite right there).

So, what is the final word?  Read with caution.  Or, don’t read it.  There are lots of other books out there that you could flog to your kids.  For those who want to read about a real-life British animal charmer and his real-life travels while a child and an adult, I suggest anything by Gerald Durrell.  I loved reading his books and started them around when I was 12.  My Family and Other Animals was my favourite at the time, but some of his other books are just meant for older people.  I don’t remember racism in it, but can stand to be corrected if someone points it out.  It’s been awhile.

Rating: B+, for older children with someone to discuss the race issues with.  It’s really quite well written and I’m surprised at myself for not having read it before, and for not having any interest in it whatsoever.  If you’re not going to be around to discuss racism with your kid, I wouldn’t bother reading it at all.  As a side note, the so-called ‘cleaned up’ versions still abound with implications of colonialism even if certain words are omitted, so I don’t think handing out the clean versions with impunity works, either.  For more on that, you may want to read this web article on censorship in children’s books.  Also interesting is this site where some of the ‘clean’ and ‘original’ sections are compared.  Clearly, the cleanup was not very effective.

Reading ages: This book is text-heavy and uses semi-archaic British language.  That, plus racism to discuss, makes me peg the book at a higher age than I might otherwise (say, 14), just because some younger teens might not be ready to commit to a densely written book with charged subtext.  That said, I would easily have read it at 11-12.  The story itself is not that complex and an older teen might not think it is cool to read about talking to animals (although, who knows why, the same teen might think it is übercool to read about vampires and werewolves for the umpteenth time, no matter how crappy the writing).

Racism or not?: When I originally read it, I was so carried away by the romance of the sea voyage that I thought the racism wasn’t something to get too hung up on.  Now, almost a year later, I’m hung up on it.  This book is a relic of its time, as are many books that I enjoy, including the Sherlock Holmes series, Rudyard Kipling’s books, Dickens, Wilder, and Coolidge.  There are lots of things said by these authors (and their characters) that I am not thrilled about.  Rather than let the racism (overt or otherwise) spoil my fun, I would rather read it, acknowledge it, and then talk it through.  Uncritical reading by children of books with racist tones is problematic (e.g. the Little House on the Prairie series – which I adore – and how its treatment of Native characters shaped my childhood understanding of “Indians”, and oh how wrong I was and would that someone had been around to discuss it with me).

Other criticisms?:  Why, yes.  Where are the girls?!  How come there are no girls in this book?!  All of the adventurers are guys!  Even the girl-duck stays at home to keep house while the others sail off to Places Unknown.  Hmph, I say.  And also, please, please discuss this with your kids, too.  Girls are allowed to have adventures.  They should have adventures.  Even girl-animals should have adventures.  They should be protagonists.  Is that so hard to understand?!

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