Although I read “The Story of Mankind” first, I haven’t finished composing my blog for it. The book covers all of history, from the beginning of time to the “Great War.” (World War II hadn’t happened at the time of its publication–1921, so “World War I” was not numerated yet.) It is going to take me a couple of days to whittle my thoughts down to a handful of classy things. For this reason, I am providing my thoughts about the second ever Newbery Award winner, “The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle” (1923) first.
Hugh Lofting’s creation of a medical doctor turned veterinarian after discovering he can communicate with animals was so successful that it spawned 13 books in all. “The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle” is the second of the series. I was hesitant to jump into a sequel, having never read “The Story of Dr. Dolittle”, but was pleasantly surprised to find it very independent… and immensely entertaining, not to mention very valuable. Here are three classy takeaways.
- A Unique Attitude Concerning Wealth: Dr. Dolittle cares little for monetary wealth. He needs money to go on his voyage and buy provisions, but his true wealth is the knowledge that he gains with new discoveries. The doctor never frets over where his funding will come from. He even seems to avoid the matter. When he is making a wager with Don Enrique during “The Doctor’s Wager” (Chapter 34), I was sure that Dolittle was going to ask for money. I was completely surprised by what the author put together! It was some of the most interesting reading I have experienced. Discussion Point: What is the most valuable thing you can think of? (Discuss the word “value” first.)
- Respect: In addition to speaking with the animals, the doctor treats them with respect. Throughout the entire book every animal is given the same level of dignity as humans. Discussion Point: The “Irony” of Dr. Dolittle cooking bacon for breakfast within sentences of a heavenly pig entering the animal-loving home. 2nd Discussion Point: I would talk to my students about the assumption of intelligence. The author, through the character of Dr. Dolittle, assumes every animal not only communicates within its species, but is smart enough to speak with any other, as long as the language specific to the species is understood. This is a fallacy that, in my opinion, ought to be mentioned, so that young listeners’ minds do not develop misconceptions.
Respect is given to enemies. In the beginning of chapter 48, “War!” news of a “thievish” and “envious” group of people preparing to ransack the provisions of a more studious tribe is communicated to the Dr. and his party. His response sums up the classiness of the doctor’s character: “Yet let us not judge harshly. Perhaps it is that they are desperate for food, having their own crops frost-killed before harvest” (p. 183). And, I won’t spoil it for you, but you will be as surprised as the Bag-jagderags when you read the end of “The Peace of the Parrots” to find out how the doctor treats these warmongering thieves. Discussion Point: What might someone else have come up with for “terms” of peace? Look up the terms of peace from other great wars.
Warning: With heavy heart I mention that this, like many old texts, contains traces of racism. I read the original 1921 version of the story that is now in the public domain. I thought that I would merely be mentioning the fact that the n word is used two or three times early on in the book as vernacular of England countrymen. But, upon further reflection, I want to mention a bigger idea. There is a character in the text, Bumpo, who is an African prince. This person studies at Oxford, which is prestigious, and one might, at first glance, think that this is doing Africans a service. When reflecting on the tale as a whole, however, I realized something disturbing that cannot be fixed by simple bowderization (Dominus, 2006). Bumpo, the Oxford student, is relegated to carrying things and cooking for the crew of the curlew (ship), while Tommy, an English boy of ten or eleven, is the doctor’s right-hand man. I’m not sure what kind of “discussion point” to make here, other than the fact that people have traditionally favored humans that look, act, and speak like themselves. This royal, presumably rich (Bumpo traveled to and paid for an education in Oxford.), intelligent (Bumpo was halfway through his studies.) man from Africa is portrayed as less of a person than Tommy. Think about it logically. Bumpo and the doctor have way more in common than do Dolittle and a boy. Tommy doesn’t even come from an educated, wealthy family! I must stop.
3. Science: Although purely and fantastically fictional, this fun novel paints scientific study in a perfectly delightful, exciting, and adventurous light. When other books have kids seeking treasure with buccaneers, Stubbins (the boy’s last name) joins an unlikely captain on the most exhilarating voyage any boy could hope to experience. This tale brings science to the plane of pirates, making knowledge and study as exciting and valuable as gold dublins!
Here is a bonus classy point. I loved the emphasis on thinking in this book. It seemed to me ironic that someone who does so much would be named “Do-little”. I was pleased to see his name changed, albeit temporarily, late in the book, to “Thinkalot”. It was rewarding to see this quality pointed out, rewarded, and admired in a children’s book. And with that I leave you. This was a very classy classic that I plan to read to my class this year. I look forward to the thought-provoking discussions my class and I will enjoy.
Lofting, H. (2012). The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. New York: Sterling Children’s Books. [Bowdlerized version, omitting or changing several racially inappropriate phrases]
Dominus, M. (2006, January 23). The Bowdlerization of Dr. Dolittle. Retrieved July 8, 2018, from https://blog.plover.com/book/Dolittle.html