In my quest to read all the Newbery Medal winners, I decided to tackle one of the oldest books given this award and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. I had a hard time getting through this, and I need to be honest here, I skimmed a lot of this book. A LOT. If it weren’t for my stated goal of reading all the Newbery Medal Winners, I don’t think would have done finished the book. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle won the Newbery Medal in 1923, which was the second year this award was presented. I knew going in that it was likely to reflect some of the more problematic aspects of the era, and I was not wrong. As I was expecting that, I was ready to move past those parts of the book, but the story in general was just not engaging and I found the writing to be a little stilted.
Honestly, as an introduction to Dr. Doolitle, this book isn’t too bad. We start with young Tommy Stubbins who lives in the same town as the Doctor, though has never heard of him. He becomes acquainted with Dolittle because of an injured squirrel and decides he wants to become Dolittle’s apprentice. The rest of the book follows Dolittle as he searches for Long Arrow, a Native American naturalist, and attempts to learn the language of the shellfish. I would be far more impressed with this inclusion of a non-white character if the book didn’t make it 100% clear that Long Arrow wasn’t as good as Dolittle and there weren’t strong whiffs of the magical injun trope every time he was mentioned. The book also has the character of Bumpo, an African prince who was introduced in the first book, and it is not good. I mean, he may be attending Oxford, but at one point he jokingly suggest cannibalism. There’s also a minor plot point where Dolittle becomes king of an island after solving the problems those silly natives just couldn’t work out. This book has issues with colonialism is what I’m saying.
As a side note, that has nothing to do with anything, there are an awful lot of predators and prey living side-by-side. Predators, including the human characters, eating meat around the animals that meat comes from without a hint of conflict. I had a hard time buying that a bird housekeeper would have no problem cooking the household meals, meals which likely included chicken. I’m not sure why this particular aspect of the book is what bounced off my wall of disbelief, but there you go.
The thing that I do find redeeming about the book is the character of Dolittle himself. He’s a scientist, whose curiosity is what leads him to travel the world in search of new animals to talk to. He’s kind and his love of animals comes through (despite him eating meat, and I suspect this is simply my modern sensibilities talking as they are far more used to vegan animal activists). Dolittle displays a respect for animals, and a desire to see the end of their suffering, that feels almost revolutionary for a book written in 1922. There’s one episode where Dolittle takes down the bullfighting sport in Spain, because it is so cruel to the bulls. I mean, he’s in Spain because he’s running low on salted beef, but details. I can see why he’s considered an inspiration for so many veterinarians and animal activists. I’ve been wondering why we don’t see more Dr. Dolittle inspired works, the first two books fall into the public domain here in the US, and I do think the bones of the story are good. If you eliminate the colonialism and the racism then it’s basically a story about an animal lover spreading his knowledge around the world. And then I realized that Mrs. Frizzle and the Magic Schoolbus is his spiritual decedent.
I suspect that younger children would enjoy this far more than I did. I kept getting pulled out of the story by some of the silliness, and I do think a child would appreciate it more and not be quite so bothered by the writing style. That being said, because of the racism inherent in the story (and the version I read was edited a bit for content) I would be hesitant to give it to a child to read, so heavy supervision is required with this one.