The adventures of Dr. Dolittle and his tireless young friend Tommy Stubbins have delighted readers for nearly a century. Dr. Dolittle is a naturalist who's discovered the secret of talking to animals in their own language, and he spends much of his time traveling the world seeking exotic specimens. Don't let the movies fool you: Hugh Lofting was an imaginitive and capable writer, and the stories of the good Doctor make fine reading for readers of all ages.
In The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, nine-and-a-half-year-old Tommy Stubbins accompanies the Doctor to his magic garden in the English seaport village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, to coastal Spain, and to Brazil by way of Spidermonkey Island. Lofting offers the kind of detail one only seems to find in children's literature—the fact that the Spaniards eat bananas fried in olive oil, for instance, sets the scene perfectly while not boring us with too much information.
Tommy Stubbins narrates, and describes the world of 1839 as though it were a wonderland. Some of the places he and Dolittle go are indeed fantastical, but there's also plenty that's familiar, and we get the sense that we're experiencing the world in the same way explorers experienced it when much of it was still undiscovered by Europeans. We also meet representatives of other races that reflect the attitudes of Westerners in the early 19th century.
Which has led to a certain problem. Modern editions of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (those published after 1988, that is) are edited, leaving out descriptions, words, stanzas of poems, and even illustrations that may be considerd offensive or insensitive to contemporary readers. While we at Exodus Books heartily agree that racism is a sin and should not be practiced, we also don't believe in censorship, especially if it actually changes the book or makes it something other than was originally intended.
Here's the real irony: it is apparent throughout this book that Lofting himself is no racist, and that he's simply reflecting some mild attitudes of the expanding world at the time his heroes lived and traveled. Wouldn't it be better if the publishers had left these bits in to provide parents and teachers the opportunity to discuss historic views on race and the problem of bigotry? And if they were willing to cut these parts out, what else did they excise? It's best to let the text speak for itself.
It's particularly unfortunate that censorship would taint such a delightful book as this.The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is elegantly and comically written, the illustrations are whimsical, and the adventures of Tommy, the Doctor, the parrot Polynesia, and their friends are thrilling, hilarious, and unique. If you can find a pre-1988 edition, buy it; if not, this one will do, but be aware that it's not exactly the same book that readers initially enjoyed, a book that is just as appealing now as it was 90 years ago.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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