Posted by: Lizzie Ross | July 3, 2010

Pushmi-Pullyu & Co.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting (1920), Dell Yearling, 150 pp.

It’s almost embarrassing that I love these books so much. I have no particular affinity for animals, so no particular wish to talk to them. Either they’re not so smart (after all, they generally end up doing a lot of work for us), or very clever in making us think they’re not so smart.

But Dr. Dolittle is so irrepressible, so undaunted by lack of money, or shipwreck, or other’s negative opinions of him that it’s a joy to watch him go about doing what he does best, which is learning about animals so that he can take better care of them, and having adventures.

It’s a bit troubling that he has a pet pig, yet eats bacon with great frequency, and that he doesn’t turn away from fried seafood while he’s in the midst of attempting to learn the language of shellfish. Yet I’m sure he’d be just as happy eating seaweed, and probably would if he ever heard complaints from anything he was planning to eat.

The best character is Polynesia, the centuries-old parrot who likes to scold. She hates that Dr. Dolittle’s meals are always disturbed by patients wanting treatment, and thinks he’s too kind-hearted and generous for his own good. She also likes knowing more than others, and never hesitates to exhibit her expertise. During a shipwreck, she takes charge of the rescue:

“Get the rope!” said Polynesia. “I told you it would come in handy. Where’s that duck? Come here, Dab-Dab. Take this end of the rope, fly to the shore, and tie it onto a palm tree; and we’ll hold the other end on the ship here. Then those that can’t swim must climb along the rope till they reach the land. That’s what you call a ‘life-line.'”

When Lofting wrote and illustrated this series in the 1920s, he included language and drawings that, by the 1950s, would have offended minority groups. The editions published in the 1980s were thus edited, retaining the humor and generosity of the original, but omitting Lofting’s caricatures. In an afterword, Lofting’s son, Christopher Lofting, explains, “The deciding factor was the strong belief that the author himself would have immediately approved of making these alterations.”

If that’s what it takes to keep these books in print, then the bowdlerizations are worth it.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922), Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office (1923), Doctor Dolittle’s Circus (1924), Doctor Dolittle’s Zoo (1925), Doctor Dolittle’s Caravan (1926), Doctor Dolittle’s Garden (1927), Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928), Doctor Dolittle’s Return (1933), Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (1948), Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary (1950)

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