I got this as a free audiobook, and it was prefaced by a foreword from someone letting me know that what I was about to read was the pinnacle of children’s literature, much better than most of the trash out there, and was, in fact, a work of genius. After listening to the book, I can say I disagree with this. I feel sorry for anyone who was a child in the twenties, if this is the best option available to them.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some cool elements to this story. The doctor not only can speak to the animals, (because his parrot teaches him) but they all adore him and do their best to accommodate his desires. Like a P.G.Wodehouse flavored Elric of Melnibone, Doctor Dolittle asks his animal friends to solve all his problems. The parrot and the duck do the thinking, the dog does the smelling, the owl does the listening, and the pig cries a lot and slows them down.
At its heart, this is basically a trickster story. That’s the good part of this story. How can the swallows help them out-race the pirates? How can the monkeys help them get across a gorge? How can they escape from the king’s dungeon? Most of these were delightful and fun, like folktales. In fact, they reminded me quite a bit of the puss-in-boots tales, except with a whole menagerie in place of a cat. The best part of the story is the pushmi-pullyu, which everyone remembers even if they remember nothing else from the story.
The second worst part of the story is the lack of research. This reads like Lofting had never left his home town and couldn’t be bothered to walk to the library, presuming that his hoary weathered Encyclopedia had sufficient details. Maybe rather uneducated children might not mind that he calls Africa a country, and that a parrot named after a place on the other side of the world coincidentally recognizes the first place they land on Africa as home. Not-well-read children might not also mind that he lumps all the animals together, even ones who live on separate continents. But maybe that’s no worse than Babar the Elephant. Maybe I’m just too fussy. After all, what kind of killjoy ruins a perfectly good children’s book with silly questions like “Where does a pushmi-pullyu poop from?”
But what killed this story for me is its troubling, unrepentant racism. Let’s step aside the ignorance of “Africa is a country” and why an Arab pirate wants to eat a pig. The story of the prince who wanted to be white so that the sleeping beauties wouldn’t run away from his black face alarmed and shocked me. I guess I’m too liberal. Yes, you’re saying, but you have to take it in historical context. Well, maybe. If you’re looking to read children’s literature because you want to gather first-hand sources of early twentieth century English culture, then you should include this. If you just want a fun story to read to your kids, look elsewhere, or edit it heavily, unless you want to explain why a prince shoudl be ashamed of his skin color.
This may have been the best thing going back when your parents or grandparents were wee ones, and I’m not doubting that they have fond memories of it. But, as with computers, hair products, and electronic music, we have much better options these days. Some books are classic because their genius stands the test of time. Other books are classic because people who liked it as a kid have forgotten the weak parts. This is the latter kind.