1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (stereotyping entire continents in one fell swoop)

VERDICT: Treasure (sort of….)

Rating: 3/5

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, the 1923 Newbery Medal Winner, is a much quicker read than the previous year’s award winner. In it, the adventures of the English Doctor Dolittle, speaker of most animal languages, continue. Lofting replaces the omniscient narrator of The Story of Doctor Dolittle with a first person narration by Tommy Stubbins, a boy who becomes Dolittle’s assistant.

Roughly the first third of the book covers events leading to the doctor’s voyage. Many of the chapters fail to move the plot forward, although, in all fairness, a few of them were my personal favorites. For example, Dolittle convinces the court to allow a dog to testify in front of a trial court. P1020222

We learn that Doctor Dolittle has a South American equivalent, Long Arrow, who specializes in plants but also speaks to animals. When Long Arrow disappears, Doctor Dolittle sets sail for Spider Monkey Island, where he was last seen. After the requisite travel misadventures (never sail with Dolittle if you want both the boat and yourself to arrive at the destination in one piece), Dolittle, his assistant Tommy Stubbins, Polynesia the parrot, Bumpo son of an African king, Chee-chee the monkey, and Jip the dog arrive on the island. Dolittle rescues Long Arrow and other tribe members from a cave, teaches them about fire, and helps them defeat a rival tribe. For his troubles, both tribes crown him King of the island. Eventually, Stubbins and Polynesia “free” the Doctor from his kingship and everyone hitches a ride home inside a glass snail. Yes, you read that right, a see through snail, last of his kind, takes the crew home to England. At least that’s one means of transport Dolittle can’t sink.

The storyline and plot are decent enough. Although they’re not riveting, events move along. The biggest negative to this book, in my opinion, is the blatant stereotyping and racism. Bumpo, the son of an African chief, joins the crew after studying at Oxford. His dialogue consists chiefly of malapropisms and other attempts at comic relief. He primarily comes into play when bashing and muscle is necessary. As a word of caution, the original and early editions of this book do use the “n” word, so if you’re looking to have a child read this, either search out a newer edition or be prepared to discuss the language use. The South American tribes are depicted in an unflattering light as well. They never discovered fire, fail at attempts to prepare edible food, and construct buildings that fall down rapidly. Lofting repeatedly hammers home their characterization as, alternately, warlike, simple, and superstitious.
As with Story of Mankind, the illustrations were one of my favorite features. However, they were also problematic, as they continued the ridiculously racist work begun in the text. The illustration on the right is just one example, with Bumpo (on the far right) depicted with very ape-like features.

Overall, this book is a fairly fast and entertaining read. Unlike the previous choice, it didn’t arouse strong feelings, either positive or negative, in me. If I did have children read this, contextualization, particularly of Lofting’s portrayal of non-white cultures, would be critical.


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