Sunday, December 04, 2016

Reading the Newbery Winners: The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle

Oh, this was fun, and took me back. By the time I became a voracious reader in the early '70s, the Doctor Doolittle books had fallen out of favor and quietly gone out of print. I didn't know that at the time, however, and my school library still had many of them, which I enjoyed reading at the time. So I was eagerly looking forward to the second Newbery winner, The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. However, since that is actually the second book in the series, I decided to also read the first book, The Story of Doctor Doolittle as well. Fortunately, my local library system has the very nice (and ever so slightly edited to keep up with the times) editions of both books published by Books of Wonder with afterwords by my friend Peter Glassman. (Sadly, these editions seem to now be out of print as well.)

So, first off, a quick look at The Story of Doctor Doolittle: It does a terrific job of establishing the Doctor and his world, and how he came to change from a doctor for humans to a doctor for animals who could actually talk to them and find out what was wrong with them rather than poke and prod and guess like your standard veterinarian. And of course we find out how he learned to talk to animals in the first place, thanks to one of the best characters in the series, the long-lived and very experienced parrot Polynesia. Doolittle gains fame in the animal world by curing a disease among the monkeys of Africa, after running afoul of the king of Jolliginki, but it is Prince Bumpo who helps the Doctor get back to England after Doctor Doolittle helps Bumpo achieve one of his fondest wishes. (Those familiar with the original version of the book can probably understand why this is probably the biggest change made in the Books of Wonder edition. Fortunately, it includes a thorough foreword that explains the original and why the changes were made.) It was a surprisingly quick read, and does a good job of building this world and developing the Doctor's character.

Now the main attraction: The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. Much to my surprise, this was not a slight little book, but a much larger volume, over twice as long, and divided into six parts! It still proved to be a quick read, however, as this is a rollicking series of adventures. We get to see a lot more of Doctor Doolittle's life in Puddleby through the eyes of a new character, Tommy Stubbins, the cobbler's son. Tommy is the narrator for this book (and much of the rest of the series, if I recall correctly), and that new, up-close perspective really opens the story up. Stubbins (as the Doctor calls him, making him feel very grown up) becomes Doolittle's assistant and pupil, and also learns to talk to the animals. Through Stubbins' eyes we learn more about the Doctor's house, how so many animals can live there, and how the Doctor and his friends go about their lives. Much of the first third of the book takes place in Puddleby, but before long they decide to go on a voyage, in part to investigate the disappearance of another famed naturalist, Long Arrow. But first, they need a crew for their new ship—which leads to trouble when they try to recruit Luke the Hermit. It turns out that Luke is a fugitive from the Mexican law (hence his becoming a hermit) whose past has caught up with him. The trial proves to be one of the biggest events in Puddleby's history, but thanks to Doctor Doolittle being able to interpret for Luke's dog, Luke is found not guilty and is then reunited with his wife. Since Luke isn't available anymore, the Doctor's old friend Bumpo makes a timely visit during a break from his studies at Oxford and is then recruited instead. Bumpo, Stubbins, and several of the animals prove to be an able crew. After putting a stop to the bullfights in some Spanish islands along the way and many adventures at sea, the crew eventually makes its way to Spidermonkey Island, save Long Arrow, brings about peace between the two warring factions, and anchors the island after it drifts too far south (yes, Spidermonkey Island is—well, was, now—a floating island). So of course he is made King of the island, which is exactly what a humble man like Dr. John Doolittle doesn't want. Nevertheless, he is a kind and extremely proactive king, and makes Spidermonkey Island a very nice place to live. His friends all realize that unless they take action, he will never leave, so they conspire to give him a way to get back to Puddleby, which he eventually takes, albeit reluctantly.

Yes, this book was a lot of fun, and to be honest, the doctor is much too humble! He is a good doctor, but also a brilliant and clever naturalist and linguist, and a kind and compassionate soul. He doggedly tries to learn the shellfish language throughout the book, and brilliantly succeeds in the end. And to be honest, I now can't recall if I ever read this book before! I remembered bits and pieces as I read, but I think a lot of that came from the musical film. Many of the incidents that weren't in the movie I don't remember at all. But it has also been at least forty years since I read any of the books, so I may just have forgotten. But I have really enjoyed reading about Doctor Doolittle again, and I may very well see if interlibrary loan or cheap used books can help me read the rest of the series, just for fun.