There’s this man, this very extraordinary, mysterious, eccentric man. He visits distant lands. He’s from a different time. He travels on adventures with a companion who is much too young for him. And he is known throughout as the Doctor…
If only! No, John Dolittle, the eponymous character from the 1923 Newbery medal winner The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, is indeed a physician, but his claim to fame is not as a time and space traveling alien, but as a naturalist who can communicate with animals. Right now, he’s studying the language of shellfish.
Meanwhile, young Tommy Stubbins, the aforementioned companion, bumps into Dr. Dolittle during a sudden downpour. Before you can shout “stranger danger,” the good doctor has invited little Tommy to his home for sausages and tea by the fire. Tommy, who’s a bit of an animal enthusiast himself, is so smitten with Dr. Dolittle’s menagerie and camaraderie with animals that he signs on as the doctor’s apprentice. The rest of the book is one adventure after another, clearly structured for bedtime telling.
Doctor Dolittle is very much a product of the times. There are bountiful illustrations–detailed full-paged prints–that you don’t often find in books nowadays. (That’s a shame.) And then there are the glaring cultural and racial prejudices and insensitivities that the protagonists maintain without batting an eye. (Also a shame.)
The mindset of the era aside, how the doctor stands up as a story leaves much to be desired as well. Young Tommy exists solely to narrate and to remind us incessantly, like Bella about her vampire boyfriend, how wonderful Dr. Dolittle is. (Like Miss Swan, he’s clearly been brainwashed, because he doesn’t miss his parents at all, except to remark that they wouldn’t have enjoyed traveling with the doctor because it would interfere with their mundane lives. What did I say about stranger danger!) Furthermore, practically all conflict exists on an external level; they happen upon angry stowaways, angry bullfighters, angry storm, angry backward natives, etc. At the first sign of internal conflict–should the doctor stay to help the natives, who’ve forced him to become their King of Kings (blasphemy!), move towards modernity or should he make a break for it because he’s wasting his genius on these primitive peoples, especially when he’s just appropriated from them a bouquet of amazing plants that could revolutionize western medicine–he runs off with the Great Glass Snail! Well, at least there’s some continuity there with his language lessons.
Moral of the story: choose your doctors wisely. Here’s hoping the next Newbery will be more to my liking. The Dark Frigate, allons-y!