Though I have and enjoy reading all the Doctor Dolittle books, this was always one of my least favorites. After rereading it recently, I think I know why. Much of the book deals with the Doctor’s dealings with other people, and his own animal family and other animals often play a lesser role. Written in 1924, it was the fourth book published. Chronologically it takes place after “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” and “Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office,” in about 1821-22. The Doctor, his animal family, and the fabulous two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu from Africa have joined a circus. They need to raise money to help pay for the ship that the Doctor borrowed for his voyage to Africa in the first two books, which was wrecked.
The Doctor and some of his animals locate a small circus run by Alexander Blossom, and he is so impressed with the Pushmi-Pullyu that he not only agrees to let the Doctor exhibit him in the circus’s sideshow, splitting the proceeds, but gives him a fine circus wagon to live in. Matthew, the Cat’s-Meat-Man is along to help out with the Pushmi-Pullyu, and the duck Dab-Dab is there to keep the books, when she can manage to save any money at all. The Doctor is notoriously kind-hearted and generous. As they transition to circus life, the Doctor is very unhappy with the conditions of the other animals in the circus. Of course he talks to them, and they all have complaints from too much confinement to the wrong kinds of food, and so on. When Dolittle tries to help them by going to Blossom, he gets nowhere, and many of the other circus employees are hostile to his ideas.
The worst case is that of an Alaskan seal named Sophie, also being exhibited in the sideshow by her owner. Sophie is terribly worried about her mate, who birds have told her is in trouble at home, and wants desperately to escape the circus and get back to him. The Doctor eventually agrees to help her, and the two of them do manage to escape, but have lots of trouble and close-calls as they try to make their way to the sea. (This takes up about half the book.)
Returning to the circus, the Doctor has an idea for helping one of the old cart horses. He and the horse Beppo put together a talking horse act for the big top, and it draws crowds. Considering that the Doctor and Beppo can speak to each other, it’s not surprising the act is an amazing hit. The circus is suddenly the talk of the area, and is invited to perform at a very large venue. Money is rolling in, and just when the Doctor’s troubles seem over, Mr. Blossom and his wife disappear with all the money! It seems the circus is through, but the animals and the remaining circus performers, all now friends, beg the Doctor to take over the circus on his own terms. Reluctantly, Dolittle agrees, and soon the Dolittle Circus is once again on the road, with everyone sharing in the work and the profits, and all animals treated kindly.
I did enjoy rereading this, and Hugh Lofting’s skill at social commentary, humor and insight into human nature were more appreciated by me now than they were when I read it as a child.