Originally published in 1920, the first of many books about the doctor who talks to animals is one I haven’t read since my childhood I think. I like other books in the series better, the second, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle,” is my favorite. The first one is important because it’s an origin story, of course. We learn how the very kind medical doctor (for humans) kept accumulating pets until their presence drove away nearly all his regular patients, and how he struggled to feed everyone. Then his parrot, Polynesia, who converses with complete intelligence in English, changes Dolittle’s life by teaching him the many languages of animals, and he becomes a veterinarian of great renown in the animal world, if still a very poor man. The process of learning languages is not discussed much, and it would have slowed down the story, but we get a few glimpses here and there that are entertaining. Eventually the reputation of the doctor, known as the Great Man in the animal world, has spread all the way to Africa, and he receives word that a plague of some kind is threatening the monkeys there, and they implore him to come and help.
The doctor finds a way, as he always does, borrowing a ship from a grateful human patient, and crewing it with some of his animal friends. They arrive in Africa where they must pass through the Kingdom of the Jolliginki to reach the Monkey Kingdom, and there they are captured and locked up. Fortunately Polynesia has a few tricks to help him out. When they reach the monkeys the doctor’s real work begins, and he organizes the monkey kingdom into a model medical relief center. More adventures happen on their way back, but Dolittle’s success with the monkeys have cemented his reputation in the animal world so strongly that he is never far from help, even when threatened by pirates. And it’s on the return voyage that Lofting really gets to the kind of storytelling that made him well loved, developing the character and personality of each of the animals in his party and playing them off each other in amusing and informative ways.
In order to help repay those who helped him, and to restore his fortune, the doctor has brought an unheard of animal back to England with him, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu, one head at each end of his body, which you might remember from the generally awful movie with Rex Harrison. In a book full of fancy and fantasy it’s the one element I always found hard to swallow as a child.
Critics have found the author’s depiction of African natives racist, but I think Lofting’s approach was progressive for his time. The King of the Jolliginki tells the doctor, “Many years ago a white man came to these shores; and I was very kind to him. But after he had dug holes in the ground to get the gold, and killed all the elephants to get their ivory tusks, he went away secretly in his ship—without so much as saying ‘Thank you.’ Never again shall a white man travel through the lands of Jolliginki.” Lofting pins his own social set with the real evil, which seems more than fair. Yes, Lofting’s illustrations of the natives are stereotyped and crude, but so are his depictions of the doctor, as seen above. Lofting was not a good artist, but he was the right artist for his own work, and his pictures are integral to the storytelling, even when badly drawn.
In all, I enjoyed rereading this, and hope to reread the rest of the series in the coming months. Recommended.