Rereading: THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting

Above is my much loved and much battered copy of this book. It was already battered when I bought it for five cents at a book sale, an ex-library copy from my own grade school in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. The book was first published in 1922, the second published book in the Dolittle series by Lofting. This was the 11th printing in 1929, so clearly it was popular and sold many copies from the start. It is, in my opinion, the best of the series.

The kind, bumbling but strong-willed human doctor who learns the languages of the animals through his parrot Polynesia and becomes the most successful and well-known veterinarian in the animal kingdom (at least among the animals themselves) was introduced in 1920’s “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” reviewed by me in the link. It’s a fun, if improbable story with lots of great characters, many of them the animals that the Doctor considered his family. What the second book added that greatly improved the concept was the character of Tommy Stubbins, who narrates this book. Tommy is a young boy in Dolittle’s home town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in rural England. He’s the son of a cobbler, but he has a desire to see the world, a wanderlust that is unlikely to be fulfilled until he meets the Doctor and becomes a part of his family too. By seeing the unusual man and his animal companions through fresh, wondering eyes, Tommy Stubbins gives us, the readers, a new, deeper understanding of all the characters, and allows us to become part of the story. Tommy’s parents are puzzled by his new friends, but when the Doctor offers to employ Tommy in his own home as his assistant, with room and board included, and seeing their son wants this very much, they agree. Soon Tommy, with the help of Polynesia, is learning the animal languages too, and is a vital part of the Dolittle household.

Tommy knows that Dolittle and his animals have made several ocean voyages of discovery and adventure, in Africa and elsewhere, and more than anything he wants to go on one of them. The perfect reason for a new voyage arrives when the Doctor learns that his fellow naturalist, the native American Long Arrow, has disappeared on Spidermonkey Island in the south Atlantic Ocean. Dolittle decides he must sail there and try to find Long Arrow, who he greatly admires but has not yet met. Spidermonkey Island is a strange place: it’s a floating island that moves around the South Atlantic, but with help from his animal friends, and a sturdy ship he buys, the Doctor is sure he can get there. This begins an epic voyage that is a delight to read and full of exotic adventures, great characters, humor and wonder, enhanced by Hugh Lofting’s quirky but appropriate drawings. Forget the movie versions, this is the real deal.

Highly recommended!

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