The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle


The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

Hugh Lofting (1923)


Read to:  Kinder+ - 4th grade
Read independently:  4th - 6th grade
 The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle

     I was excited to read this book.  I had heard of it all my life, and seen the Eddie Murphy modern day movie spin on it, but had never touched the actual book.  I'm sure that you, like I did, have at least a precursory knowledge of Dr. Dolittle and know that he can talk to animals.  Perhaps it's because he's secretly a cat!
     Well - not really, not even fictionally but "The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle" might better be titled "The Nine Lives of Doctor Dolittle" as it really seems to be multiple stories in one.  Perhaps that makes him a bit more real as a character though, and, let's face it, any character that can talk to animals needs all the help they can get to appear real.  so just like you as an adult can look back and see phases or periods in your life (your elementary years, high school years, when you lived in that town or worked in that place) Doctor Dolittle has long, involved periods (time on an island, time at home) that are so exciting and full of adventure it seems as if they could stand alone as independent stories and you almost forget what came before because you are so absorbed in that small adventure.  Adults and older kids might find a story about talking animals lame but for younger children this is right out of their realm of imaginative reality that they live with daily.  How many kids have imaginary friends?  Aren't a good portion of the Disney characters talking animals?  So this story works well for kids and as an adult reading it to my 5y11m son, the social commentary and world travel kept me interested.
     We read the Books of Wonder 2001 edition published by Harper Collins and it was the icing on the cake.  It has nice illustrations, some even in full page color, done by Michael Hague.  Because the original work was written in the early part of the twentieth century, it was full of political incorrectness that was no longer tolerated by the late 1970s and caused the book to go out of print in the U.S.  So this new edition is polished up a bit - so as not to be insensitive nor "undermine a child's self-esteem". (p. x)  This is all well explained in the Foreword.  The subsequent Prologue sets us up to believe that the narrator (soon revealed as Tommy Stubbins) has personal experience with Doctor Dolittle and has a 200 year old parrot named Polynesia with a flawless memory whom the narrator consults for accuracy in telling the tale.  The book is set with a home base of England (Puddleby-on-the-Marsh).  The book is divided into six parts.  The chapter numbers start over in each part - something my son found  a bit confusing.

Part 1
Chapter 1:  Right away we are introduced to the narrator, Tommy Stubbins, whose father is the cobbler in town.  What he does is not as important as establishing them as a working class family.  From a young age Tommy dreamed of being a sailor.  As the book opens he is 9 1/2 and doesn't attend school because his father can't afford it.  he does enjoy animals though, and spends a large part of his day outside with nature.

Chapter 2:  Tommy rescues a squirrel from a hawk and is referred to Doctor Dolittle as a sort of vet, but known as a "naturalist".  They took an instant liking to each other.

Chapter 4:  Doctor Dolittle explains his quest to learn the language of shellfish.

Chapter 5:  Doctor Dolittle let Polynesia stay in Africa in a demonstration of the if you love something set it free adage.  Within the same page we learn that Polynesia came back.  Doctor Dolittle demonstrates humbleness and manners and is careful not to exclude anyone despite language barriers.

Chapter 8:  Out of love and protection for Doctor Dolittle, Polynesia can display a slight tempter.  Probably not offensive by some of today's standards yet quite strong in the context of the book.  The first example is on page 49 when Doctor Dolittle is recently returned from a long trip and now animals for miles around are flocking to his house to request his consultation.  Polynesia vents to Tommy, "...Thinks it's going to have convulsions.  Stupid little thing's been eating Deadly Nightshade again, I suppose. ..."  Doctor Dolittle has strong opinions too - but he expresses them with a bit more restraint, such as when he speaks out against traditional zoos.  Unfortunately Polynesia seems to have the majority of the dialogue.  It's not Polynesia's outspokenness that is unfortunate though - what was unfortunate was that I chose to read the part of Polynesia with a  very parrot-like voice and by the end of the 350+ pages my vocal cords were a bit strained.

After their initial meeting Tommy returns day after day and ingratiates himself into the Doctor's life to the point that his mother jokes he should just take his bed over and sleep there too.  Tommy helps with the animals and Polynesia helps with Tommy's lessons.  In time, Tommy proposes that he does indeed move into Doctor Dolittle's house in a sort of apprenticeship.  This leads to a brief discussion on the value of education and introduces us to the idea of a Peruvian Indian named Long Arrow.

Chapter 14:  A monkey named Chee Chee also returns from Africa.

Chapter 15:  The Doctor goes to dinner at the Stubbins' and brings up the idea of the apprenticeship.  Mrs. Stubbins is glad for the educational opportunity.  Mr. Stubbins is harder to convince but in time he agrees.  Subsequently narrator Tommy tells us, "And then, thoughtless, selfish little imp that I was, I leaned over and whispered in the Doctor's ear, 'Please don't forget to say something about the voyages'." (p. 81)  It was a bit upsetting to his mother, but the dad reasoned that if they'd agreed to the apprenticeship they couldn't object to Tommy accompanying Dr. Dolittle on potential voyages.

Part 2
As part two opens Doctor Dolittle and Stubbins begin prepping for a voyage.  This leads to one of the more intense parts of the book.  They need an additional crew member and go looking for a hermit that they both know and think fondly of.  Turns out he's been put in jail for killing a man fifteen years ago in a gold mine in Mexico.  His dog, who was in the mine, says he's innocent and Doctor Dolittle and Tommy race off to the trial.

Chapter 6:  Doctor Dolittle proves his abilities in court by first communicating with the judge's dog.

Chapter 7:  In this chapter the hermit's dog testifies that his owner and two other men were working the mine.  The other two made plans to kill Luke and get more gold for themselves.  One night Luke is hauling Bill up from the mine but Mendoza thinks Bill is away and assumes Luke is stealing gold.  So Mendoza starts to shoot Luke.  The dog barks but is not heeded so he bites his master's ankle, causing him to drop Bill back down the mine to his death.  Mendoza threatens to tell the police Luke killed Bill on purpose so Luke runs away into hiding.

Chapter 8:  Luke is found not guilty and just when it seems he'll serve as the third for the voyage he is reunited with his wife so that nixes that.

Chapter 10:  Doctor Dolittle receives word that Long Arrow is missing and was last seen going into the mountains on Spider Monkey Island off the coast of Brazil.  This news causes Doctor Dolittle to say, 
if I could never meet Long Arrow face-to-face it would be the greatest disappointment in my whole life.  Not only that, but it would be a great loss to the knowledge of the human race.  For, ..., he knew more natural science than all the rest of us put together; and if he has gone without anyone to write it down for him, so the world may be the better for it, it would be [a] terrible thing. (p. 125)
Chapter 11:  Doctor Dolittle is so upset by the news he can't even decide where to go on their voyage because he had planned to go see Long Arrow.  So they do blind travel choosing a spot on the map without looking and wind up with Spider Monkey Island anyway.

Chapter 12:  Spider Monkey Island is a floating island somewhere near the southern tip of South America.


Part 3
Chapter 1:  Prince Bumpo, who was foreshadowed earlier in the book, winds up being the third crewman.

Chapter 2:  Tommy was surprised to see his parents at the dock to see him off.  He comments, "I hoped that they would not make a scene, or burst into tears or anything like that.  But as a matter of fact they behaved quite well - for parents." (p. 142-143)

Chapter 3:  Three stow-aways cause a brief stop in Penzance (which reminds me of the fun musical but is insignificant to my son).

Later they discover another stowaway who ate a large portion of their food supply.  Having given all his money to the other three stow-aways, their situation becomes a bit difficult.  They make another stop to let the other guy off, after keeping him confined and away from food for a few days on the ship.

Chapter 6:  Tommy misses his parents and feels sorry for them stuck at home in their same ol' routine but realizes they would not enjoy sleeping outside and sums it up with, "It is funny how some people are." (p. 166)

Chapter 7  The islands they stop at have weekly Sunday bullfights and Doctor Dolittle makes a wager that if he could do more tricks than the best matador - no more fights would ever be held on that island.  Polynesia tells Bumpo to make a wager so they can earn some money for their trip.


Part 4
When Doctor Dolittle finally makes advances in learning shellfish language he speaks to a fidgit and we hear a fidget story for one of the longer chapters in the book.  Here again - be careful what voice you choose to read the fidgit part.  Personally I got rather tired of the fidgit story and was ready to get on with the voyage.  By the end of the book I had quite forgotten about the fidgit. The fidgit though, does set up a foreshadowing of the Great Sea Snail which plays a delightful part at the end of the book but if you need to save time for some reason, you could skip Part 4 Chapter 2 and be none the worse for it.

Like any great piece of classic literature that takes to sea - true to form they will encounter a storm.  But, also true to form, they land on their feet (just like a cat - I told you Doctor Dolittle had nine lives).

Part 4 ends with a fun mystery and a lot of good teamwork by Doctor Dolittle and crew.


Part 5
In Part 5 Doctor Dolittle becomes quite useful to the Indians on Spider Monkey Island, such as in Chapter 3 when he introduces them to fire and in Chapter 4 when he improves their climate.

In Chapters 5 and 6 Lofting employs another common literary theme - war.  I can appreciate Lofting's use of this plot as it seems fitting to a sea adventure story to have some sort of battle.  I have even greater appreciation for how he handled it.  He devotes less pages to the war than to the fidgit's story.  Kevin Costner should take note and all the wounds are tastefully handled.  The worst part is on page 270 when Tommy, "saw Long Arrow's great figure topple and come down with a spear sticking in his broad chest."

The war ends as quickly as it began with a somewhat entertaining bit between birds and the enemy.  And in regards to Long Arrow, by page 273, "the Doctor had washed his wound and got him to bed, he opened his eyes and said he already felt better."


Part 6
If you take opportunities to discuss life lessons learned from books than Part 6 is the part for you.  Who would've thought a book about talking animals could offer much in the way of life lessons but Chapter 1 is a great example of when life hands you lemonade - put a straw in it.  Chapter 2 teaches that if you accept the lemonade, you need to drink it.  And finally, that sometimes it is okay to say, "no thank you, I don't want anymore lemonade."

There is a nice afterword written by peter Glassman who provides a very brief biography of Lofting, an overview of the Doctor Dolittle stories and closes with a wonderful quote from Lofting, "If we make children see that all races, given equal physical and mental chances for development, have about the same batting averages of good and bad, we shall have laid another very substantial foundation stone in the edifice of peace and internationalism." (p. 354)    

We never read the first story and it is not a requirement.  Lofting is obviously a good author and he has done an exceptional job at doing what every serial novelist should do and give each book sturdy legs to stand on its own, yet provide enough of a tease to make you want to read the others.

I honestly did not realize there had been a predecessor to "Voyages" when we read the book the first time.  It was only when I re-checked the book out of the library to write this review that I got the wrong one and discovered its existence.


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