“Pray for a man in the middle/ One that talks like Dolittle.”
– The Pixies, “Mr. Grieves.”
“The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle,” the second book in Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle series, considerably expands and improves on the original. Not only is it almost FOUR TIMES LONGER, but the tone is less rushed, more sophisticated. If the first was a bedtime story, Lofting aims for Dickens-lite the second time around. There’s even a realistic murder trial! (Well, about as realistic as a murder trial can be when the main witness for the defense is a pug.)
Back are Polynesia the Parrot, Jip the Dog, Chee-Chee the monkey, Dab-Dab the duck and other animal chatterers of decreasing importance. Prince Bumpo of Jolliginki is back as well. It’s sad to report that whereas he was well spoken enough in the first volume, here he’s given to saying things like: “I am sublimely ecstasied that I did not miss you.” Is THAT what an Oxford education gets you?
After the mentioned murder trial involving a neighbor of Puddleby, Doctor Dolittle sets course for SpiderMonkey Island, a southwards-floating lump of land of vaguely Brazilian character. There, he hopes to find Long Arrow, a Native American naturalist whom the doctor deeply respects, although that respect does not necessarily extend to Long Arrow’s friends, the Popsitepel tribe of Spidermonkey Island, whose “child-like ways” give the doctor a bad case of white man’s burden.
On the commendable side, the doctor gets on the naturalist soap box with much more fervor this time around. Here he is, working himself into a poetic frenzy at the plight of the animals enslaved in zoos: “What are they given in exchange for the glory of an African sunrise, for the twilight breeze whispering through the palms, for the green shade of the matted, tangled vines, for the cool, big-starred nights of the desert, for the patter of the waterfall after a hard day’s hunt? Why, a bare cage with iron bars; an ugly piece of dead meat thrust in to them once a day; and a crowd of fools to come and stare at them with open mouths!—No, Stubbins!”
Tommy Stubbins, by the way, is the boy sidekick that the Doctor inevitably gets, as Lofting realizes that an aging, casually misanthropic physician is not all that relatable to his demographic. Here’s an example of what I mean by casual misanthropy. During the trip to Spain, a concerned Stubbins asks the Doctor if men are ever killed during bullfights. The deadpan reply is: “Unfortunately, very seldom.” OUCH, it’s a kid’s book, Doc, keep it light!
RATING: COOL! The rare sequel that improves on the original.
It’s fun to imagine Hugh Lofting’s confusion if he had lived long enough to listen to the Pixies and their third album, “Doolittle” (extra O). That cheeky little haloed monkey in the cover is totally Chee-Chee!