Quick thoughts: A classic, perhaps, but this wasn’t exactly a winner with our family.
Even though I never read any of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books as a child, the doctor who speaks with animals is too culturally pervasive for me to have been entirely ignorant. Between movie adaptations, TV references and one-liners in comedy routines, it’s rather hard to imagine remaining unfamiliar with the character on some basic level. When Audible offered this particular edition as part of a free promotion this summer, it seemed like an excellent excuse to make my acquaintance while at the same time letting my children listen to this classic on a road trip.
Apart from some general idea of a doctor talking to animals in the jungle, I was also aware of some accusations of racism, so we had a little family chat before pressing play. Things were relatively fine on that level until our heroes got to Africa. At that point, my wife and I dropped our collective jaws at the diverse usage of racial epithets, and at the storyline that involves an African prince wanting to become white so he can win the fair princess. Even though the story was always innocent and never actively bigoted, it was still quite shocking to hear such racially loaded terms in a beloved children’s book. I’ve read several justifications after the fact — some well-reasoned, others quite belligerent — but there’s really no way of excusing or avoiding the fact that Dr. Dolittle has more than its fair share of problematic colonial holdovers.
There were some quality lessons, to be sure, such as the need to actually listen to the needs of others, as exemplified by Dr. Dolittle taking the time to learn to talk to animals. The whimsical nature of the story, altogether too rare in our day, was also a most welcome feature of the book. Yet despite the many positives, I can’t say that we ever truly enjoyed the story. Perhaps we were too spoiled in our modernity to appreciate such innocence, or maybe the sheer number of children’s books makes it that much more difficult to impress. Either way, it was difficult to bridge the gap between this book and our modern sensibilities, although I can certainly appreciate why it has remained so loved through the years. For myself, I may just end up watching the Eddie Murphy adaptation which I’ve been so studiously avoiding these many years. At that point, I will undoubtedly revel in the sheer irony of an African-American playing Dr. Dolittle, and smile at how the seed of a good story can grow into something fundamentally the same yet entirely changed.
Audiobook notes: Although mostly a solid production, there were two issues in this edition which I found terribly distracting. First, it begins with a lengthy note by the author explaining why The Story of Dr. Dolittlewas such a great children’s book. Yes, that type of author introduction was common back in the day, but I found it a poor decision to include at the start of the audiobook. Not only did the self praise set my teeth on edge; it’s also incredibly hard to keep a child’s attention focused when some adult is nattering on about nothing. I was also a bit turned off by the ludicrous accent chosen by the narrator for the African voices, as it only served to reinforce the colonial caricatures.
Lofting was born in Maidenhead, England, to English and Irish parents. His early education was at Mount St Mary's College in Sheffield, after which he went to the United States, completing a degree in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He traveled widely as a civil engineer before enlisting in the Irish Guards to serve in World War I. Not wishing to write to his children of the brutality of the war, he wrote imaginative letters that were the foundation of the successful Doctor Dolittle novels for children. Seriously wounded in the war, he moved with his family to Connecticut in the United States. Lofting was married three times and had three children, one of whom, his son Christopher, is the executor of his literary estate.