29/07/2018

The Story of Doctor Dolittle (by Hugh Lofting - abridged)


As a child, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Hugh Lofting’s series of books about Doctor Dolittle, the man who could speak to animals. I had thought about reading the first book to my grandson last year, but the language was a bit old-fashioned and long-winded for a three-year-old. Visiting his family this year, I spotted ‘The Story of Doctor Dolittle’ on his shelves, and he asked me to read it to him.

I quickly discovered that this was an abridged, revised version intended for younger children. There were more pictures for one thing; line drawings, rather in the style of the original, but not the same. When I started to read, I recognised many of the characters although it’s probably at least twenty-five years since I read the originals.

The main plot is the same: Doctor Dolittle is a medical doctor who’s too kind-hearted to make much money. He loves animals more than people, and keeps adopting more and more of them. His sister Sarah keeps house for him but isn’t happy at increased mess and lack of finances. In general, it’s a great deal more politically correct than the original, too.

The doctor has a parrot, Polynesia, who converses fluently with him and one day introduces him to the idea of animals languages. The doctor takes notes enthusiastically and learns fast; he then decides to work as an animal doctor. He is very successful since he can talk to animals to find out what’s wrong; but he still doesn’t make much money. And Sarah moves out and most of his clients decide not to visit any more after he adopts a crocodile, even though it promises faithfully not to eat or even bite anyone.

The animals in the household decide to keep house for him; Too-too the owl does the accounts, Dab-dab the duck does the cooking, Chee-chee the monkey does things that need hands. But it doesn’t really help, and they’re down to their last pennies when a tired swallow arrives, asking the doctor to travel to Africa because a serious illness is threatening the monkey population. So the doctor borrows a boat and sets off…

The abridgement was done well, in my view, making the story simpler for young children while not changing the essential plot. Even so I noticed the odd generalisations, and hints of the racism that was surprisingly blatant in the original. ‘Africa’ is considered a single country with different kingdom, including the kingdom of the monkeys, and the king and queen whom the doctor meets are both unkind and easily fooled.

There’s plenty of excitement to keep a four-year-old absorbed, asking for ‘one more chapter!’, and indeed I enjoyed reading it. In a few years’ time, if my grandson still wants books read aloud to him, I look forward to reading him the original series. But in the meantime I’m delighted he’s been introduced to the great Doctor in book form, and that he likes him so much. Film versions have been made, but the parts I’ve seen have deviated so far from the original as to be almost unrecognisable.

The originals aren’t often in print, but this book is a good compromise for a young child who enjoys chapter books. Recommended.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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