Saturday, March 21, 2009

King Kong, Kipling, and Kindness

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
Winner of the 1923 Newbery Award (Newbery Winner #2)

When I opened this book, I expected to be bored with I assumed to be a “boy’s book,” a book of exciting adventures and high jinks that offered little to a female reader. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I connected to this novel. Just like the characters in the book, as I began to know the good Doctor, I found myself liking him more and more. I particularly enjoyed his stance on animal rights, which seemed to be expressed far before its time. When the young narrator, Tommy Stubbins, asks Doctor Dolittle if he has any lions or tigers in his menagerie, the Doctor emphatically explains that he would never deprive these animals of “the glory of the African sunrise . . . the twilight breeze whispered through the palms . . . the green shade of the matted, tangled palms . . . the patter of the waterfall after a hard day’s hunt. . . {for} 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” (59). I wonder if this was a revolutionary idea in the 1920s. (The image of King Kong (1933) battling with airplanes atop the Empire State Building comes to mind when I think of the consequences of capturing wild animals.) Doctor Dolittle did not think too kindly of using animals for sport either. When he is passing through Monteverde, he discovers that a bullfight is happening the next day, a pastime he considers “cruel {and} cowardly” (168). He, of course, defeats the current hotshot bullfighter by convincing the bulls to put on a show for the last time, where he is the victor. And the spoils of the contest? The end of bullfighting in Monteverde. Doctor Dolittle exemplifies selfless kindness and consideration to all creatures. Without preaching, he shows children how to be a good person in an flawed world. In Doctor Dolittle’s world, there is murder, war, exploitation of natural resources, animal cruelty, and bigotry, but there is also a person who stands up for those who have no voice, whether they are human or animal, black or white. The most telling example of Doctor Dolittle’s character is when he is made King of Spidermonkey Island, which he fights tooth and claw (no pun intended) to reject. He has no interest in power or wealth, but simply wants to spend his time “as a useful naturalist” (288). This incident reminds me of Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King about imperialists who take advantage of another culture by making themselves “gods” over the natives. Colonialism has no effect on the incorruptible Dolittle, who respects the natives for who they are and only seeks to make their lives better through modern conveniences like sanitation and fire. Lofting himself wrote, “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” (355). By reading this novel, children are the right path to gaining the values of respect, tolerance, and kindness – which all children, boys and girls, should encounter in their lives as readers.

Grade: A+
Page-turning plot
Important messages
Dynamic characters and dialogue
Lush pictures by Michael Hague (2001 Edition)

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