Sunday, October 16, 2011

Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, by Hugh Lofting

My father was an upholsterer and a Baptist preacher.  In his role as an upholsterer, people sometimes gave him unwanted furniture, which he'd then either sell, or keep for our own use.  One of the most memorable pieces was a large, glass-fronted cabinet; a bookcase made of cherry wood with an old, dark, gummy finish.  It stood about five feet tall and six feet wide, and lived near the front of my father's shop, in his "office", which was just a front corner by one of the display windows, with a desk and a telephone.

Most importantly, when my father acquired this cabinet it still contained a residue of books.  There was a three-volume People's Cyclopedia of Universal  Knowledge.  There were the six volumes of The Century Dictionary.  There were novels, like The Romance of an Old-Fashioned Gentleman by F. Hopkinson Smith, and The Cardinal's Mistress by Benito Mussolini (!).  There was a large, coverless book of photographs of places in Switzerland and Italy, from around 1900.  (Each page was thick cardboard, and there was one large photograph per page.)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, there were few books in the houses I frequented as a child.  The books in this cabinet became my treasures.  I claimed them all; all except one volume of the Century Dictionary, which my father casually gave away to a curious visitor.  The loss still pains me.

One of the books in the cabinet was Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, by Hugh Lofting (which I mistakenly read as "High Lofting" for many years).  It became the first "real" book (not a "Little Golden Book" or some such) that I ever read all the way through.  I loved this book.  I loved it so much I wept when I was done with it, devastated by the thought that the book was over.

Hugh Lofting began writing about Doctor Dolittle in letters to his children, sent while he was in the trenches during World War I.  He said later that there was nothing in the horror around him that he wanted to tell his children about, so he invented the plucky, brilliant, kind little doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh and wrote about him instead.

This book begins with the Doctor rescuing a weeping African lady, adrift in a canoe.  Her husband has been taken by slavers, and she has tried to catch up with the slave ship to beg them to release him, but has been left far behind.  She despairs, and now only thinks that she'll drift until she dies.  On hearing her story, the Doctor is enraged.  He takes her aboard, and sets out with the help of the swallows, who act as scouts and guides, to track down the slavers.  Eventually, the Doctor and the chief swallow cooperate to fire a cannonball that neatly sinks the slave ship, and the slavers are taken aboard a British Man-o'-War.

Among other lovers of this book is Biologist Richard Dawkins.  In a feature called "The book that changed me" for the British newspaper The Independent, Dawkins says that, for him, Dolittle was a precursor to his adult hero Charles Darwin.
"Compare his passionate love of natural history, the long voyages in Beagle-sized vessels encountering strange and exotic creatures, the notebooks filled with curious observations laced with ideas for future books; the gentle, courteous modesty."
The book's exotic locations and creatures called to me.  I was moved by the book's initial story of despair and rescue.  With no close human friends, but a love of animals, I was heartened by the Doctor's matter-of-fact friendships with non-human creatures.  But most of all, the fact that I had actually read a Real Book opened up the possibility of reading all the other books in the world.  I wanted to know everything, and set out on an expedition to do it.

For those wishing to read this book, I'll note that it's still under copyright in the United States, so you won't find it in Google Books or  It's out of copyright in Canada, though, so if you're looking at this page from there, or from another country where this book is no longer under copyright, you can read Doctor Dolittle's Post Office at Project Gutenberg Canada.

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